BEIRUT — It started small. On a Tuesday afternoon a decade ago, a few dozen Syrians gathered in Damascus’ Old Quarter calling for an end to the 40-year Assad dynasty.
In the days that followed, the protest grew. Anti-government demonstrations had already engulfed Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain in a wave quickly dubbed the Arab Spring. Now it was Syria’s turn. As unrest fanned out to other cities, commentators seemed sure that another sclerotic military-backed regime would fall.
Instead, what started as a popular revolution metastasized into civil war. Now, 10 years later, the catastrophe in Syria serves as a bleak example of possibility and hope crushed by conflict, chaos and the seemingly impossible price of change.
Relying on a mix of brute force against his own people, assistance from Russia, Iran and other allies, and missteps by his adversaries, Syrian President Bashar Assad remains in power.
“We didn’t succeed in bringing down the regime,” Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, a prominent Syrian writer and longtime opponent of Assad’s government, said in a recent interview over the social media app Clubhouse. “There’s [still] a Syrian cause, but we lost the Syrian revolution.”
Assad’s “victory” has come at the cost of anywhere from 400,000 to 1 million of his compatriots killed (the U.N. stopped counting years ago); millions more scattered as refugees across Europe and elsewhere; tens of thousands of people disappeared, many of them presumed tortured and killed in government prisons; and a resurgence or emergence of extremist Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda and Islamic State.
The war’s destruction could cost $1 trillion to repair — a sum that Assad, slapped with sanctions and reviled by many in the international community, has no hope of raising.
And his oft-repeated vow to claw back all lost territory has not come to pass. The country remains fractured, with Turkey, Russia, Iran and the U.S. commandeering chunks of Syrian land — with the Syrians still on it — for their own political or security ends.
“It’s no longer a country, but a collection of people in the same spot of earth,” one Syrian activist lamented.
Another said there wasn’t just one Syria now but many, including the diaspora that has spread across the world — and that harbors little hope of returning home.
Five Syrians, two of them still inside the country, reflected on the last 10 years in conversations with The Times. Most deem the decade a bitter disappointment, but still glimpse hope for the future. True change, many believe, will need a generation or two.
These interviews were edited and condensed for clarity.
Anyone watching international news broadcasts on Syria knew Rami’s voice. With a thick London accent and the pseudonym “Alexander Page,” he would report on the government’s ferocious crackdown over unsteady smartphone footage of protests emerging from Syria.
He soon was forced to escape Syria for his safety. But he continued his work abroad: He began the Activists News Assn., which brought citizen journalists’ videos to mainstream international outlets at a time when foreign media couldn’t enter the country. He left Egypt for Turkey, where he started a radio station broadcasting news to areas held by Syria’s rebels.
But he soon was at odds with the opposition and its backers too. He moved to Berlin in late 2019, an asylum seeker like more than a million of his compatriots, but one who has mostly stayed away from them. It’s a chance, he says, to build his own narrative of what happened.
The first question many people ask is: Do you have any regrets? After the 2003 war in Iraq, for example, a healthy portion of Iraqis would look at their situation and say, “We destroyed our country with the U.S. invasion.”
I’m happy at this stage to say I don’t have those regrets … for many reasons. One of them is that in Syria we were already dead. I hate when Syrians reminisce about the smell of jasmine in Damascus, or the cheap cost of living before the war as some sort of excuse for a regime like Assad to remain without anyone saying no, without anyone in history objecting at the very least…. I don’t think that life was worth it.
We’re a society that lost a very important fight, and now we’re living as losers. A lot of people focused on revenge: Revenge from the Syrian regime, revenge from Iran, no matter what the price. Reflecting after these 10 years, that may not be the most sensible narrative.
I’ve become more interested in creating a diaspora that can be an alternative to the Syrian regime. In the long run I see no other hope that we see change for this rule.
In principle we still have a global community that agrees on one important factor: That Syria isn’t our home until this regime leaves.
