From protests to civil war: Understanding Syria's decade of horror

·2-min read

What began as a peaceful uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad soon turned into a gruesome civil war, drawing in regional powers, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and pushing millions more to flee. In a three-part series, FRANCE 24's James Creedon and Antoine Mariotti take us through the key stages in Syria's decade of destruction.

  • Part 1: The origins of the conflict

Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in neighbouring countries, pro-democracy protests erupted in parts of Syria in early 2011 and soon spread across the country amid a brutal crackdown by Assad's regime.

The violence rapidly escalated and the country descended into a gruesome civil war involving the regular army and a host of rebel groups. Western powers vowed to punish the Syrian regime should it make use of chemical weapons, but ultimately stepped back. Instead, Russia and Iran intervened decisively on Assad's side, turning the tide in his favour.

  • Part 2: Bashar al-Assad, the survivor of the Arab Spring

An aspiring ophthalmologist who once shunned the limelight, Bashar was an unlikely candidate for Syrian strongman – until the deaths of his elder brother and his father propelled him to the top of the Assad dynasty.

The mild-mannered Syrian leader had attempted a rapprochement with the West prior to the Arab Spring uprisings, notably visiting Paris just months before the 2011 uprising. But the crackdown on protesters and ensuing civil war would cement his reputation as a brutal dictator. Ten years on, Assad is once again in control of much of Syria, albeit under the tutelage of his foreign sponsors.

  • Part 3: Foreign involvement in the Syrian conflict

Diplomats have described the Syrian strongman as a puppet on two strings, one Russian and the other Iranian. Without those two strings, there is little doubt that Assad’s regime would have collapsed during the conflict. Both Moscow and Tehran continue to wield huge influence in Damascus, and neither looks set to abandon the Syrian regime.

Assad’s opponents also benefited from foreign support during the war, particularly at the start of the conflict, when Turkey and the Gulf states financed and armed various rebel groups. Western powers also helped train and equip the rebel camp, though their support ended when Islamist groups came to dominate the field. Thereafter, the West focused its efforts on the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group, throwing its support behind Kurdish-led forces battling the jihadists.