The crisis that began in Syria in 2011, first as a peaceful uprising but then spiraling into civil war, has been among the most tragic and destructive conflicts of our time. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died, half a nation has been displaced, and millions have been forced into desperate poverty and hunger.
This week, the Syrian war turns ten. The passing of a decade of carnage will, as is appropriate, be marked in the media and in politics around the world. There will be articles, news broadcasts, seminars, and ceremonies this week.
But, as if inflicting one final humiliation on a suffering people, the whole world has got the date wrong.
This Monday, the world will remember a Syrian uprising that started on March 15, 2011, when, in fact, the first major protests began on March 18. The disconnect is rooted in internal Syrian narratives, but its broad adoption in the United States and Europe hints at systemic biases that have distorted analysis and policy—for ten years.
Here’s how that happened.
The Dera’a Protests
In mid-March 2011, the Middle East had been in turmoil for weeks, as the Arab Spring, a wave of popular protest, rolled through the region. Long-ruling dictators had just been thrown out of office in Tunisia and Egypt, and news flooded in about the upheaval in Yemen, Libya, and Bahrain. But Syria, one of the harshest dictatorships in the region, had hardly stirred.
Now, that was about to change. Inspired by what was happening in the region and outraged by recent abuses at the hands of local security chiefs, a small group of men came out of Friday prayers in the southern city of Dera’a on the afternoon of March 18, 2011, determined to stage the city’s first public protest in decades.
Amid chants of “freedom” and “after today, there is no fear,” the demonstrators shouted complaints about brutal security chiefs, corrupt officials, poverty, joblessness, and other local grievances. There seem to have been no calls for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, but that made no difference in the eyes of the regime.
For decades, criticism of Syria’s ruling elite had been banned and even the faintest sign of open protest had triggered police crackdowns. With Arab dictators falling all around, the regime was tense and paranoid—and in Dera’a, it lashed out violently from the very beginning.
How exactly things transpired that Friday afternoon is hard to tell, but in an era of fake news and online forgeries, it is comforting to be able to say that we know for certain that the Dera’a protest happened. Many of the details may remain hazy, but the broad outlines are in full view, since Syria was the first war to play out fully in the age of cell phones and the Internet. Already that evening, shaky cell phone footage was drifting around on YouTube and being rebroadcast by world television: short clips of crowds moving across grainy screens, stone-throwing, helicopters buzzing in the sky, gunfire crackling somewhere in the background.
At least two young men were killed that Friday: Mahmoud Jawabreh and Hossam Ayyash, who are still today celebrated as martyrs by supporters of the Syrian opposition. New illegal demonstrations followed at their funerals on March 19, setting in motion a spiral of protest and repression in which ever-larger numbers of Syrians were arrested, wounded, and killed.
As news of the March 18 killings bounced around Facebook, YouTube, and Al Jazeera, demonstrations rose in solidarity with Dera’a in other Syrian towns—in cities like Damascus, Baniyas, and Latakia and in faraway villages unknown even to most Syrians.
That was the start of Syria’s revolution. After decades of enforced silence and ruthless dictatorship, it was, for its participants and sympathizers, a moment of genuine collective action and hope, but it would cruelly misfire into civil war and foreign proxy conflict.
On the Road to Dera’a
So why is something that happened on March 18, 2011, being memorialized all over the world on March 15, 2021? If the Dera’a protests began that fateful Friday, how did attention shift to the preceding Tuesday?
The reason that March 15 is now almost universally described as the date that the Syrian uprising began has to do with the internal politics of the anti-Assad opposition, and with how Western media, academia, and politics have approached the conflict.
At the outset of the crisis in 2011, there was no unified Syrian opposition. In fact, despite a simmering discontent with Assad’s rule, there wasn’t much of an opposition at all. Decades of repression had seen to that.
What existed was a number of small, illegal political parties, dissident intellectuals, leftists and liberals, feminists, Arab nationalists, some Islamists and Kurdish nationalists, and a smattering of human rights activists.
This pre-2011 opposition numbered several thousand active members, though it had many more sympathizers. Many of the people who dared participate in illegal opposition activities did so because they had little left to lose. In their fifties, sixties, or seventies, they had spent many years in prison and were under close surveillance.
