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Ten years on, no peace in Syria

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Children take part in an outdoor activity outside a special bus used as a makeshift classroom, run by humanitarian NGO Syrian Relief, at the Haranbush camp for displaced Syrians in the north of Syria’s northwestern rebel-held Idlib province in February. AFP

Ten years on, no peace in Syria

After a decade of unfathomable violence and human tragedy that has made Syria the defining war of the early 21st century, the fighting has tapered off but the suffering hasn’t.

In 2011, Bashar al-Assad and his government briefly looked like another domino about to fall in the whirlwind of pro-democracy revolts sweeping the Middle East.

Ten years later, Assad is still there, a pyrrhic victor offering no credible prospects of reconciliation for the Syrian people and exercising limited sovereignty over a land left prey to foreign powers.

In late January 2011, the uprisings that toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya became known as the “Arab Spring” and the contagious nature of the region’s revolts became obvious.

It took time for the wave of protests to take hold in Syria, where demonstrations had been banned for half a century and the government seemed more entrenched than anywhere else in the region.

Some of the first gatherings, such as vigils outside the Libyan embassy, were ostensibly in support of the other uprisings and not a direct challenge to the four-decade-old rule of the Assad clan.

Prominent Syrian activist Mazen Darwish recalled: “We would call for freedom and democracy in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but we were actually chanting for Syria.

“We became obsessed with finding the spark that would put us next in line,” he says, retracing the beginnings of Syria’s revolt. “Who was going to be Syria’s Bouazizi?”

The closest equivalent to Mohamed Bouazizi, the young street vendor whose self-immolation was the trigger for Tunisia’s revolt, turned out to be youngsters who spray-painted the words “Your turn, doctor” on a wall in the southern town of Daraa.

The slogan was a clear reference to Assad, wishing the London-trained ophthalmologist the same fate as Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had to flee into exile – or perhaps even Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who was later that year lynched by a frenzied mob.

The graffiti led to arrests and torture, which in turn caused an uproar that rallied a critical number of Syrians behind the protests.

March 15, the date which AFP and many others use for the start of the Syrian uprising, was not the first day of protests but the day that demonstrations happened nationwide and simultaneously.

Journalist and author Rania Abouzeid describes the moment that gives its title to her book on the Syrian war – No Turning Back.

She wrote: “The great wall of fear had cracked, the silence was shattered. The confrontation was existential – for all sides – from its inception.”

Exodus

What came next led to the planet’s worst conflict in a generation.

The displacement, which saw half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million forced to flee their homes, was the largest induced by conflict since World War II.

Half of those displaced fled the country, some of them swelling a wave of refugees reaching the shores of Europe, a phenomenon whose scope affected public opinion, politics and the outcome of elections on the continent.

In the chaos that followed the eruption of civil conflict in Syria, the most violent group in modern jihad – the so-called Islamic State – proclaimed a “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq that reshaped global terrorism.

Arch foes Iran and the US both sent troops to Syria to protect their interests, as did Turkey. Russia for its part launched in 2015 its largest military intervention since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a move that turned the tide in Assad’s favour.

Almost 400,000 people were killed in 10 years, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor that has continued to keep count after international organisations gave up.

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