In March of 2011, 15 teenagers spray-painted the words “the People Want to Topple the Regime” – a phrase familiar to anyone in Egypt and Tunisia during the heady days of the Arab Spring – on a high school wall in the Syrian city of Daraa. Syrian authorities responded by arresting the teens and torturing them.
While, in other countries, dictators fled or were toppled, in Syria they responded to peaceful calls for reform, freedom and a better quality of life with a brutal crackdown. The torture of the teens in Daraa, simply for tagging a wall, was the start of a sequence of events that completely spiralled out of control, becoming a full-blown civil war that spawned proto-terror states and saw the use of chemical weapons. A war that has left at least 400,000 dead, 6 million people displaced, and destroyed entire cities.
The war is almost ten years old, and – by its own standards at least – fighting has mostly stopped. While the government is not in complete control of the country, large parts of which are in ruins and emptied of people, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has effectively won. Looking back on the past decade at the bloodiest chapter of the Arab Spring, for the people who demanded a better life, the people who sacrificed everything and suffered so much, was it worth it?
ISIS was among the outside actors who exploited the chaos of Syria most successfully, and by 2015 the terror group had occupied a third of the country and 40 percent of Iraq.
Sana Yazigi, a Syrian activist based in Paris, and the founder of the Syrian Creative Memory Project, said: “With the appearance of ISIS, we as Syrians ceased to exist, we disappeared. The narrative of fighting terrorism became a reality. We simply disappeared.”
Little compared to the devastating power of the regime, however, which – latterly directly supported by the Russian armed forces – was responsible for the widespread destruction of its own cities, like Homs, which in turn created the world’s biggest refugee crisis since WWII.
More than 6 million refugees were forced to leave the country, the majority of them now in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan or Egypt. Everyone talks of personal tragedy.
Fadi Haleso runs a volunteer organisation helping refugees in Lebanon. “Lebanon’s government didn’t know what to do, it was politically embarrassed to call them refugees. Until now they are called displaced people, so they kept the border open until suddenly they found themselves handling a huge number of refugees, 1.5 million.”
Even though the violence in Syria, relatively speaking, is starting to fade, refugees are reluctant to go home until they know they’ll be safe, won’t starve, and believe reconstruction will happen.
“Most of the refugees want to return, but they can’t and they know they can’t,” says Fadi. “They are going to stay at least for a few years.”
So while Assad and his regime seem to have won their war against their own people in Syria, the future is less certain.
Karam Nachar, a Syrian academic and writer now based in Istanbul but originally from Aleppo, said: “The Syrian revolution has actually won in the sense that there is now an entire Syrian consistency, men and women, young and old, and especially young and especially women, especially outside the country, that are naturally allied with notions of freedom, with notions of critical thinking.”
Ten years after the teenagers spray-painted a high school wall, after the demands for a better life, after all the bloodshed, all the chaos, was it worth it?
“I think this is the hardest question,” says Sana, the activist based in Paris. “Every Syrian who one day shouted for freedom is living a conscious crisis, asking himself: ‘Was it worth it?’
“But when I look back, I think I believe what happened in Syria is not because a few activists decided to start a war, it was because I think Syria was boiling underneath and it exploded. There was a social injustice that exploded in the uprising. I believe it is worth it every single day, and history would tell in ten or 20 years from now who are the criminals.”