Civil uprising phase of the Syrian Civil War
The civil uprising phase of the Syrian Civil War, or as it was sometimes called by the media the Syrian Revolution of Dignity, was an early stage of protests – with subsequent violent reaction by the Syrian Arab Republic – lasting from March to 28 July 2011. The uprising, initially demanding democratic reforms, evolved from initially minor protests, beginning as early as January 2011 and transformed into massive protests in March.
The uprising was marked by massive anti-government opposition demonstrations against the Ba'athist government led by Bashar al-Assad, meeting with police and military violence, massive arrests and brutal crackdown, resulting in hundreds of casualties and thousands of wounded.
Despite Bashar al-Assad's attempts to stop the protests with massive crackdown and use of censorship on one hand and concessions on the other, by the end of April, it became clear the situation was getting out of his control and his government deployed numerous troops on the ground.
The civil uprising phase created the platform for emergence of militant opposition movements and massive defections from the Syrian Army, which gradually transformed the conflict from a civil uprising to an armed rebellion, and later a full-scale civil war. The rebel Free Syrian Army was created on 29 July 2011, marking the transition into armed insurgency.
Before the uprising in Syria began in mid-March 2011, protests were relatively modest, considering the wave of unrest that was spreading across the Arab world. Syria, until March 2011, for decades had remained superficially tranquil, largely due to fear among the people of the secret police arresting critical citizens.
Minor protests calling for government reforms began in January, and continued into March. Unrelenting protests were occurring in Cairo against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and in Syria on 3 February via the websites Facebook and Twitter, a "Day of Rage" was called for by activists against the government of Bashar al-Assad, to be held on Friday, 4 February. This did not result in protests. Yet it is said that on the night of Mubarak's 11 February downfall, the graffiti was seen under a Damascus bridge, "Now it's your turn, Doctor"– in reference to President al-Assad, an eye doctor by training.
Civil uprising (March–July 2011)
March 2011 unrest
Major unrest began on 15 March in Damascus, yet in the southern city of Daraa, sometimes called the "Cradle of the Revolution", protests had been triggered on 6 March by the incarceration and torture of 15 young students from prominent families who were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti in the city, reading: "الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام" – ("The people want the fall of the regime") – a trademark slogan of the Arab Spring. A 13-year-old boy, Hamza al-Khateeb, was tortured and killed.
The government claimed that the boys weren't attacked, and that Qatar incited the majority of the protests. Writer and analyst Louai al-Hussein, referencing the Arab Spring ongoing at that time, wrote that "Syria is now on the map of countries in the region with an uprising". Demonstrators clashed with local police, and confrontations escalated on 18 March after Friday prayers. Security forces attacked protesters gathered at the Omari Mosque using water cannons and tear gas, followed by live fire, killing four.
On 20 March, a mob burned down the Ba'ath Party headquarters and other public buildings. Security forces quickly responded, firing live ammunition at crowds, and attacking the focal points of the demonstrations. The two-day assault resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and fifteen protesters.
Meanwhile, minor protests occurred elsewhere in the country. Protesters demanded the release of political prisoners, the abolition of Syria's 48-year emergency law, more freedoms, and an end to pervasive government corruption. The events led to a "Friday of Dignity" on 18 March, when large-scale protests broke out in several cities, including Banias, Damascus, al-Hasakah, Daraa, Deir az-Zor, and Hama. Police responded to the protests with tear gas, water cannons, and beatings. At least 6 people were killed and many others injured.
On 25 March, mass protests spread nationwide, as demonstrators emerged after Friday prayers. At least 20 protesters were reportedly killed by security forces. Protests subsequently spread to other Syrian cities, including Homs, Hama, Baniyas, Jasim, Aleppo, Damascus and Latakia. Over 70 protesters in total were reported killed.
Even before the uprising began, the Syrian government had made numerous arrests of political dissidents and human rights campaigners, many of whom were labeled "terrorists" by the Assad government. In early February 2011, authorities arrested several activists, including political leaders Ghassan al-Najar, Abbas Abbas, and Adnan Mustafa.
As the uprising began, the Syrian government waged a campaign of arrests that captured tens of thousands of people, according to lawyers and activists in Syria and human rights groups. In response to the uprising, Syrian law had been changed to allow the police and any of the nation's 18 security forces to detain a suspect for eight days without a warrant. Arrests focused on two groups: political activists, and men and boys from the towns that the Syrian Army would start to besiege in April. Many of those detained experienced ill-treatment. Many detainees were cramped in tight rooms and were given limited resources, and some were beaten, electrically jolted, or debilitated. At least 27 torture centers run by Syrian intelligence agencies were revealed by Human Rights Watch on 3 July 2012.
