It is the year 1925, and the Great Syrian Revolt has begun. In the years prior, small, localized, sporadic revolts against the government have been put down with ease, further inflaming discontent. Resentment has built among local rulers, whose authority has been usurped by government administrators, and who have been treated as if they did not know how to perform the functions they had been performing for centuries. Attempted by multiple factions, the uprising had a common goal – to end oppressive, uninformed rule. The spark that finally ignited the revolt was the mistreatment of a significant population minority, and random, causeless imprisonment of delegates sent to inform officials of the situation.
It is the year 2012, and apparently nothing has changed in the last 87 years. “Men change rulers willingly,” noted Machiavelli, “hoping to better their lot, and this hope induces them to take up arms against him who rules: but in this they are so terribly deceived, because afterwards they find by experience they have gone from bad to worse.”
The civil war in Syria has made headlines for months. What is happening in Syria now is ideologically no different from what happened in Egypt and Tunisia and Libya last year; what sets Syria’s uprising apart is Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s brutality in crushing rebellion. Since 2011, Syrian national security forces have used gunfire, mass arrests, and tanks to try obliterating and overpowering anti-government street protests, expecting a quick conflict with minimal fuss.
But as 2012 wears on, the strife has instead escalated to full-blown civil war, with defections from the governing elite signaling the steady collapse of central authority. An October 2012 report by the UN Refugee Agency and Reuters released several crucial statistics, including casualty and refugee counts. The number dead inSyriahas passed 30,000. 1.2 million people have been internally displaced, and refugee numbers may be as high as 500,000. By October 2012, 28,000 people had been reported missing, civilians forcibly abducted by government troops or security forces.
Why do the rebels find the Syrian government so despicable? There are several reasons. As the struggle continues, reports of widespread torture in government prisons become more and more prolific. In February 2012, UNICEF reported that over 600 political prisoners and detainees have died under torture inSyria’s prisons; another 400 children have also reportedly been arrested and tortured. One of the main demands of the Syrian rebellion is the release of these prisoners, who have been incarcerated for everything from “aiming to provoke civil war or sectarian fighting” to “weakening national sentiment.” Various accusations of human rights violations have surfaced, some of which are considered so serious, deliberate, and systematic as to constitute crimes against humanity. The least of these was the decree issued in April 2011, ordering soldiers in the Syrian Army to openly fire on civilians. Finally, with only a single ruling political party – the Ba’ath Party, which has controlledSyriafor nearly five decades – Syrian officials are infamously corrupt. That corruption has resulted in an extremely fragile economy, with almost 33 percent ofSyria’s 21 million living in poverty and 11.2 percent living in extreme poverty, defined as unable to obtain their basic food and non-food needs. Unemployment is estimated at over 20 percent.
In terms of international concern, few issues surpass the immediacy of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, believed to be the third largest supply in the world. In July 2012, Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi explicitly threatened the use of chemical weapons as an option against “external aggression,” and went on to threaten the use of “Syrian rockets…loaded with chemical warheads” against targets “including countries neighboring Syria.” In August, President Obama warned Syria that the use of such weapons would be a “red line” for the Ba’athist regime that would result in “enormous consequences;” a month later, France and the United Kingdom promised the same, with France in particular vowing a “massive and blistering” response. A month ago, the Syrian military began moving chemical weapons from Damascusto the port city of Tartus, and a September report by prominent German news magazine Der Spiegel detailed chemical weapons tests, performed by the Syrian military, in the outskirts ofAleppo.
The Great Syrian Revolt of 1925 was put down by national forces and lasted only two years. Should Assad accomplish the same, the Economist states flat that “Syria’s great cities would be ground to rubble and the whole Middle East would choke on the dust” – partly because Assad will cling to power using any means, including militant warfare, and partly because Syria cannot afford a two-year-long conflict.