Syrian government responds to protests with massive violence

The popular uprisings in the Arab world also reached the people of Syria in mid-March 2011. Demonstrators who stood up for democratization came from different tribes and regions, were religious or secular and politically oriented to both the right and the left. In apparent unity they entered into a non-violent confrontation with the regime. It responded, in addition to making concessions, with violence on a scale never seen before during the Arab Spring.


Syria was known as one of the most repressive countries in the Middle East, where a state of emergency had been in force since 1963, when the Baath Party took power. This meant, among other things, that other political parties were banned, demonstrations were not allowed and dissidents who demanded reforms were imprisoned. The army, secret police and security services built up a violent reputation. This first happened under the rule of Hafez al-Assad (1930-2000) and since July 2000 under his son Bashar (45).

The rulers in Syria belonged to the Muslim minority of the Alawites, who made up between 10 and 15 percent of the population. Sunni Muslims formed the majority of about 75 percent, but did not share in power. Druze and Christians also had more influence than the Sunnis. Resistance to the regime was not concentrated in the capital Damascus and the country’s second city Aleppo, where people had benefited more than in the rest of the country from the economic growth of recent years. This also applied to the Sunni class of middle classes and traders in these cities. Economic motives also played a role in the resistance among the poorer part of the population, which had also been hit by a severe drought that caused serious damage to agriculture.

Precise data about the resistance movement was difficult to obtain because the government tried to prevent independent reporting. Access roads to protest cities were closed and many international journalists were refused entry to Syria or expelled from the country.

Beginning of the resistance

The protests started in southern Syria. In Deraa, a city of about a hundred thousand inhabitants, resistance erupted on March 18 when security forces cracked down on schoolchildren who had written slogans against the local authority on the walls. The officers arrested fifteen children and then fired live ammunition at protesters demanding their release, killing three. At the funerals the next day, more than a thousand angry people took to the streets. On March 22, hundreds of residents of Deraa, following the example of other Arab countries, set up tents around the Omari Mosque. But police launched the attack at night, killing 37 people, according to hospital sources. A day later, the protest only became more massive: an estimated twenty thousand people took to the streets.

The Syrian army entered Deraa on April 25 with tanks, armored vehicles and snipers. The city was cut off from water, electricity, fuel and food. Security officers went from house to house, dragging hundreds of men between the ages of fifteen and forty, who, according to witnesses, were handcuffed and blindfolded and taken to a detention center run by the security services. Within a week, an estimated 68 deaths occurred.

The unrest had also reached cities in other parts of the country and began spreading further in May. The regime entered cities, deployed helicopters, conducted raids and searches and cut off the population from basic services.

Rifaat al-Assad (l) and Hafez al-Assad (r) / Source: Public domain, Wikimedia Commons (PD)

Hama: symbol of genocide

The city of Hama, north of Damascus, became the scene of unprecedented mass protests from June 3. They were the strongest expression of resistance since demonstrations in Syria began in mid-March.

However, it took a lot of courage to revolt so openly, because the trauma of 1982 still hung over the city.

After years of armed struggle by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood against the (secular) Baathist regime, then President Assad left putting a definitive end to the resistance through the use of scorched earth tactics.

It is estimated that between ten and forty thousand people, mostly ordinary civilians, were killed. The operation was led by Rifaat al-Assad (1937), the president’s infamous brother who had lived as a free man in London since 2010.

On June 3, a repeat of what happened at the time could be feared. Soldiers with heavy weapons and snipers opened fire on a crowd of about fifty thousand demonstrators. According to Syrian human rights organizations, at least seventy people were killed.

On June 24, the number of demonstrators had increased sharply and on both July 1 and 8, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators attended the b one in a population of around seven hundred thousand. This was repeated several more times.

The army had initially withdrawn from Hama, but that turned out to be just the calm before the storm.

On July 31, on the eve of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, army units entered the city with great force and killed 142 people.

That day would go down in history as the Ramadan Massacre. By August 4, the death toll stood at more than two hundred.