Before that happens, Syria to me is the Syrian people. We’re from this land where we once came from, and as long as this regime is there, we won’t go back. It’s a thing from the past.
Tareq Alaows had run out of options. A law school student who had participated in anti-Assad protests, he worked as a rescue volunteer. But his name was called for service in the Syrian army.
“It put before me a choice: Could I bear weapons and face civilians or not?” he said.
He couldn’t. So in July 2015 he fled to Turkey, then across the Mediterranean in a shaky rubber boat, through the Balkans, before reaching Dortmund a few months later.
That experience, along with navigating the thicket of German asylum laws, now drives his campaign for Parliament as a Greens party candidate.
When I got to Germany, I felt, ‘OK, I can relax, danger is over. Here’s a place where I can live a good life.’
But the first shock was the person who registered me didn’t even look at my passport properly. He flipped my names around. To this day I have bureaucratic problems.
And we weren’t allowed to take language courses during the asylum phase, and I knew that language was the key if I wanted to be an effective person, so I started learning German on Google Translate. Then I was transferred to Bochum in a gymnasium with 60 other people, with a piece of cloth as partitions between the rooms. It was terrible. Children crying. People talking. No privacy.
So the first political action I did here with other refugees was to sit in front of the Bochum municipality for 17 days to protest those conditions. Four months later, the gymnasiums were closed and we could rent apartments. We started to meet with the deputy mayor, set up language classes, process 5,000 refugees — all of this moved quickly, and city authorities were happy we had participated and worked within the system. It was an opportunity for us to be part of the solution.
I felt people were receptive to me as someone new here, and I was chosen by the circuit as a direct candidate in January this year.
Since then, I’ve gotten thousands of letters from people who supported my candidacy. It shows the importance of political participation for newcomers to this society, and it’s clear to me I’m on the right path.
But I don’t see myself as an exception. If refugees are given the ability to express themselves, they do great, but we have asylum laws that are placing restrictions and imposing difficult living circumstances.
And of course it’s a huge difference to what is happening in Syria. That’s a state with no freedoms, no civil society, where there are arrests, torture, more than 100,000 missing in prisons, more than 400,000 martyrs.
The revolution began with a dream, which was freedom. That we couldn’t apply it in those 10 years doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have done it.
If you’re Alawite, members of the same sect as Assad, and you come from the coastal province of Tartus in the Alawite heartland, there are assumptions: That you’re privileged. That your government connections make you untouchable.
Yet there is little of that in his life as a farmer, Younes says. For people like him, Syria is mired in poverty, the corruption ever “more rapacious, more vicious.”
That has made Younes an inveterate gadfly. In 2019, he founded Citizens Suspended, a Facebook page that has gained 17,000 followers from all over the country, with the aim of exposing corrupt government practices. His posts have led to his being detained twice for questioning this year; a court case is pending. But it hasn’t stopped him from posting.
The opposition sees someone like me as a loyalist, but I don’t consider myself that. And as for Alawites, there are many incorrect assumptions about us in society — that we’re above the law, don’t pay utility bills, or that we get our salaries delivered to us at home.
But we face marginalization like any other sect. We get even less because we’re accused of controlling the country. I wish I could enter a government agency and someone salutes me and tells me, “Welcome my master the ruler!” To the contrary. We have the worst administrators.
Look, I won’t become a Sunni [Muslim] and my neighbor won’t become an Alawite. Neither of us will leave our religion or creed. But we have to live together and somehow build a country.
But the siege on the country has given the government an excuse too…. If I criticize the government, it tells me I should criticize the siege instead because it’s causing all of this.
We’re living day by day, and the situation is very bad. We’ve gotten to the point where it’s impossible to continue. Nothing is viable. Living is expensive. Gas requires hours of waiting in line.
For now, no one is working for the Syrian people. Not the parties, not the officials, not the opposition. Outside they use the different sides to pressure the Syrian government while people here are desperate. It’s all politics, and the main group harmed is the Syrian people.
But change happens from within, not outside. I don’t believe a state can help me from the outside to make change.
