Syria in the 21st Century

By | December 17, 2021

In 2000, with the death of Ḥāfiẓ al-Asad, his second son Baššār became the new president of Syria. The successor was supposed to be Baššār’s older brother, Bāsil, but Bāsil had died prematurely in a car accident in 1994. At the time of his father’s death, Baššār al-Asad was only 34 years old and according to the Syrian Constitution, could not have become the new head of state, as the Constitutional Charter established a minimum age limit of 40 years. Thanks to a timely amendment, this limit was lowered to 34 years and Baššār was elected president, thanks to a popular referendum held on 10 July 2000 and to which 99.7% of Syrians responded positively. In the face of this plebiscitary mandate, initially Syria seemed to have moved towards a process of effective political liberalization and democratization. The young age of the new president and his Western-style training – he had studied medicine in London, before returning to Syria following the death of his brother – also seemed to favor an evolution of the regime in terms of respect for political and civil rights.. This first phase of government lasted about a year, between the summer of 2000 and that of 2001. In this period, which would later be renamed the ‘spring of Damascus’, Asad allowed the creation and diffusion of intellectual circles, where artists, writers, political opponents and human rights activists met to discuss the reforms needed for the country. It was from these activities that, in September 2000, the so-called Manifesto of 99 saw the light, calling for greater freedom of expression, the end of the state of emergency and the release of some political prisoners. The appeal was later accepted by Asad, who freed about 600 prisoners. The period of internal ‘detente’ was also accompanied by the hope of being able to relocate Syria in a more central position from the point of view of international relations. In this sense, Pope John Paul II’s visit to Damascus in May 2001 marked a historic moment. However, as early as the autumn of 2001, Asad’s government returned to repress the forms of internal dissent. For Syria 2016, please check softwareleverage.org.

From the international point of view, the US administration led by George W. Bush inserted the Syrian regime into the so-called axis of evil (which included other regimes such as Saddam Hussein’s Irāq, Irān and the Democratic Republic People of Korea), accusing Damascus of possessing weapons of mass destruction. In conjunction with the new climate of international isolation suffered by the Asad regime, the latter in 2004 made a historic official visit to neighboring Turkey, starting that process of rapprochement between the two countries (after, in 1998, they had been on the verge of to fight a war due to Syrian support for the Kurdish PKK movement), which would have been one of the cornerstones of Syria’s new regional policy. Thanks also to the good relations with Turkey, which in turn was an ally of the West as a member of NATO, Syria would gradually succeed in re-inserting itself into the international community. In 2005, Syrian troops withdrew permanently from Lebanon following the attack on former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafīq al-Harīrī in Beirut, starting the normalization of bilateral relations. In 2007, Baššār al-Asad was again confirmed as President of the Republic, with 97.6% of the vote. Later, in 2008, Syria took part in the meeting held in Paris and sponsored by the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy on the Union for the Mediterranean, a project to create a regional body that would include all the countries bordering the Mediterranean. and those of the European Union. The occasion seemed to mark Syria’s definitive reintegration into the international community. Furthermore, with the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, Washington also re-established a direct channel with Syria, sending its own special delegate to Damascus. To close the picture of Damascus’s new international and regional relations, the news leaked, later confirmed by official sources, that Syria was negotiating with Israel (and with the mediation of Turkey), about a possible peace agreement.

Despite these progresses from the point of view of diplomacy, on the domestic front the country continued to have an authoritarian regime, characterized by the repression of dissent and the censorship of dissident opinions. In March 2011, a few weeks after the outbreak of the so-called Arab springs, Syria too became the scene of popular protests. Initially, these were only isolated and detailed cases, linked to the arrest of some adolescents in the city of Dar῾ā and the death in suspicious circumstances of one of them. Nonetheless, the regime immediately resorted to repressive measures, exacerbating popular discontent. The latter, with the passing of the months, would grow progressively, until it assumed the characteristics of a real armed resistance. In this context, the Syrian civil war takes place. The regime’s harsh response caused a polarization which, between 2011 and 2012, led to the emergence of armed formations against the regime’s forces and an opposition political platform. The latter was hosted in Turkey, after Ankara decided to abandon Asad for not accepting his mediation in the conflict that was about to arise. Between 2012 and 2013 it was clear that the Syria was by now in a situation of civil war, the main actors of which were the regime on the one hand and, on the other, a series of opposition acronyms, sometimes in contrast with each other. (Kurdish factions, Islamist groups, secular opposition). The continuous worsening of the situation on the ground was also determined by the external intervention of actors such as Russia, Irān and the Lebanese Shiite militias of ḥezbollāh alongside Asad – reconfirmed president in June 2014 in elections considered illegitimate by the West – and, on the other hand, by the support of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey (and in part the United States and some countries Europeans) to oppositions. In particular, the jihadist front took advantage of the absence of institutional control and the climate of civil war to enter the conflict and, through the IS (v.), to conquer much of the east of the country, while the north-east was under the control of the Kurdish factions. The international community, in the face of a conflict that had caused at least 250,000 victims in September 2015, was unable to intervene effectively, being divided between the anti-Asad and pro-Asad front, the latter headed by Moscow which at the end of September carried out its first air raids in the country. Russia specified that its involvement in operations defined as ‘counter-terrorism’ against IS positions was carried out in compliance with international law and at the request of the Syrian president; however, the West accused Moscow of attacking positions of US-backed rebels and of being primarily interested in strengthening Asad’s power.

Syria in the 21st Century