On October 5, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad carried out a series of airstrikes in the province of Dara’a. Dara’a rose to fame in 2011 when the region became the site of the first uprisings that resulted in the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Over the past decade, Dara’a has endured significant violence and instability as residents grapple with the government. The Assad regime, however, has continuously responded with force, seeking to quell dissent and maintain its rule. When the violence in Syria first broke out, Western powers were vocal and called on the Assad regime to protect fundamental rights. However, as the latest airstrikes in Dara’a have demonstrated, Western nations have fallen silent and instead opted to watch as the Assad regime continues to inflict terror and quash dissent in the country.
Before 2011, Dara’a was a relatively unknown border province in southern Syria. But, in March of that year, a group of Syrian teenagers graffitied a derogatory message about Syria’s new President, Bashar al-Assad, on a wall. Shortly after, the province’s security chief, Atef Najib, and his forces began an extensive search for the perpetrators, arresting a group of teenage boys and torturing them until they admitted to the crime. The unjust arrest of the teenagers sparked large protests in Dara’a, even prompting protesters to topple a statue of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father. The government responded with a heavy hand, sending intelligence officers to infiltrate the uprisings and arrest protesters. Instead of quelling dissent, this action fuelled further uprisings in the province. Although the teenagers were eventually released, violence in Dara’a continued. Indeed, the Syrian army came to Dara’a, attacked a mosque, and cut off access to power, the internet, and cable television. The government’s heavy-handed crackdown on the people of Dara’a sparked protests across the country in what experts call ‘Syria’s own Arab Spring uprising’. The demonstrations eventually resulted in the outbreak of all-out civil war between al-Assad’s forces and rebel forces, which continues today.
No one predicted that Dara’a would become the pivotal point for the Syrian uprisings and civil war. However, in many ways, the town reflected a combination of common grievances that Syrians share. Dara’a is primarily an agricultural province and often struggle to make ends meet. During the rule of Hafez al-Assad, the region suffered serious droughts, creating severe economic challenges for locals. Despite requests for aid, the government did little to support Syrians living in non-urban areas, instigating discontent and resentment among locals.
In 2008, Atef Najib arrived in Dara’a and promptly began introducing new rules for the province that radically expanded his influence. Najib is Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, and his actions reflected decades of government corruption and mismanagement that had permeated Syrian society. Finally, when Bashar al-Assad came to power, Syrians received greater access to the internet. As the Arab Spring swept through countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, Syrians were paying attention, regularly using social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to stay informed on social and political issues in the region. Many drew inspiration from the protests in other countries, which succeeded in toppling dictatorial regimes. However, al-Assad was determined to retain control and has refused to relent.
For the past decade, Dara’a has been marred with violence and instability. For many years, the province was divided into two, with the north controlled by government forces and the south controlled by two rebel groups. In 2018, the Syrian regime regained partial control over the region via a “reconciliation” agreement facilitated by Russia. Under the terms of the deal, rebels would surrender their weapons and leave the area. Soon after, however, the government launched an attack to retain complete control over the region.
But, some rebels refused to surrender. For the past few years, these opposition fighters have pushed back against government claims of reconciliation, asserting that the government has done little to address the province’s economic grievances. Instead, it has expanded its influence and rule, by, for example, re-establishing the statue of Hafez Assad. The regime also regularly leads attacks and prevents residents from entering or leaving their towns as a form of collective punishment. Most recently, the Syrian government attacked the town of Jasem in Dara’a to quell dissent. Violence in Dara’a and the country more broadly has also been exacerbated by the presence of American, Russian, Iranian, and Islamic State fighters, who have used the civil war as a way to advance their interests in the region. Thus far, the conflict has displaced almost half of the Syrian population and resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis. As the civil war continues, it is clear that Assad prioritizes his interests over the needs of the Syrian people. Despite this, Western powers, which were once vocal about the violence in Syria, remain silent.
For decades, Syria has been embroiled in a bloody civil war. While Dara’a is a small border province, it has a loud voice advocating for freedom. Today, violence and conflict continue in the region as the government seeks to reassert complete control over the province. It is imperative for the West to support the people of Dara’a to place pressure on the Assad regime.