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A glimpse back in time: The course of the Syrian war in 30 titles from our archives

For the tenth anniversary of the Syrian revolution, take a look back in time through a selection of 30 articles from our archives, going over some of the most salient strategic and humanitarian developments of the war.

5 April 2021

AMMAN — Syria Direct has been reporting on the Syrian revolution since February 2013. Building on testimonies and insights from political actors, activists and ordinary citizens from all parts of the country, these eight years of reporting constitute, on their own scale, a written mosaic of Syria’s ongoing tragedy.

Ten years after the start of the revolution, Syria Direct invites readers to take a look back in time through a selection of 30 articles from our archives, offering a glimpse into some of the most salient strategic and humanitarian developments of the war. 

Such a selection does not attempt to do justice to the complexity of the war in Syria, but rather opens a small window to key moments of the past decade, which echo the voices of those who told their stories to the world – may they never be forgotten. 

Tracking the course of a globalized civil war

When Syria Direct launched in February 2013, the conflict had already been raging for months, and the death toll had surpassed  70,000 deaths. Still, the balance of power at the time revealed nothing about the eventual outcome of the conflict. 

The Syrian war had not fully reached its global dimensions then. Russia and Turkey would enter the war only several years later, while the Iranian footprint would become apparent after the participation of Hezbollah militias in the battle of Qusayr in the countryside of Homs province in the summer of 2013. 

In early 2013, various revolutionary armed groups in opposition to Assad’s army organized under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). One of the notable battlefields was the outskirts of Damascus, which the revolution sought but ultimately failed to seize.

In Just another day of shelling and starvation in Damascus suburbs (July 2013), the spokesperson for the Duma Local Coordinating Committee told Syria Direct about the state of the fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the regime in the summer of 2013, lamenting the “tragedy” lived by East Ghouta residents under regime blockade. 

The tragedy was one of many to come. A few months later, in Government message to newly blockaded Homs district: ‘Kneel or starve’ (October 2013), Syria Direct evoked the ‘kneel or starve’ policies of the regime, where besieged opposition neighborhoods were cut off from the most essential supplies: flour, water, electricity and fuel. 

The sieges had dramatic consequences. In After today, no more dialysis for 18 patients in East Ghouta (April 2016), dialysis patients trapped in East Ghouta spoke of their impending deaths after the regime severed access to medical supplies. 

One of the most emblematic of these sieges, each of which took place under the eyes of the world, was the siege of Madaya that lasted two years. The level of cruelty exerted against the population trapped in the city is illustrated in Hungry Madaya residents afraid to pick up food aid as snipers target distribution centers (March 2017).

However, early on in the war, the inhumanity of the confrontation between the regime and revolutionaries was overshadowed in international media by another issue.  

The emergence of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) marked a turning point in the conflict. Syria Direct covered the phenomenon in its early days in ISIS builds power base unchecked, takes over A-Raqqa (August 2013). The rise of ISIS shifted Western priorities towards counterterrorism, and fueled the regime’s narrative that it was fighting an Islamist insurrection.

Facing pressure from the regime and Russia and lacking international support, the opposition was eventually entirely submerged by its most radical factions. In 2017, northwest Syria witnessed the rise to power of Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which still controls Idlib province. 

HTS’s rise is covered in HTS-backed civil authority moves against rivals in latest power grab in northwest Syria (December 2017). In 2018, another major strategic development took place in Syria, with the beginning of Turkey’s offensive on the northwestern Kurdish area of Afrin. Read more in Ankara-backed rebel forces seize entire border region between Afrin and Turkey (February 2018).

In the south, the ‘reconciliation’ of opposition areas ended the war but not the violence, an issue explored in Like a big prison’: Months into reconciliation, invisible borders still divide Syria’s southwest (December 2018).

The failure of the international community 

In parallel, Syria Direct kept its eyes on stalled diplomatic efforts. ‘We are not counting on Geneva, but we must be there,’ a member of the Syrian National Coalition told Syria Direct in an eponymous report from January 2014. 

Subsequent reports covered similar disillusions around the 2017 Astana process, formalizing dialogue on Syria between Russia, Turkey and Iran and sidelining Western powers, and the 2018 Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey halting the regime’s imminent offensive on Idlib province. 

In Eastern Ghouta activist: UN aid ‘not enough for 1 percent of population’ (April 2014), Syria Direct reported on the already blatant shortcomings of humanitarian assistance in Syria. One year later, in April 2015, a relief worker testified on the diversion of aid by several groups in Syrian relief worker: Regime siphons off humanitarian aid for fighters

Many similar reports have since shed light on the widespread profiteering from the war and humanitarian economy in Syria.

A grim record of crimes against humanity 

In 96,000 wanted Syrians listed by name in leaked document (March 2013), Syria Direct reported on the chilling extent of the totalitarian reach of the Syrian regime’s security apparatus. The document was shared by the opposition Syrian Revolution General Commission, who alleged it represented a list of 96,000 names wanted by the Syrian regime’s intelligence services, including children as young as fourteen years old.