No one solves the situation other than Syrians themselves, but we need space. To communicate with each other, to build social networks. In the long term it all needs work. It needs unity, one word.
For Rawan, remaining in Syria was a given. A violinist completing her music studies in Berlin, she never doubted she would return to Damascus and have a musician‘s life in the city she loved.
That love kept her there through the early years of the war. It was 2015, when mortar rounds falling on her neighborhood reached a fever pitch, that she decided to leave.
She returned to Berlin on her student visa and then requested and received asylum. For her, it’s simple: Ten years ago she lived in safety in her home and had her work. And what happened changed that for the worse. Returning to Syria in the coming decade, she says, “is impossible.”
I found my happiness was in Syria, in Damascus with my parents, with the orchestra, and teaching students at the conservatory. I cared about this; I didn’t see it as something simple or insignificant.
At first we weren’t affected in our daily lives. But a year in, it began. You had kidnappings. I remember the checkpoints; that was a major change to the face of the city. Then mortars started coming. Some musicians were killed by shrapnel at the artists’ entrance of the Opera House.
When I got pregnant, my husband and I went to my aunt in Spain and delivered my daughter there. But we just stayed two months and returned to Syria. I got back to the orchestra. People were surprised. Many people thought it was impossible for us to return. But it still wasn’t bad. Even then we still had hope things would improve. No one ever expected it to stay for 10 years.
In 2015, my parents’ house, where we had moved because it was a more secure area, got hit. But there were now mortars in the center of Damascus. Always there was the chance you would be walking in the street or driving your car and you would have a bomb fall on you. And my daughter was then 2 years old. I had to put her in a kindergarten, and this was very frightening.
We packed three suitcases and left on 5 August 2015. I’ll never forget this date; it’s impossible. When we got to Berlin, it was summer, and — you know how Berlin is in the summer — it’s all green. We came here and could breathe, at least in the beginning.
I didn’t feel this was home in the beginning. I don’t think I’ll ever feel that. I feel this is my house, my road; my daughter goes to the school nearby. But homeland? That’s Syria, always. This won’t change.
There are things we brought with us as reminders of Syria. I have seashells in my living room from the last time we went to Latakia; on Sunday we still make ful [traditional fava bean stew] for breakfast; I watch a lot of Arabic series. They’re my sanctuary. Even though I could watch German television, to unwind I turn on to Arabic channels.
I don’t talk politics, because it won’t solve anything. But anyone who has to give up their homeland — and I stress “has to” because we wouldn’t have chosen this — never takes the decision lightly.
Even if I went back now for a visit, it’s not the same. I miss my life from before the war. To see things now, with our house empty, my parents gone, my friends gone — this will hurt more than make me happy.
Talal’s 10-year fight against Assad’s government marks some of the opposition’s darkest moments. He endured a two-year siege by the Syrian army in Homs, the central Syrian city known as the “cradle of the revolution.” Forced out during a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, he went to Ghouta, then a rebel bastion near the capital, Damascus. Again, he needed to leave, this time after a Russian-backed government offensive. He now lives in Idlib, the northwestern province that has become the opposition’s last redoubt.
Yet he insists that each year of continuing to resist “is another victory.”
I missed the first protest in Homs. The second one I joined with more than 200 other people shouting, “The people want to bring down the regime.” For the young it perhaps seemed normal; for the older people in the protest, it seemed supernatural. I couldn’t believe there were people saying these things.
After there were many more checkpoints, Homs’ Old Quarter was besieged. The hunger is what defeated us. Its torture was indescribable. The day we left Homs is the day we left our soul, our history.
After 10 years, anyone who sees that this revolution is weakened or defeated is wrong. The revolution is not land.
Today there is no doubt in our minds of victory, but I’m not optimistic that the speed of the regime’s downfall will come that quickly.
Its fall with its symbols is a demand from which you cannot back down. Not just Assad and those below him. We can reconcile with the sons of Syria, but only after the fall of the regime.