Combed the northwest

The Syrian government claimed that on June 6, one hundred and twenty soldiers and police officers were killed in Jisr al-Shughour, a city of about forty-five thousand inhabitants and located near the Turkish border. Unidentified armed groups are said to have set fire to government buildings, stolen dynamite and attacked civilians and security forces with machine guns and rocket launchers. However, according to some opposition groups, something else was going on, namely a mutiny of soldiers who did not want to shoot the population. They would then have been summarily executed.

The rulers sent troops to Jisr al-Shughour, after which many residents fled into the mountains or crossed the border with Turkey. The scorched earth tactic was also applied around this place : cattle were shot, crops burned, houses and shops looted. Men between the ages of eighteen and forty were taken. The army then advanced further to capture the northwestern cities of Maaret al-Numan and Khan Sheikhoun. During the month, the number of refugees in Turkey had risen to more than ten thousand.

The events in Jisr al-Shughour also reminded people of those in Hama in 1982. Like when Hafez al-Assad’s brother was responsible for the operation, now it was the brother of the current president, Maher al-Assad, who led the operation around Jisr al-Shughour. He headed the Fourth Armed Division and the Republican Guard, both elite units with approximately ten thousand troops. A high degree of sadism was attributed to him and for many Syrians he was the face of repression. As former Syrian diplomat Bassam Bitar, who lived in exile in the United States, put it: “Sometimes I think the president means it when he talks about reforms. But his brother doesn’t accept that. (…) He likes blood.’

State of emergency is abolished

The Syrian regime had always justified its crackdown by referring to the actions of troublemakers and saboteurs who were part of a foreign conspiracy. Yet it also felt forced to speed up the reforms repeatedly announced by Assad in previous years but not put into practice. The president stated in speeches on March 30 and June 20 that he wanted to take the economic and political desires of the population seriously.

Presidential advisor Buthaina Shaaban made the first concrete announcement on March 27, when she announced that the state of emergency would be lifted. This would mean, among other things, that prisoners who were arrested on this basis would be released. The state of emergency was officially ended on April 21. However, little value was attached to the abolition in opposition circles because security forces also had far-reaching powers under other legislation.

New government formed

Another gesture by the regime was the resignation of the government. On March 29, Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri’s cabinet resigned after eight years. The opposition did not attach any importance to this either because actual power was in the hands of the Assad family and the security apparatus.

On April 3, the president appointed Agriculture Minister Adel Safar (58) as the new prime minister of Syria. A new government was formed on April 14.

Concessions to Sunnis and Kurds

The Syrian regime tried to reduce the protests in another way, namely by seeking rapprochement with population groups with which it had poor relations.

On April 6, President Assad announced that face veils would be allowed again for civil servants and in schools and universities and that women who had been fired for this reason would get their jobs back. To please conservative Sunni Muslims, Syria’s only casino, near Damascus airport, was closed.

A day later, concessions were also made to the Kurds, who made up almost 10 percent of the Syrian population and lived mainly in the northeast. About a fifth of them had been stateless since 1962 because they once entered the country illegally. As a result, they lacked numerous rights, for example to marry, buy a house or work in the public sector. Around three hundred thousand stateless Kurds would now receive Syrian nationality. On April 8, despite this announcement, Kurds took to the streets for the first time to demonstrate against the regime.

Bashar al-Assad / Source: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-3.0)

Political dialogue

Parallel to the crackdown, the regime also opened talks with its opponents. On June 27, about one hundred and fifty writers, journalists and intellectuals were given the opportunity to discuss political reforms in Damascus. However, many opponents of the regime stayed away because they did not want to talk while their supporters were shot dead. The government had

already announced in March that it would make proposals to allow more political parties, provided they were not based on religion or ethnicity. This would mean that in the transition to what Vice President Farouq al-Shara called a ‘pluralistic democracy’ on July 10, the ruling Baath Party’s monopoly on power would at least formally disappear.

On July 25, the government approved a bill to allow multiple parties.

Finally, on August 21, President Assad addressed the population on television and announced parliamentary elections for February 2012. He reiterated that multiple political parties could participate.