President Assad characterized the opposition as armed terrorist groups with Islamist "takfiri" extremist motives, portraying himself as the last guarantee for a secular form of government. Early in the month of April, a large deployment of security forces prevented tent encampments in Latakia. Blockades were set up in several cities to prevent the movement of protests. Despite the crackdown, widespread protests continued throughout the month in Daraa, Baniyas, Al-Qamishli, Homs, Douma and Harasta.
During March and April, the Syrian government, hoping to alleviate the unrest, offered political reforms and policy changes. Authorities shortened mandatory army conscription, and in an apparent attempt to reduce corruption, fired the governor of Daraa. The government announced it would release political prisoners, cut taxes, raise the salaries of public sector workers, provide more press freedoms, and increase job opportunities. Many of these announced reforms were never implemented.
The government, dominated by the Alawite sect, made some concessions to the majority Sunni and some minority populations. Authorities reversed a ban that restricted teachers from wearing the niqab, and closed the country's only casino. The government also granted citizenship to thousands of Syrian Kurds previously labeled "foreigners". Following Bahrain's example, the Syrian government held a two-day national dialogue in July, in attempt to alleviate the crisis. The dialogue was a chance to discuss the democratic reforms and other issues, however many of the opposition leaders and protest leaders refused to attend citing that continuing crackdown on protesters in streets.
A popular demand from protesters was an end of the nation's state of emergency, which had been in effect for nearly 50 years. The emergency law had been used to justify arbitrary arrests and detention, and to ban political opposition. After weeks of debate, Assad signed the decree on 21 April, lifting Syria's state of emergency. However, anti-government protests continued into April, with activists unsatisfied with what they considered vague promises of reform from Assad.
During the course of the civil war, there have been some political changes towards the electoral process and the constitution.
As the unrest continued, the Syrian government began launching major military operations to suppress resistance, signaling a new phase in the uprising. On 25 April, Daraa, which had become a focal point of the uprising, was one of the first cities to be besieged by the Syrian Army. An estimated hundreds to 6,000 soldiers were deployed, firing live ammunition at demonstrators and searching house to house for protesters, slaughtering hundreds. Tanks were used for the first time against demonstrators, and snipers took positions on the rooftops of mosques. Mosques used as headquarters for demonstrators and organizers were especially targeted. Security forces began shutting off water, power and phone lines, and confiscating flour and food. Clashes between the army and opposition forces, which included armed protesters and defected soldiers, led to the death of hundreds. By 5 May, most of the protests had been suppressed, and the military began pulling out of Daraa, with some troops remaining to keep the situation under control.
During the crackdown in Daraa, the Syrian Army also besieged and blockaded several towns around Damascus. Throughout May, situations similar to those that occurred in Daraa were reported in other besieged towns and cities, such as Baniyas, Homs, Talkalakh, Latakia, and several other towns. After the end of each siege, violent suppression of sporadic protests continued throughout the following months. By 24 May, the names of 1,062 people killed in the uprising since mid-March had been documented by the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.
As the uprising progressed, opposition fighters became better equipped and more organized. Until September 2011, about two senior military or security officers defected to the opposition. Some analysts stated that these defections were signs of Assad's weakening inner circle.
The first instance of armed insurrection occurred on 4 June 2011 in Jisr ash-Shugur, a city near the Turkish border in Idlib province. Angry protesters set fire to a building where security forces had fired on a funeral demonstration. Eight security officers died in the fire as demonstrators took control of a police station, seizing weapons. Clashes between protesters and security forces continued in the following days. Some security officers defected after secret police and intelligence agents executed soldiers who refused to kill the civilians. On 6 June, Sunni militiamen and army defectors ambushed a group of security forces heading to the city which was met by a large government counterattack. Fearing a massacre, insurgents and defectors, along with 10,000 residents, fled across the Turkish border.
In June and July 2011, protests continued as government forces expanded operations, repeatedly firing at protesters, employing tanks against demonstrations, and conducting arrests. The towns of Rastan and Talbiseh, and Maarat al-Numaan were besieged in early June. On 30 June, large protests erupted against the Assad government in Aleppo, Syria's largest city. On 3 July, Syrian tanks were deployed to Hama, two days after the city witnessed the largest demonstration against Bashar al-Assad.
During the first six months of the uprising, the inhabitants of Syria's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, remained largely uninvolved in the anti-government protests. The two cities' central squares have seen organized rallies of hundreds of thousands in support of president Assad and his government.
On 29 July, a group of defected officers announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces personnel, the rebel army seeks to remove Bashar al-Assad and his government from power. On 23 August, the Syrian National Council was formed as a political counterpart to the FSA.
Reporting, censoring, propaganda
Reporting on this conflict was difficult and dangerous from the start: journalists were being attacked, detained, reportedly tortured and killed. Technical facilities (internet, telephone etc.) were being sabotaged by the Syrian government. Both sides in this conflict tried to disqualify their opponent by framing or referring to them with negative labels and terms, or by presenting false evidence.
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