Theirs had been a long and lonely struggle. But in spring 2011, the world changed. Suddenly, they were being joined online and in secret conversations by young university students and others inspired by the Arab Spring. They had been able to organize small candlelight vigils in support of Egyptian and Libyan demonstrators, with regime security sometimes taking a hands-off approach and sometimes intervening to forcibly disperse the gatherings. That such assemblies could be staged at all was unprecedented and would have been impossible before the Arab Spring shifted the balance. But being allowed to show silent support for Libya was one thing. Staging a public protest inside Syria, against Syrian authorities, was quite another.
What couldn’t be said on the streets instead spilled out online. For a few years, Facebook and other social media had, for the first time in modern history, provided Syrians with a semi-open space for discussion. Online messages were of course monitored, but not stringently or effectively. Pro-opposition activists were already using Facebook for the dissemination of news, reports, and video clips and, more importantly, to stay in contact with Syrians abroad.
The country had a large refugee diaspora, including leftists and liberals but also the Muslim Brotherhood, which, in exile since the 1980s, formed the single-largest chunk of Syria’s opposition. Unlike the “opposition of the interior,” as the term went, the exiles faced no constraints on what they could do or say. Awestruck by the Arab Spring, many were already agitating online for action.
In particular, Syrian online activists wanted to emulate the style of protest that they had seen in Egypt, where demonstrators had converged on Tahrir Square in central Cairo, turning it into a launchpad for revolution.
Already on February 4 and 5, 2011, Facebook activists had tried to call Syrians to the streets. The effort fizzled completely, and Syrian squares remained empty, but a few weeks later, they gave it another go. Through a popular Facebook site, they announced that March 15 would be Syria’s “Day of Rage,” and this time, it did produce a little flicker of rebellion as dozens of activists converged on the Old Town of Damascus for a protest march. It was a brief affair, but sufficiently out of the ordinary to make a splash on Arab evening news.
The following day, a small crowd assembled in front of Syria’s interior ministry, off Merjeh Square in central Damascus, and asked to deliver a petition to the minister for the liberation of political prisoners. This time, however, the government was prepared: at a given sign, security agents and club-wielding thugs swarmed the demonstration, beating the protesters. Several people were arrested, including well-known former prisoners of conscience.
However, this, too, was at most a ripple on the surface of Syrian politics—stirrings within a cadre of dissidents and activists who, for all their decades of sacrifice and suffering, could not muster the social base to effectively stand up to Assad’s regime. As they disappeared into the police vans, screaming and bleeding, that could have been it: the ripples would fade, the surface would close on yet another failed bid for freedom.
But two days later, Dera’a exploded in protest.
The Roots of Protest
The social and political environment in southern Syria’s run-down provincial towns was very different from that of central Damascus. Pre-2011 dissidents were part of the mix there, too, but unlike in Damascus, the protests in Dera’a weren’t entirely or even primarily composed of well-established regime critics, intellectuals, and ex-prisoners.
Rather, the muscle behind Dera’a’s protests was the city’s large, cohesive extended families, which organized around local notables, tribal figures, and clerics. The most prominent of these early leaders was likely Ahmed Sayasneh, a popular Dera’a cleric who had been banned from the pulpit for refusing to toe the government line. It was from Sheikh Sayasneh’s old mosque, the Omari Mosque, that demonstrators emerged on March 18, and it would later become the main site of assembly for Dera’a’s protesters—a tiny Tahrir Square, until violently cleared by regime forces.
In Dera’a, the social base was there from the beginning: an influential segment of the city’s old, close-knit local culture had risen against the regime, and other inhabitants joined in out of local solidarity against troops dispatched from other parts of the country. In Damascus, it had been possible to beat the demonstrators and bundle them into police vans. But in Dera’a, no amount of beating and shooting did the trick. Outrage at the killings lit the city on fire, and calls went up to avenge the humiliation of Dera’a. In a few short days, the southern protests had mushroomed along family and clan lines through the wider Dera’a Governorate, mobilizing thousands and then tens of thousands of people.
That’s where it kicked off.
The Politics of Memory
Ask most any Syrian and she will tell you that the revolution—or the events, the crisis, or the conspiracy, depending on her point of view—began in Dera’a. But some will nevertheless point to March 15 as the real starting date of the uprising.
That’s where the Syrian opposition’s internal politics come in.
For the groups that called for or participated in the Damascus protests, and those aligned with them politically, these earlier dates are seen as necessary precursors of what followed on March 18, some ninety kilometers south of the capital. It is a narrative that many believe sincerely, and why not? They have every right to define and conceptualize their own experiences in their own way.
