Editor’s Note: SE Cupp is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
While many are vaguely aware of it, I’m not sure most people could tell you how or why the Syrian war started. Some likely assume the origin was about religion or ethnicity or maybe about territory or terrorism.
In some ways, it eventually became about all of that, but it started much more simply, when, against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, 15 boys were arrested in the nondescript border town of Dara’a after anti-regime graffiti was sprayed on a high school wall. They were imprisoned, and horrifically tortured, sparking the outrage of their small community and observant human rights activists. Their cruel and anti-democratic treatment first prompted local protests, which turned regional and eventually national, with the March 15 “day of rage” protests generally seen as the beginning of the uprising.
For those who remember the early days of the conflict it’s hard to believe that it’s now been a decade since those protests touched off an unfathomably awful war against the Syrian civilian people by its own government.
Then again, it’s also painfully clear as to why. The world has largely turned its back on what has been described by some as a genocide that’s killed upwards of half a million people, including at least 12,000 children. As President Bashar al-Assad waged a relentless war at first on civilian protesters and later, with the help of Russian forces against insurrectionists, and at times Islamic State (ISIS) fighters, they leveled entire cities with barrel bombs, missiles, and horrifically – although they deny it – even chemical weapons. Regime forces intentionally bombed schools, hospitals and crowded markets. All just so that Assad could maintain his vise-like grip on his own people, who dared to protest his authority. The evil knows no end here.
Unknown numbers of innocent Syrians have been imprisoned, many never to be heard from again. Millions have been displaced both internally and outside of Syria’s borders.
It’s a tragedy of global proportions, one that we watched unfold in real time, and Syrians are no closer today to being safe from Assad. But unimaginably, there is still hope. For many Syrians, tomorrow – if they can just make it there – is a new day.
I’ve asked some of the activists and advocates who’ve fought to save Syria, and who have risked their lives to tell the stories of the Syrian war, to answer one important question, in any way they like: “What is the future of Syria?”
Here are their harrowing – and hopeful – responses. (Some have been translated from Arabic.)
Rabia Kasiri, White Helmet volunteer and medical student in Idlib
The past 10 years have taken an extreme toll on me, and I don’t think about the future anymore. The constant bombing by Syrian and Russian warplanes forced us to live in a state of emergency and I always wonder if I will live until the next day. I might leave the house and never come back or I might go to sleep and never wake up.
I fear that if we will live like this for many more years, my daughter will grow up feeling the same. Six-year-old Rahaf represents my hopes and dreams. She gives me strength and happiness every day. I love medicine and I dream I’ll be able to finish my studies and become a doctor. I dream our children won’t live in fear, deprivation, and danger like we did. The war took so much from us, but we have to remain strong to be able to help others. I hope for peace to prevail and for no more lives lost.
Dr. Tarraf al-Tarraf, surgeon in Idlib
When I joined the protests in 2011, I dreamed of our right to freedom and dignity.
I wanted to resume my higher education but all my dreams stopped when I lost my brother Dr. Huthaifa, who died from torture in Assad’s prisons; my brother Dr. Yousef, who was killed by a Russian airstrike; and many of my friends and colleagues. I also lost my home and was displaced with my family. I stopped dreaming when all I could do was try to save the life of a child injured by the bombardment.
I hope for the targeting of civilians and hospitals to stop and that we’re not forced to set up more hospitals inside caves to escape the airstrikes.
I hope for the release of all detainees in Assad’s prisons, including doctors and medical workers who were tortured for doing their jobs. I hope for all the doctors who were forced to leave the country to be able to return home and help build a stronger health system that would meet the needs of all Syrians and compensate for the hundreds of hospitals destroyed by Assad and Vladimir Putin’s warplanes.
But it is impossible for any of these dreams to become a reality while Assad is still in power. I fear the regime will continue to commit crimes – from bombardment, detention and forced displacement – and the international community will continue to remain silent and turn a blind eye to these crimes.