Resistance from within

In many of the uprisings in the Arab world, people in charge of law enforcement, such as soldiers, solidarized with the rebellious population. People in high positions also often resigned from their positions. The first signs of this were also visible in Syria. For example, on April 27, approximately two hundred and thirty members had left the ruling Baath Party due to the violence used against demonstrators.

A blow to the regime was the decision of the chief prosecutor in Hama governorate, Adnan Mohammed al-Bakkour, to resign from his position. At the end of August, he announced in a video message that he was distancing himself from the crimes against humanity of which the army was alleged to be guilty. He stated that the regime had forced him to forge documents to cover up the deaths of hundreds of protesters. According to Bakkour, about ten thousand arrests had been made in the city of Hama. Shortly after his statement, army units again raided houses there.

Developments in Rastan, north of the western city of Homs, seemed to confirm that resistance to the regime was also growing within the army. On September 26, Syrian tanks bombarded the town of approximately seventy thousand inhabitants to break the resistance. In this region, around a thousand, according to some sources several thousand, soldiers have joined the demonstrators in recent months. At the beginning of October, Rastan seemed to be completely in government hands again, after more than three thousand arrests had been made, according to opposition sources.

Until then, the highest-ranking soldier who relinquished the Syrian regime and joined the rebels was Colonel Riad al-Asaad. On October 4 he fled to Turkey. According to him, the number of desertions from the army had now reached ten thousand.

Position of
the United Nations After previous unsuccessful attempts, the United Nations Security Council finally agreed on August 3 to condemn Syria. A statement drawn up by European countries condemned ,large-scale violations of human rights, and ,the use of violence against civilians., At the same time, ‘all parties’ were urged to show self-control and refrain from revenge. This last passage prevented the text from being interpreted as too one-sided a declaration of guilt on the part of the Syrian regime. Several countries in the council – Brazil, India, Lebanon, South Africa – had objected to an unconditional conviction. This also applied to the two permanent members China and Russia, who would have vetoed a stricter text.

The two superpowers effectively used their veto on October 4, when they blocked a resolution condemning the Syrian state’s violence. It was submitted by the European Security Council countries Germany, France, Great Britain and Portugal. They had tried to avoid a veto by not speaking of sanctions that had to be imposed, but of ‘targeted measures’ against the Syrian actions.

The opposition and the declaration of punitive measures partly arose from criticism of the broad interpretation that the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had given to the UN mandate to intervene militarily in favor of the rebels fighting in Libya against the rule of Muammar Gaddafi. There would no longer be any question of enforcing a no-fly zone and protecting the civilian population, but of offensive military attacks. A comparable mandate with regard to Syria, which was already desired by Western countries, therefore seemed hopeless.

Finally, on August 23, the UN Human Rights Council decided to initiate an independent international investigation into the violence of the Syrian rulers. Four countries voted against, including China and Russia, who ruled that this was unnecessary interference in their internal affairs. This was a sensitive point for both countries because of the Western criticism that was regularly delivered of their own domestic politics.



Eyewitness accounts, human rights reports and UN investigations in July and August showed that torture was systematically used during the protests. Examples included shooting at fleeing families and ambulances, putting out cigarettes on detainees, executing blindfolded prisoners in a football stadium, killing injured demonstrators by locking them in cold rooms of a morgue, inflicting electric shocks and wounds. by blunt objects, stabbings, whipping and sticking.

In its report of August 30 entitled Deadly Detention, Amnesty International (AI) spoke of a large-scale, systematic persecution of its own population. The human rights organization reported, among other things, a dramatic increase in the number of deaths in custody, which was usually around five per year. This only concerned the period from April 1 to August 15, 2011, involving 88 people, including 10 children between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. In at least 52 cases, torture could be shown to have caused or contributed to their deaths.

No precise figures could be obtained about the total number of deaths, but it was certain that there were very many. According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a total of 473 people were killed during the month of Ramadan, 360 of whom were civilians. On September 16, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated the number of fatalities since the start of the protests at twenty-seven hundred, including at least a hundred children. According to the Syrian regime, around five hundred security officers had been killed.

This article is part of a special on the Arab Spring. This includes Mauritania, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, Syria, Morocco, Yemen and Libya.

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