But there is also politics at play. The March 15 and 16 protests mainly involved members of the pre-2011 opposition and their sympathizers. The March 16 demonstration, especially, was spearheaded by secular progressives, including liberals, Communists, nationalists, and human rights activists, although there were also conservatives and Islamists on the scene. It was a crowd of mostly middle-class people, both men and women, many of them highly educated university graduates or students. Several were members of Syrian minorities, including Alawites and Christians, and, although resident in the capital, they hailed from all over the country.
In Dera’a, insofar as we can piece together what happened, all these political categories were also present. There were Communists, union leaders, Arab nationalists. But the social structure was different. The protest was nearly all-male, all-Sunni, and all-Arab, and local notables and religious conservatives predominated to the extent that there was any visible leadership at all. The homogeneity of the protest was not the result of active exclusion of others, but for the simple reason that this was Dera’a: a poor, rural, socially conservative, and overwhelmingly Sunni Arab town.
As would be the case in other Syrian cities later that spring, most of the early protesters in Dera’a appear not to have been very political at all, in the normal sense of the word. They were local youth, outraged by what they’d seen happen to their friends and relatives; sickened by Syria’s atmosphere of corruption and fear; frustrated by poverty and joblessness; and inspired by the Arab Spring to put an end to their abasement under the Assad family. They were against the dictatorship much more than they were for any specific alternative, party, or ideology. Beyond that, ideas and values of the early demonstrators likely matched those of the places where they lived, where protests spread most rapidly through spring and summer 2011: the maltreated and impoverished towns and villages of the Sunni Arab countryside.
In the absence of a unified leadership, the Syrian uprising took off in a million directions from the very start. Its divided, decentralized nature would at first prove a boon—the regime couldn’t decapitate a movement that had no head—but then became a curse. Competition over scarce resources, infighting, and eventually warlordism plagued the rebellion, weakening it and offering inroads to Islamist militants whose superior discipline and sense of purpose allowed them to dominate from 2012–2013 onward.
Different strands of Syria’s opposition have settled on different symbols, themes, and historical events as they narrate and debate the events of the past ten years. Sometimes these narratives represent lived experience and deep-rooted personal feelings. Sometimes they are deliberately rearranged for political reasons. In Syria as elsewhere, the established history that comes out of collective memory tends to involve a little of everything.
Anecdotally, and at the risk of overgeneralization, the preferences for March 15 or March 18 as symbols of the uprising tend to be distributed something like this: leftist, liberal, minority, diaspora, and pre-2011 opposition factions will, generally speaking, view events through a March 15 prism. Others, including conservative Sunnis, Islamists, and armed rebels, may focus on the mass protests that began in Dera’a on March 18, which has the advantage of being the actual tipping point and, also, offers a little more Sunni-religious flavor. Of course, the same holds true for government loyalists, for whom the Damascus incidents hardly registered but the Dera’a crisis was undeniably the starting point of something—even if they would portray that something as an extremist conspiracy, rather than a popular revolution.
In a discussion about these things, a Syrian Islamist rebel leader once told me that it would be ridiculous for secularists to claim to represent the original revolution, since all the demonstrations came out of mosques. On the other hand, I also recall an Alawite leftist telling me how she went to Friday prayer for the first time in 2011: the mosque was the only public space where she and her friends could legally assemble before protests.
The Turkey-based Syrian intellectual Ahmed Abazeid, who is both a member of the Syrian opposition and one of its most perceptive analysts, has conceptualized the March 15 versus 18 dichotomy as a dual set of symbolic references and collective identities, one of them urban, national, and modernizing and the other rural, local, and traditionalist.
In Abazeid’s telling, the March 15 narrative reproduces a historical memory of how “citizens” operating in “civil” and “national” space challenged the regime by political action on its own turf, and were arrested in response. It also recalls the online activism and opposition media work, which had a heavy diaspora participation.
March 18, on the other hand, summons a vision of how the “tough and compassionate fabric” of “local society” reacted to oppression by seeking to expel the regime as though it were “a foreign element,” but was met with lethal violence. It also recalls a “battlefield” ethos of rural–tribal moral solidarity, which, as the crisis dragged on, transitioned from street protests to armed rebellion.
