Syria's Uprising. Process of a Country’s Militarization

Essay, 2020

7 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Syria’s 2011 Uprising: Processes of a Country’s Militarization


When the popular uprisings against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad (b. 1965) started in early 2011, the Syrian demonstrators decided to ride on a wave of protest which had previously been witnessed in a similar way by Tunisia and Egypt. However, while Tunisia’s and Egypt’s autocratic rulers, Ben 'Ali (b. 1936) and Mubarak (b. 1928) respectively, were in fact toppled by the uprisings in 2011, Syria presents the case of a country plunging into a brutal civil war with some 400,000 dead and millions displaced.1 Syria’s president Assad could cling to power, supported diplomatically and militarily by Russia, China, and Iran.2 How could the simple bid for more freedom and less repression result in one of the worst humanitarian disasters of our time? How could Syria, which was described in the pre-2011 years as an “island of calm” and a “kingdom of silence”3, become a war-tom country?

Attempting to answer these questions requires a closer look into the political formations at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in March 2011. Then, in a second step, I will scrutinize the processes of militarization which took place both within the regime and the opposition. Why did the Assad regime resort to brutal violence in the face of an uprising whose slogan, as shouted in the streets of Damascus, demanded nothing more than “God, Syria, Freedom and that’s all“4 ? How did the opposition to Assad develop from peaceful urban protest to militant (Sunni) Islamist resistance? How did regime violence contribute to the radicalization of the protesters? What role did foreign powers play in militarizing the conflict and preventing a peaceful solution? And, finally, how could a possible demilitarization and a lasting peace be brought about?

1 Political Formations at the Outset of the War

At the outset of the war in 2011, Bashar al-Assad had been ruling over Syria for 11 years after his father, Hafez al-Assad (1930-2000), had died in June 2000. Bashar only slightly modified the neo-patrimonial system his father had created. While this political system was built around the Assad family and Syria’s Alawite community, Hafez had also managed to engage well with the Sunni majority, the Christians, and the Druze. At the same time, both father and son presented their country as a beacon of resistance to the West and to Israel.5 Although Bashar had been expected to become a political reformer, he did not introduce any game-changing reforms and kept the status quo of neo-patrimonial authoritarianism in place. In fact, while the late Hafez had already sidelined officers he deemed threatening to his rule, his son Bashar picked his very own friends for important military and security positions.6

However, even these advantages for the Assad regime did not prevent the Syrian people from riding on the waves of protest which swept through the Middle East and North Africa in late 2010 and early 2011. Indeed, the uprising in Tunisia (and in Egypt) had encouraged Syrians to believe that political change was possible. In January 2011, Tunisia’s longstanding dictator Ben 'Ali was toppled and fled to Saudi Arabia. One month later, his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak followed suit and resigned from office. Thus, from the perspective of the “Arab street” there was reason to be hopeful about the positive effect of public demonstrations. In a striking similarity to Mohammed Bouazizi (1984-2011) in Tunisia, the Syrian town of Hasakeh saw the self-immolation of Hassan Ali Akleh on 28 January 2011.7 In contrast to Bouazizi, however, Akleh’s suicidal act of protest neither found extensive media coverage nor did it contribute to removing the Syrian regime. It did, however, highlight the willingness of the Syrian people to confront a government whose willingness to listen to the demands of the street was very limited.

The Assad regime was convinced it would survive the uprising. Apart from its own security apparatus (primarily the mukhabarat, Syria’s notorious intelligence service), the Syrian government could count on two foreign powers: Russia and Iran. Russia had “historical ties”8 to Syria which hosts Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean. The strategic interests, however, were of greater importance to the Russian leadership, namely the rivalry with the United States. Any defeat for Assad in the course of the conflict would have meant a victory for the US, or at least for US allies in the country. Moreover, Russian president Vladimir Putin (b. 1952) also feared that Sunni jihadist radicals could gain momentum in Syria as well as in

Russia itself.9 When the Assad regime was on the brink of collapse, as we shall see later, Russia intervened militarily and thus secured the survival of the Syrian dictator.

