When the historic Arab Spring revolts erupted in December 2010, Syria seemed immune to the internal rebellions rocking and destabilizing the Arab world.
As uprisings protesting the status quo toppled authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and sent tremors through such countries as Yemen, Jordan and Bahrain, Syria appeared safely removed from the escalating turmoil.
Syrian President Bashar Assad was brashly confident he could weather the storm, telling an American journalist in a Wall Street Journal interview in January 2011 that the conditions that gave rise to the unrest – despotism, corruption and economic stagnation – were not present in Syrian society.
Famous last words.
By March of 2011, a swelling tide of revolutionary fervour had swept into Syria, washing away self-deluding assumptions that long-suffering Syrians, weary of the heavy hand of dictatorship, were not psychologically prepared to challenge the legitimacy of Syria’s deeply entrenched Baathist regime.
Two years on, borne along by a surge of dissatisfaction and anger with a government haughtily intolerant of dissent and barely responsive to the call for reform, the people of Syria have spoken in unison and risen up in mass revolt.
The uprising began peacefully enough, with Syrians demanding changes that, if sincerely implemented, might have transformed Syria into something of a functioning democracy.
In demonstrations that unfolded initially in towns and cities outside the capital, Damascus, Syrians urged Assad to enact measures to eliminate appalling abuses of power, promote human rights, uproot an endemic culture of cronyism and provide jobs for a growing army of unemployed and underemployed youth.
Assad, a member of the Alawite minority, responded ambivalently.
Backed by the army, security services, the Sunni merchant class and Christians, the pillars of his support system, he introduced cosmetic reforms. He replaced cabinet ministers, tweaked the repressive one-party state he had inherited from his father, Hafez, who died in 2000, and promised to unveil a new constitution.
But in what proved to be an egregious error, he ordered the police force to fire on protesters, killing scores of them in ugly confrontations that revealed the true face of the regime and now exposes it to charges of war crimes.
With the casualties piling up, Assad and his advisers confidently assumed that a strong show of firepower would act as a deterrent and defuse the demonstrations.
But on the second anniversary of the Syrian revolt, Assad’s strategy has been a resounding failure. Fighting has greatly intensified and Syria has been plunged headlong into a destructive civil war.
By last week, more than 70,000 Syrians had been killed, two million had been internally displaced and 800,000 had fled into neighbouring countries, particularly Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, creating a catastrophic refugee crisis.
The increasingly sectarian struggle, which already has affected adjacent nations in material ways, pits a desperate regime intent on survival against a politically diverse and fragmented alliance embodied in the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which was formed several months ago at the urging of pro-rebel western powers like the United States, Britain, Germany and France.
In an attempt to crush the uprising, which has spread into major cities such as Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Damascus, Assad has deployed heavy military equipment from tanks and artillery to missiles and airpower.
As he clings to office, denouncing his opponents as terrorists and foreign agents, Assad acts as if the Syrian people are the enemy to be vanquished.
The rebels, supported by regional countries ranging from Turkey and Qatar to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have made impressive gains.
They have bombed Baathist citadels, assassinated important government figures and even lobbed mortars at Assad’s presidential palace. They have also captured urban neighbourhoods, swaths of rural territory, border posts, military bases, dams and the site of Syria’s nuclear reactor, obliterated by Israel in an air raid in September 2007.
Backed by Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah, Assad has ferociously fought back with all the means at his disposal, even as some key loyalists have defected in an embarrassing blaze of publicity.
Defectors include the former prime minister, Riad Hijab, who has compared Assad to Nazis, and Manaf Tlass, a brigadier-general and adviser whose father, Mustafa, was defence minister for 30 years.
The fighting has left many towns in ruins and ground into a bitter stalemate. No less a person than Syria’s vice-president, Farouk al-Sharaa, has acknowledged the impasse, having admitted that the army cannot defeat the rebels.
By the same token, the rebels will not be able to overthrow the regime unless they receive military assistance from western powers.
A procession of Arab League and United Nations mediators have tried in vain to stop the bloodshed.
The most ambitious effort was mounted in 2012 by Kofi Annan, the UN’s former secretary-general, who presented a six-point plan under which hostilities would immediately cease within the framework of a ceasefire.
Assad accepted the truce, as did the rebels, but it collapsed in a welter of bad faith and recriminations, prompting Annan to resign and pin the blame on both the regime and the rebels.
Annan’s successor, Lakhdar Brahimi, the former minister of Algeria, has been sidelined into irrelevance, too. Having declared that Assad must relinquish power and cannot be part of a solution, Brahimi has been denounced by the regime as being “flagrantly biased.”
Two months ago, after saying he would never leave Syria, Assad categorically rejected the idea of negotiating with the rebels. But last week, for the first time, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said his government is ready to conduct talks with the armed opposition. The rebels are apparently willing to join the discussions, but only if Assad is not a party to a final settlement.
In the meantime, with the fighting raging on, Brahimi has warned that Syria is being destroyed “bit by bit.”
If the violence does not subside, Syria, as France’s foreign minister recently suggested, could fall to militant Islamic groups, thereby creating an immense problem for neighbours such as Israel, Lebanon and Jordan.
Should the civil war continue for considerably much longer, Syria could well disintegrate into warring sectarian fiefdoms, with incalculable consequences for every country in the Middle East.