These different perspectives should not be understood to be in constant tension, and are not mutually exclusive: March 15 actually happened, and so did March 18. As symbols and values, they can coexist within the Syrian uprising’s broader understanding of itself, and if either of these dates should be given primacy as the Syrian opposition’s Revolution Day, then that is ultimately up to the Syrian opposition.
Through Western Eyes
The historical record is a different matter. For non-opposition Syrians and (even more) non-Syrians, it makes little sense to outsource the writing of history to intra-opposition narrative debates. The events of March 2011 happened the way they happened, as a matter of recorded fact.
Studying what we know of those events, any objective researcher must conclude that Dera’a’s March 18 protest, where the first killings took place, was the tipping point where Syria slid into a political emergency. There had been calls for protests before that, but none of them had produced even a slight threat to public order—including the incidents in Damascus on March 15 and 16. On March 18, however, demonstrations erupted on an entirely new scale, and then just kept on spreading and growing until Assad lost his grip and Syria’s future changed.
And yet, March 15 has since become the accepted date across the world. This year’s round of tenth-anniversary articles and statements will only serve to nail it down, pushing March 18 further out on the margins of historical remembrance.
The reason it turned out this way has a lot less to do with the Syrian opposition than with how U.S. and European observers engaged with Syria since 2011.
Ever since the crisis began, journalists, politicians, and researchers in the United States and Europe have tended to view the conflict from the perspective of the Syrian opposition in general and the secular, liberal, and (above all) English-speaking opposition in particular. And given the way the world works, Americans and Europeans tend to sit on the commanding heights of global news narration: it is our views that enter the dispatches of Reuters, AFP, the Associated Press, and the major international newspapers. From there, they filter on into all other languages, including Arabic.
Early U.S. and European descriptions of the uprising skewed very heavily toward a focus on the civil-society, universal-values aspect of Syria’s uprising, at the expense of locally rooted, identity-based, economic, and social forces. The people cited in early news reports and analysis were almost exclusively well-established dissidents, protest leaders, or online activists. Put differently, “the West” has tended to view Syria through the March 15 filter, to the exclusion of March 18 and what it represented. And once “the West” forms its understanding of a given event, that understanding will soon flood the news media everywhere. Unless the errors and biases are too glaring, information thus produced is likely to sink into conventional wisdom, from which it can be difficult to dislodge.
In this case, the effects of the Western filter went far beyond a dispute about times and tipping points. Overall, it is the March 18 aspect of the uprising that has proven the more salient frame for understanding events in Syria. It was the Dera’a uprising that set a flame to Syria’s powder keg, not the protests in Damascus. And it is the rural, religious, and conservative wing of Syria’s rebellion that still today controls large chunks of the country’s downtrodden north, where, by force of arms, it shields and controls millions of civilians from similar backgrounds. The secular, urban, and democratic forces are an inseparable part of the history of 2011, but they were also the first casualty of the war. Nearly all have now long since been forced into exile—first by Assad’s torturers, and then by Islamist warlords.
Looking back at the reporting, rhetoric, and analysis of the war’s early days, it seems obvious that most European and American commentators were too blinkered by their own prodemocratic, civic-spirited biases to pick up on the brutal, muddled reality of the crisis. There was little understanding of how hyper-localism would hobble opposition unity, or of just how tenacious Assad’s regime would be. Early warnings of sectarian and ethnic strife, or of the spread of armed conflict, were breezily dismissed until these problems had grown too overwhelming to either ignore or address.
None of that is the fault of Syrians struggling with the memory of 2011, whether they be democrats, Islamists, Kurdish nationalists, government loyalists, or—as is often the case—equally disgusted by all the factions that claim to represent them. Responsibility for these misreadings lies squarely on the shoulders of an international community that has refused to grapple with the full complexity of Syria’s society, accept that Syrian views, interests, and values may differ from their own, or treat the conflict with the realism that it deserves.
This is a good day to remember that bias and its destructive effects. A decade into Syria’s war, we continue to memorialize the start of Syria’s uprising three days before the date of the event that actually started it, reinforcing a narrative that happens to suit our own political leanings while erasing the Syrians who do not fit into that narrative—the poor, marginalized, and angry young men of the Sunni countryside, who would go on to form the backbone of Syria’s uprising. You may not like them, but this history is theirs, too.
header photo: Mohammed, a Syrian refugee from Dera’a, collects scrap metal on the streets of Beirut in 2013, two years after the uprising began in his hometown. Source: Getty Images.