Iran also had a strategic interest in Syria. On the one hand, Tehran aimed at increasing its influence in the region, just as it had done in Iraq since the American invasion in 2003. In Lebanon, Iran’s influence had been strong ever since its Lebanese client Hizbullah was founded in 1982. Exploiting weak and failing state situations, Iran has supported various militant groups in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Palestine (primarily Islamic Jihad, but also Hamas to some extent10 ). Syria had been allied with Tehran since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. One could argue that the Alawite sect of Islam (which is closer to Shi'a than to Sunni Islam) provides for a religious and ideological connection to Iran. On the other hand, Syria’s territory has been crucial for supplying weapons to Iran’s proxy Hizbullah in Lebanon. Thus, the Syrian regime knew that the Iranian leadership had a vital interest in an alliance with Damascus.11

The most important factor, however, was the role of the United States. The negative experiences in Afghanistan (since 2001) and Iraq (since 2003) had contributed to a decreasing US willingness to engage in military conflicts in the region, even more so since Barack Obama (b. 1961) became US president in January 2009. However, the Obama administration made it clear that it would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.12 In addition, the military intervention in Libya in early 2011, which led to the overthrow and death of Libya’s longstanding dictator Mu'ammar al-Qaddhafi (1942-2011), created the impression that the US would not hesitate to intervene in Syria. This hope was shared by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar who all worked towards toppling Assad (although for different reasons). However, Syria wasn’t a central US interest in the region, and during the conflict Obama “took a hard realist approach, only acting when he felt core U.S. interests were under threat”.13

2 Processes of Militarization

When analyzing the processes of militarization in the Syrian civil war, it is important to have a close look at what happened on the ground in Syria since March 2011. The southern town of Dar'a was the starting point of the conflict between regime and population. Syrian teenagers demonstrated against the Assad regime and were arrested and tortured. This resulted in renewed protests across the country, calling for the release of the young prisoners and general political reforms.14 The regime reacted with violence. The security forces killed at least four people, several more were arrested by the intelligence service, and the demonstrations were violently dispersed.15 Up to this point, the popular uprising against the Assad regime was not driven by militant forces.

For a short time, the regime seemed to give in to the demands of the protesters, at least rhetorically. Assad promised justice for the families of those killed by the security forces. However, these promises and the release of the minors fromjail were overshadowed by further acts of violence against protesters, including when the Omari mosque in Dar'a was stormed by regime forces on 23 March 2011, resulting in many more dead and wounded.16 This event, in combination with the previous escalations, contributed to a growing anger among the Syrian population and to even more demonstrations which spread to the cities of Aleppo and Damascus. The regime attempted to portray the uprising as the work of foreign actors (Saudi Arabia and Israel) or of Salafists trying to establish a caliphate in Syria (which was to become a serious threat three years later). In state TV, regime opponents were described as “terrorists“ whereas killed soldiers and police officers became “martyrs”.17 The level of violence and the martial rhetoric by the regime demonstrated that Assad feared for his very (political) survival.


1 Böhme, C. & Seibert, T. (2020): Nach neun Jahren Krieg ist Frieden in Syrien in weiter Ferne. Tagesspiegel, March 2020.

2 Asseburg, M. & Wimmen, H. (2012): Syrien im Bürgerkrieg. Externe Akteure und Interessen als Treiber des Konflikts. Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Aktuell 68 (November 2012), p. 3.

3 Yassin-Kassab, R. & Al-Shami, L. (2016). Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War. London: Pluto Press, p. 13f.

4 Ibid., p. 37. The slogan was a pun derived from the pro-Assad slogan “God, Syria, Bashaar and that’s all”.

5 Rabinovich, I. (2018): 'The Strugglefor Syria, Chapter Two. Brookings Institution, February 2018.

6 Yassin-Kassab & Al-Shami 2016, p. 15.

7 Ibid., p. 35.

8 Phillips, C. (2017): Eyes Bigger Than Stomachs: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Syria. Middle East Policy, 24 (1), p. 40.

9 Ibid., p. 41.

10 Buttkereit, C. (2020): Iran lieferte Waffen an Palästinenser. Tagesschau, May 2020. The relations between Islamic Jihad and Tehran are closer than those of Hamas with the Islamic Republic (with the latter going through some ups and downs over the years, also partly due to the Syrian civil war, see Asseburg & Wimmen 2012, p. 3).

11 Phillips 2017, p. 40f. Although Tehran initially opposed the Syrian regime’s violence against the protesters.

12 Achcar, G. (2016 )\ Morbid Symptoms. Relapse in the Arab Uprising. London: Saqi Books, p. 24T; Phillips 2017, p. 42.

13 Ibid., p.41. Thus, there was no intervention against the Assad regime in the end. The US only acted against the jihadists of ISIS by flying airstrikes on the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria since 2014, see Achcar 2016, p. 26.

14 Yacoubian, M. (2020): Syria Timeline: Since the UprisingAgainstAssad. United States Institute ofPeace, July 2020.

15 Yassin-Kassab & Al-Shami 2016, p. 37.

16 Ibid., p. 38f.

17 Ibid., p. 40.

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Syria's Uprising. Process of a Country’s Militarization
University of Tubingen
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syria, uprising, process
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Matthias J. Messerle (Author), 2020, Syria's Uprising. Process of a Country’s Militarization, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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