Middle East

Syria conflict: from peaceful protest to civil war

Opposition demonstration in Aleppo - March 2013
In opposition held areas, the new Syrian flag has a green, not red, band

Two years ago, no-one thought that Syrian citizens would take to the street, shouting out loud calling for freedom and change.

The heavy sense of dictatorship and memories of the 1980s made Syrians think the wave of change in the region would never come to their country.

But it did happen. At first, people were surprised, but above all shocked that their government would fire on peaceful protesters in Deraa. Every day, the death toll increased and in reaction more people took to the street.

The movement started as protests calling for more freedom and dignity. The way the government handled the events since those first days drove more and more people to oppose President Bashar al-Assad.

At first, no-one was calling for the regime to fall. Many people had hopes that the young president would respond to their calls and punish those of the security forces who killed innocent civilians.

But the wave of killings and arrests, torture and humiliation targeting people who were not even involved in the demonstrations drove many who steered clear of politics to join the protest movement.

Voices silenced

Today, government shelling has silenced the voices of peaceful protest. Demonstrators are no longer giving roses to soldiers and security men chanting: "One, one, one, the Syrian people are one."

Ghaith Matar, the activist who initiated the practice of handing a rose and a bottle of water to troops, was found murdered in Daryya in mid-2011.

No more men and women are dancing in public squares to the sound of freedom songs made popular by Ibrahim al-Qashoush, who composed "Go, Go Bashar" in Hama.

He too was killed and dumped in a river, his throat cut and his vocal cords removed.

No protesters in Damascus throw rubber balls with the word "freedom" written on them to bounce about outside the president's home.

No more jokes about the plot to implant aubergines from Homs with bombs or sticks symbolising the Kalashnikovs that protesters were, according to the reports on government TV, meant to be carrying.

There are real Kalashnikovs and bombs now. What started as a peaceful call for freedom soon turned into violence, armed confrontation and eventually civil war.

More than 70,000 civilians have been killed. The cost of destruction exceeds $80bn and the fighting is far from done.

Opposition forces are gaining ground across the country and the types of weapons being used by the army - shelling, Scud missiles and air strikes - are ever heavier. And mainly the victims are civilians.

Exhaustion

Two years into the revolution, society is polarised and the Syrian flag is abandoned. Revolutionaries wave a green flag and government supporters a red one.

But with the country now in the grip of death and destruction, everyone is above all fearful and tired.

Towns and families have been divided. Moving between a city and surrounding areas can be impossible.

Checkpoints and road blocks are almost everywhere as the government tries to cut off suburbs, which are often the main areas of revolts, from city centres, which are mostly under government control.

Even among the president's loyalists, people are exhausted.

Hassan Raya has lost one of his four children. His son Bassel, a national basketball player, was killed by rebels last May. He was said to have been part of a pro-government militia.

Hassan now says he sees supports dialogue and reconciliation, though he sees those who killed his son as mad and irresponsible.

But Hassan lives in Mezzeh 86 district in Damascus, a predominantly Alawite stronghold of Assad loyalists. For people here, a political solution means keeping their president in power.

The government has set up a ministry of reconciliation led by Ali Haidar, who has himself lost a son in the conflict.

"Tomorrow the number of victims will increase," he says, "But a rapid political solution would end the bloodshed and destruction."

But hardly anyone now believes what the government says, or that a political settlement is possible.

Zaidoun al-Zobi, an activists who was jailed for three weeks and freed after mediation by international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, doubts the government is serious about negotiations.

"If they are honest, let them at least release all the prisoners inside the jails to start with," he says.

Looking to future

Um Osama, who is in her late 60s, has lost two sons. She and her husband are now in charge of raising the grandchildren. She doesn't believe in a political solution.

"They killed my two sons, destroyed my house, burnt out the area. Who will we talk to?" she asks.

But amid the violence, there is a great sense of hope. Among civilians, there is an unprecedented sense of solidarity.

People are sharing homes, clothes and food - notably with the hundreds of thousands displaced by the fighting.

The sense of freedom is palpable, with opposition voices speaking out. More than new 30 online publications are promoting democracy, despite the crackdown.

In some opposition-controlled areas, civilians and rebels are establishing local councils to get the services working.

And as people start to look past the civil war, some are protesting against rebel groups that have committed abuses or which, like the Nusra Front, are seeking to Islamise society.

Syria has risen against tyranny and will never be the same again.