Nora Barre, Syrian-American activist
We can’t discuss Syria’s future in a vacuum without understanding the intricate relationship with Russia and Iran – with Assad as their puppet. Iran has the most skin in the game on the ground in Syria, but Iran’s economy is suffering due to sanctions following the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
Russia’s economy is also struggling due to Covid and increased sanctions, so I believe Russia will also start to withdraw its support for Assad. The Caesar Act (sanctioning Assad supporters) has unfortunately caused unbearable suffering for Syrians but has also starved the regime’s resources.
Today, Syria is a failed state with increased suffering, worldwide refugees and terrorists.
The best case scenario for Syria’s future is not filled with sunshine and rainbows. The end for the Assad regime will be when the continued decline of the Iranian and Russian economies means they stop funding the Syrian killing machine.
Wafa Mustafa, Syrian activist and journalist
It will not be long before Assad and his inner circle are on trial for crimes against humanity. The evidence is stark and all it takes is for the international community to overcome Russia’s and China’s Security Council vetoes and refer Syria to the International Criminal Court. I hold onto hope that more than 130,000 political prisoners will be released and my dad will be free and will join the call for justice for all the years we have lost together.
It should also be possible for the families of those kidnapped by ISIS to see justice done or to find answers about their loved ones, for all those detained by armed groups to be freed.
Ten years ago so many Syrians demanded freedom, dignity and democracy. I continue to march and campaign for these very same values and I will not give up hope.
Hasna Issa, Syrian activist
Ten years since the revolution started, Assad has killed hundreds of thousands, forced millions to flee their homes, bombed schools and hospitals and burned farms. But we don’t regret calling for freedom, dignity and justice, and will continue to do so.
Being detained by the regime for participating in the peaceful protests 10 years ago made me hold on more firmly to our revolution’s values and goals, because I’ve witnessed what happens in Assad’s dungeons with my own eyes.
My husband left me alone with my twin daughters in besieged Ghouta – the way I was treated by the community for being a divorced woman made me fight for women’s rights and it became my struggle. I do everything in my power to support and empower women around me, especially young women, because it all starts with raising a generation of leaders who will help shape the future of our country.
So many Syrian women seek to build a better Syria that guarantees them their rights to freedom and dignity. We don’t want a food basket or charity, we want justice and accountability. We want to return to our homes that we were forced to flee, we want schools for our children, we want universities to give proper education, we want job opportunities to work and be independent.
Hiba Barakat, journalist and photographer in Idlib
When the revolution started in 2011, I wasn’t fully aware of how criminal and corrupt the regime was. Maybe because I was too young or because of people’s fear of speaking out. I later began to see the crimes that the regime was ready to commit to silence the people. I was forced to flee my home more than once to escape bombing. My brother has been missing in Assad’s prison for years and we know nothing about what’s happened to him. My father was killed by a Russian airstrike. My life turned upside down in an unspeakable way.
Armed groups and militias took advantage of the honest and peaceful revolution that was sparked by young men and women who demanded freedom and dignity. Then it turned into a proxy war between many states with different agendas and policies.
I fear we will find ourselves ruled by regimes that are similar to the one we fought to bring down. I fear there will be no place for me in this country anymore.
What I hope for is another revolution that will liberate us from those who imposed themselves as rulers with the power of their weapons.
Ali Abdulkader, activist and center manager of the Kesh Malek advocacy group
When we were forced to flee our home last year, my 8-year-old daughter Hiba came to me crying because she left her favorite toy behind. It breaks my heart every time I think about it.
I was a law student when the revolution started but I soon turned to work with civil society groups because I believed that our work with the youths is essential in helping them shape the future of the Syria we still dream of.
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The world stood still as the Assad regime and his allies committed all kinds of crimes against Syrians over the past 10 years. It stood still as extremist groups, including ISIS, emerged to take advantage and tried to distort the image of our revolution. But that didn’t stop us from continuing to work for a free, civil, democratic and pluralistic Syria. Even if we don’t get to live to see it, at least our children will get the chance.
My hope is for the world to realize their huge responsibility to step up to end the suffering of millions of Syrians, hold criminals accountable and restore our faith in humanity and human rights. It’s never too late to save Syria.