In December 2010, a poor, young fruit-seller in Tunisia set himself on fire to protest harassment by the police trying to take away his family’s source of income — his fruit cart. As the event became known, it touched off protest movements across the Middle East and North Africa by citizens of Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Oman, Syria, and Morocco against governments that suppressed their citizen’s voices and needs. The movement was called the Arab Spring, after similar citizen protests in other countries, such as Eastern Europe, years earlier. The leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen were soon removed from power or resigned, and later, the leader of Libya was driven from power and killed. Other governments in the region — Oman, Jordan, and Morocco — rushed to try and reform to end the protests. Other Arab countries’ citizens, such as Iraq and Arab Gulf states continued to protest for change, especially the end of long-serving authoritarian regimes that silenced their citizens’ voices and ignored their needs.
In Syria, in March 2011, students in the city of Deraa, Syria painted anti-government graffiti on a schoolyard wall. The young people were arrested, stirring protests in several Syrian cities in support of change. Thousands of Syrians protested peacefully, marching in the streets and asking for a more responsive government that would give citizens a voice in decision-making. In doing so, they risked their lives and security. The government had long maintained a system that imprisoned and tortured people who questioned the government. As the protests continued in Syria and elsewhere in the region, and governments fell and fought against the protesters in the streets, fear and tension grew.
In January 2012, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave a speech that blamed foreigners and called the protesters rebels, asking Syrians to stop the protests. From February 2021, protesters were met with force to end the demonstrations. The army attacked the city of Homs, and in May, 108 people were killed in Houla, Syria. In July, more than 200 people were killed by the Syrian army in the Village of Tremseh. Groups formed to resist the army, and some soldiers joined the protest movement.
On 15 July, the International Committee of the Red Cross officially declared that the Syrian uprising had become a civil war. Opposition groups formed rebel militias and received weapons from foreign supporters. They took over areas in cities such as Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. As the Syrian government lost territory in 2013, allies in the region sent fighters and advisors to support Assad’s government. In the following years, other groups of foreign and Syrian fighters spilled over from the ongoing conflict in Iraq and claimed Syrian territory, and larger foreign powers such as the United States and Russia took sides and entered the conflict with weapons and troops. The Syrian rebels themselves were outnumbered by others who took over Syrian territory by 2014. Foreign military forces continued to bring in heavy weapons and air strikes to fight against Syrian rebels and their opponents. During 2016 and 2018, the Assad regime retook lost territory and worked to regain control over cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Diplomatic efforts by the United Nations, European countries, Russia and the United States and regional powers failed to bring a resolution to the conflict.
The Syrian civil war was a catastrophe for Syrian civilians. The largest movement of refugees since the end of World War II took place as a result of the Arab Spring. Millions of refugees had little choice but to flee the fighting, taking their families on dangerous journeys into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and even Iraq and Egypt, where they lived with families or in crowded refugee camps. They crossed the Mediterranean Sea in rubber boats, seeking safety and a new beginning in European countries and the United States.
More than half of Syria’s population was displaced, in constant danger as the fighting destroyed homes, schools, businesses, hospitals and roads. International organizations have worked to meet the needs of uprooted people in Syria and in surrounding countries. Some citizens of countries receiving refugees have supported helping them, while others protested their presence and tried to prevent their entry.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, as of March 2021, 13.4 million Syrians need humanitarian and protection assistance in Syria; 6.7 million Syrians have left their homes for other locations in Syria; 6.6 million Syrians have become refugees worldwide, with 5.6 million hosted in countries near Syria. Each one of them is a person with a story and a struggle to survive and overcome hardships like Lamya’.
“Essential Readings on Refugees and Forced Displacement | MESPI.” Accessed July 13, 2021.
Refugees, United Nations High Commissioner for, “Situation Syria Regional Refugee Response.”
Refugees, United Nations High Commissioner for. “Syria Emergency.” UNHCR.
THE ARAB UPRISINGS PROJECT. “THE ARAB UPRISINGS PROJECT.”
United States Institute of Peace. “Syria Timeline: Since the Uprising Against Assad.”