This was followed by a long series of reports documenting the horrific human rights abuses taking place daily inside Syria. In “Camp ‘entirely destroyed’ by barrel bombs” (October 2014) and dozens of other reports, Syria Direct documented the widespread use of barrel bombs by the Syrian regime, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties.

Violations of the laws of war became increasingly normalized on all sides of the conflict. In Field surgeon: ‘We are being deliberately targeted (May 2014), Syria Direct reported on the targeting of medical facilities  by both pro- and anti-Assad factions. Despite international conventions outlawing the targeting of medical facilities, hospitals had to go into hiding, a practice explored in Syrians look underground for medical care (September 2014). Schools met a similar fate, as reported in East Ghouta changes school hours to avoid regime bombings (March 2015). Other civilian infrastructure was not spared, as illustrated in 120,000 people without bread after alleged Russian airstrike hits bakery (November 2015).

The paroxysm of violence against civilians was reached early into the war with the horrific exterminatory attacks carried out against the residents of Ghouta in 2013. In Gas use evidence multiplies as ‘red lines’ dissipate (May 2013), Syria Direct covered early suspicions around the use of chemical weapons, and the Syrian opposition’s low expectations of an international reaction. Unfortunately, reports on chemical weapons continued; Chlorine gas attack suspected in East Ghouta for third time this year, Syria Direct last reported in February 2018.

A legacy of exile 

The war led to unprecedented population movements at the scale of the country, a dramatic trend explored in Scenes of exodus: Syrians arrive in Jordan (June 2014). 

One of the landmark moments of this exodus was captured in 50,000 displaced Syrians stranded at Jordan desert border (April 2016), showing how thousands of people seeking refuge ended up trapped in the no man’s land between Jordan and Syria. The border has largely remained sealed since, and many remain in what has become al-Rukban camp, a desolate desert camp with no access to humanitarian aid or the most basic services.

In Abandoned at sea: A Syrian’s journey to Germany (April 2015), Syria Direct shared the story of one man prompted to take the sea route to safety at a time when international focus on refugees was peaking in Europe amid rising casualties in the Mediterranean.

But the tragedy of exile and uprooting also took place inside Syria, where 6.7 million people are internally displaced. Four towns, one agreement and the ‘same tragedy for all’: Buses arrive ahead of mass evacuations (April 2017) narrates the fate of those in defeated opposition pockets, faced with the choice of uncertain emigration north or life under regime rule.

Syria today: The slow dissolution

Today, 6.6 million Syrians are registered as refugees and a further 6.7 million people are internally displaced, out of a pre-war population of around 22 million. The country is effectively split into three areas governed by different political entities. 

In Northwest Syria, the last opposition-held province of Idlib is controlled by HTS while the rest of the region is under the influence of Turkish-backed groups. Northeast Syria is led by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that defeated ISIS with support from a US-led international coalition. Finally, the south and center of Syria are under the control of the Assad regime, supported by its Iranian and Russian allies.

Demographic changes are at work all over the country, reinforced by the policies of various groups seeking to reinforce their support base in areas under their control. One of the main tools established by the Syrian regime to strengthen its grip on Syria and prevent the return of its perceived opponents is analyzed in ‘A new Syria’: Law 10 reconstruction projects to commence in Damascus, backed by arsenal of demolition, expropriation legislation (November 2018). In northwest Syria, similar dynamics are at work as reported in Seizing lands from Afrin’s displaced Kurds, Turkish-backed militias offer houses to East Ghouta families (May 2018). 

Aggravating this territorial fragmentation, Syria today is also characterized by the partial dissolution of the social fabric. In With one son in FSA and one in Syrian army, a mother asks: ‘Brothers are killing each other, for what? (May 2016), one mother’s testimony poignantly illustrated this tragedy.

Recently, economic challenges took the forefront of Syria coverage, as Syria feels the growing impact of sanctions targeting the regime, including the famous US ‘Caesar’ sanctions detailed in The Caesar Act: The beginning or end of US Syria Policy? (January 2020). 

Isolated internationally, Damascus struggles to secure wheat supply amidst coronavirus crisis, Syria Direct reported in May 2020. Regime areas witness ever-lengthening queues in front of bakeries and gas stations. Syrians struggled to cope with a plummeting purchasing power following the collapse of the Syrian pound, analyzed in Syrian pound plummets to new low as policies fail to stop freefall (June 2020).

Finally, in parallel to this growing economic plight, the COVID-19 pandemic has not spared Syrians in exile nor those inside Syria, where the medical infrastructure has been largely undermined by war. In With drastic increase in COVID-19 cases, northwest Syria languishes under health, humanitarian crises (November 2020), Syria Direct explored the severe impact of the pandemic in northwest Syria, the last opposition stronghold.

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