Seven years of horrific twists and turns in the Syrian Civil War make it hard to remember that it all started with a little graffiti.
In March 2011, four children in the southern city of Der’a scrawled on a wall “It’s your turn, Doctor”—a not so subtle prediction that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a British-trained ophthalmologist and self-styled reformer, would go down in the the manner of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the Mubarak regime in Egypt, and eventually, the Qaddafi regime in Libya. But Syria’s story would turn out differently.
The crackdown started small. Assad’s security services arrested the four graffiti artists, refusing to tell their parents where they were. After two weeks of waiting, the residents of Der’a—who are famously direct and fiery—held protests demanding the children’s release. The regime responded with live gunfire, killing several, and drawing the first blood in a war that’s now killed some half a million people. With every funeral came more opportunities for protests—and for the regime to respond with more violence.
The protests quickly spread to other towns and cities—Homs, Damascus, Idlib, and beyond—engulfing what is nominally still the Syrian Arab Republic in flames. The underlying dynamic that drove the Arab uprisings—a rapidly growing youthful population and a rigid repressive regime incapable of change—was consistent across a number of countries. But the effects varied widely, and nowhere were they more ferocious than in Syria, where early hopes that Assad would go the way of other dictators have crumbled in the ruins of Syria’s ancient cities and the shattered lives of its people. The progression of the regime’s brutality, from deploying snipers to pick off protesters demanding freedom and dignity, to dropping chemical weapons on entire towns, has unfolded with the world watching in real time.