Syria before and after

Syria before and after

This week, we mark the 10-year anniversary of the beginning of Syria's catastrophic civil war.


As the Arab Spring brought protesters into streets across the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011, some of Syria's 22 million people decided to join in. Pro-democracy demonstrations began in the southwestern city of Deraa.

It wasn't crazy at the time to imagine that President Bashar al-Assad, in power since 2000, might step beyond the brutal legacy of his father, the dictator Hafez al-Assad, to open a period of reform that created new opportunities, particularly for his country's youth.

Instead, he answered protests with guns. Demonstrations multiplied across the country and turned violent. Into the resulting maelstrom stepped Assad's allies, Russia and Iran, to protect their investment in his continued rule. The US dithered, half-heartedly supporting some rebel groups but mostly staying away.

Iran-backed fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen backed the Syrian army. Well-armed Syrian Kurds saw an opportunity to win greater autonomy by weakening Assad. Fundamentalist extremists of various tribes joined the fight. Turkey sent soldiers, and Saudi Arabia provided cash and weapons to destabilize Assad. Western powers intervened to try to contain the carnage.

Assad's army — with backing from its friends — bombed hospitals, tortured prisoners, and used chemical weapons against civilians. The Obama administration warned these crimes crossed a "red line" but did virtually nothing to enforce it. In total, years of shooting, shelling, and bombing has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians, about 22,000 of them children.

The war is now over, though the Syrian army hasn't recaptured all its northern provinces. Assad has won because those with the deadliest weapons were willing to commit atrocities to survive, and because outsiders did far too little to stop them.

The cost

Today, more than half the 22 million people living in Syria in 2011 have been forced from their homes. Six million are now in other countries. Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan host more than 90 percent of these refugees.

Of those who weren't able to escape, thousands have been murdered inside Syrian prisons, and tens of thousands more prisoners remain missing, according to a report from the UN Human Rights Council. An untold number of people still living in Syria suffer from untreated emotional and psychological damage.

About 70 percent of Syrians now live in poverty. Before the war began, 47 Syrian pounds bought one US dollar. The official price stands today at about 1,250 pounds. The International Committee of the Red Cross reports that 30 percent of women have no income at all to support their families, and about 80 percent of Syrian youth struggle to afford food.

An entire generation of Syrian children faces an uncertain future. In 2017, a report from the International Rescue Committee found that a third of Syria's children don't go to school. Of those who continue their studies, half of middle school-aged children were unable to read at a second-grade level, and nearly 60 percent couldn't solve a second-grade math problem.

Then there's the physical wreckage. Today's Syria lies beneath millions of tons of rubble. Roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals have been destroyed, and there's little money to rebuild them.

And Assad, who tested positive for COVID-19 this week, remains in charge.

Syria's frozen future

For the foreseeable future, life in Syria isn't going to improve from today's uneasy quiet. Russia and Iran got the outcome they wanted and now, burdened with COVID costs and Western sanctions, they have better things to spend money on than rebuilding Syria.

Europe and the United States will direct humanitarian assistance toward suffering Syrians, but they won't finance the reconstruction of a country led by Assad.

A few Syrian refugees will return, but most believe they're better off where they are and fear retribution if they go home.

Bottom-line: John Milton's fallen angel famously declared that it's "better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." One wonders whether Assad agrees.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

More Show less

Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

More Show less

In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

More Show less

When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

More Show less

YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

More Show less

Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

GZERO World with Ian Bremmer. Watch episodes now

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal