top of page

How did the Syrian Civil War start? - A Brief Timelie (1/3)

Updated: May 18, 2022

Eight years ago, peaceful protests in Syria led to a civil war that has so far killed 400,000 people. But how exactly did it start? What were the main factors that led up to the events? What were the reasons for the initial opposition of the government? This article provides an in-depth timeline of events that led up to the full-scale civil war that still continues today.


How did the Syrian Civil War start?

Reasons for Opposition:

Bashar al-Assad was elected as president of Syria in July 2000 after his father, Hafiz al-Assad, died in June 2000. The Syrian establishment evidently favoured Assad's ascension as parliament (which has been dominated by the Baath party for over fifty years) had lowered the minimum age of presidency from forty to thirty-four to allow him to serve after his late father. By July, al-Assad won the election with an astounding 97.29% of the vote with help from loyalists within the security forces, military and his minority Alawite sect. Many are critical of the reliability of the proportion of this vote.

Bashar al-Assad

Assad had a reputation of being a modernizer and reformer, having led the Syrian Computer Society and being in charge of a domestic anti-corruption campaign. He claimed he was launching “our own democratic experience” and once elected released hundreds of political prisoners and allowed independent newspapers to publish for the first time in more than three decades. Those pressing for reforms were also given a space to hold public political meetings but by early 2001 these were soon halted. The press was soon restricted and many leading opposition leaders were arrested. In the blink of an eye, his promises fell short and his style of rule became authoritarian much like his father. Despite this, in the May 2007 election Assad won the referendum with 97% of the vote, causing angered opposition groups to criticise the election as corrupt.

A primary factor of government resentment views was the severe drought in the country from 2006 until 2010 and Assad’s failure to minimise the inequalities in wealth as a result of the drought. Already strained by 1.5 million Iraqi refugees entering the country, the economy turned sour as many poorer farmers from the countryside were required to move into urban areas, relying on shantytowns for the large influx of population. In the meantime, Assad liberalized the state’s economy without a focus on equalising the wealth inequalities. Instead, the expansion of state-dependent industries benefited corporate leaders who were in favour of Assad.

Outbreaks of Protests:

By 2011, the Arab Spring protests reached Syria. These protests were a response to strong authoritarian leadership and low living standards within Arab countries such as Libya, Yemen and Egypt. As a consequence, public protests led to the overthrow of many of these regimes.

The first Arab Spring protest seen in Syria was on 26th January 2011 after a police officer assaulted and later arrested a man in old Damascus. As a result of brutality, a “day of rage” was set in early February but led to no avail. Public support for the government seemed to deteriorate throughout the country and the Syrian regime soon attempted to take harsh measures to counter this opposition.

Action against the opposition first took place in the arrest and torture of a group of children in the poor region of Darʿā for writing anti-regime graffiti on a school wall in March 2011. As a result, on 18 March 2011, thousands immediately flooded the streets and demanded political freedom to end corruption and to receive the economic reforms they had been promised. Syria’s state news agency ‘Sana’ claimed that the protest had broken out into “violence” and “acts of sabotage”, prompting security forces to open fire on the crowds “injuring hundreds” and killing 3 people. It later accused the protesters of provoking “chaos through acts of violence which resulted in damage to private and public property”. Those injured were also supposedly “snatched by security forces” from hospitals and led to unknown locations, according to an anonymous human rights activist contacted by AFP news.

Nationwide Revolt:

This act of violence against the opposition is now seen as the start of the Syrian Civil War as it led to nationwide outrage which spread large scale protests to other cities such as Bāniyās and Homs. The Assad regime responded with forceful tactics, intervening in protests with armed security services which led to many more injured and killed. Hundreds of amateur videos of this violence were uploaded online and the situation turned into a crisis to which Assad responded with further oppression. Military operations were conducted in presumed centers of anti-regime propaganda by circling cities such as Darʿā and Bāniyās and cutting off their supplies. In June, the first wave of Syrian refugees fled to Turkey after an assault from regime forces surrounded the city of Jisr al-Shugūr. The tactics of the regime soon became internationally denounced by many countries, namely the United States of America. Travel bans were imposed on Syria and an arms embargo was placed on the country but still, Assad did not back down.

Assad claimed that his delayed reforms were halted by protesters allegedly part of a group of saboteurs to undermine Syria’s stability, promising to soon start a “national dialogue” of reform. He introduced concessions to soothe certain irritated groups such as the Kurds and conservative Sunni Muslims. Assad also dissolved Syria’s Supreme State Security Court, a court used to prosecute those tried of challenging the government. Most impressively, Assad lifted Syria’s emergency laws which had been in place for the past 48 years. Like many tyrants, Assad’s reforms were empty measures to ease tension without any real-world positive effects. Soon, as a result of the many reports of killings from security services, the opposition supporters took up their own arms in defence.

As the crisis availed, sectarian divisions strengthened within Syria. In his public speeches, Assad claimed that his minority sect of Alawites was under threat by Sunni Islamic extremists operating under al-Qaeda. Assad used this accusation as a justification for the violence of his historically Alawite regime, falling back on the excuse of self-defence.

Conflict and International Intervention:

The first report of clashes between armed forces and opposition later followed. Militias emerged from defectors of the Syrian armed forces and so in September 2011, the Syrian National Council (SNC) had been formed in Istanbul, claiming to represent the opposition within the country.

By the end of the Summer of 2011, international powers began taking sides for and against Assad, with the US, the EU and the Arab League conducting sanctions against powerful figures within the Assad regime. Many countries called for military intervention However, the UN struggled to condemn Assad’s actions due to the support of Russia and China who vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution against Assad’s violent tactics. Iran also took a more neutral position on Syria’s actions, calling for more time to allow Assad to deal with the crisis.

With the UN being blocked to reach an agreement to intervene in Syria, the Middle Eastern states within the Arab League stood in. The pressures from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey forced Syria to accept a peace deal that agreed to cease violence against protesters in November 2011. The plan also agreed to allow delegates from the Arab League to survey the protests to ensure that the regime would not harm protesters. However, as could have been predicted, the plan failed its objectives. Syria had heavy control over the delegates and violence against protesters continued in parts of the country. It was suggested that the plan was simply a technique by Assad to delay international intervention. The plan fully fell through on January 28, 2012, after the Arab League raised concerns regarding the safety of its delegates.

From this point on, the Syrian crisis continued to worsen, blowing up into a full-scale civil war that has been continuing for 8 years now. No one expected the impact of the initial riots to cause such havoc in the country, even Assad himself. At first, Assad denied commanding his forces to kill the opposition, stating only a “crazy person” would do as such. Yet, by January 2012, he promised to crush “terrorism” with an “iron first”.




2 views0 comments