Five years in Syria: History's most documented war


Five years in Syria: History's most documented war
Five years in Syria: History's most documented war
000000 Killed

21%Population reduction

255Billion Dollars Economic cost

6.36Million people Internally displaced

14,000children killed

Life expectancy
Down from
70 to 55

* Updated estimate, Syrian Center for Policy Research

From the first stone to Putin’s indiscriminate bombings, 25 videos and photos by citizen photo-journalists who themselves suffered from the violence to tell of the horror

Anshel Pfeffer

Watch the last clip filmed by Syrian photographer Wasim al-Adel in October 2015, near Benin in the Idlib province below. It’s so different from tens of thousands of the videos that have come out of Syria over the last five years. It doesn’t show dead children being taken out of the rubble, carefully stage-managed executions or fighters waving Kalashnikovs. It doesn’t show anyone, only the Syrian soil on which Wasim fell at 00:04, when he was hit by a Russian bomb. The camera continues recording, pointed toward the earth, while in the background you can hear Wasim’s last breaths and people crying for help. At the end of the 61-second clip, the earth shakes twice more from another round Russian bombs.

So different and yet totally representative of this war which is now five years old. Close to the ground, a battle over every home and village, until it’s almost impossible to tell who rules where, and maps that try to delineate areas of control look like a Kandinsky painting. A very local war which at the same time is dominated by regional and global rivalries and foreign powers that often remain invisible. Until the explosions.

The international media can only report on this war from beyond the safety of borders and keyboards. The deaths of Western journalists in bombardments by the Assad regime and in Islamic State beheadings have limited their presence to short visits, at the most, to relatively safe areas like Damascus and the Kurdish enclave.

Despite that, this is the most filmed and documented war in history. A constant stream of images emerges, nearly in real-time, thanks to technology that allows every man and woman on the ground with a smartphone to capture the warfare and bloodshed and upload it to the Web. Thanks to citizen-journalists like Wasim al-Adel, who go every day to the frontline, often just outside their front door, to let the world know.

According to various assessments, over 600 Syrian journalists have been killed in the war, but the real number is much higher: Anyone who was filming and broadcasting can apparently be considered a journalist at the time of death.

These clips and images have filled the vacuum left by the mainstream media. They don’t replace professional journalism; indeed, the these videos often serve the propaganda purposes of one of the sides or factions. A small minority are staged, but the sheer volume of footage and the improved capability – due to the use of visual software – of analyzing the images has made it relatively easy to weed out the forgeries.

This isn’t just documentation: Often the videos have spurred events and turnarounds in the misfortunes of war. The world, or at least the small part of it that is engaged and interested, can stay aware. Million of refugees in exile can continue to follow events closely, on their own smartphone screens – identical to the ones being used to photograph the scenes.

The Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote 2,500 years ago that “in war, truth is the first casualty.” In a war in which all sides are trying to portray their enemies as terrorist war criminals, Syria’s civilian-journalists endanger themselves and get killed trying to breath life back into the truth and to give faces, names and voices to nearly half a million dead and 7 million refugees. Thanks to them we can tell the story of five years of death and war in Syria.

*תודה לאליזבט צורקוב, עמיתת מחקר בפורום לחשיבה אזורית על הסיוע בבחירת הסרטונים


The early days of the uprising – Daraa protests

The first major protests of the Syrian uprising took place in the southern city of Daraa, where youths were arrested and tortured after scrawling graffiti calling for the removal of the country’s president – similar to what appeared in other countries during what was then still called the Arab Spring.

At that stage, it was still a wave of protest that pressed for democratic reforms and an end to police violence. The regime was then using mainly riot-dispersal methods, like water cannons, though there was also live fire and protesters were killed. At that stage, there was little documentation; protesters were not yet used to filming everything.

In Daraa, the regime shoots to kill

Ten days after the demonstrations erupted, the regime’s forces did not hesitate to open fire on the protesters with snipers shooting to kill. The demonstrators also began to realize that things were changing and they began to film every incident. In those days of popular uprising, weapons were only in the hands of the regime, which was already calling its opponents “terrorists” and “provocateurs in the pay of Israel.” Increasingly violent protests spread to additional cities in Syria.

Still a popular uprising

Despite the regime’s use of the army and militias against demonstrators in some parts of the country, and the beginnings of an armed uprising (bolstered by the first military defectors) – three and a half months into the uprising, a popular nonviolent spirit was still alive. In one of the largest protests, in the city of Hama, an old stronghold of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood opposition, north of Damascus, demonstrators called for Assad to step down. With their bodies they created a giant Syrian flag; at this stage, it is still the standard regime flag, but some of the rebels are already beginning to fly an old-new flag that had been used in the country during its first years of independence.


Artillery barrages on Homs

Toward the end of the first year of the uprising, any lingering doubts that this was a bloody civil war were gone. Meanwhile, regime forces escalated operations against the rebels - no longer just attacks by foot-soldiers and members of the Alawite militias, but a dramatic increase in firepower as artillery began to be used against civilian areas. One of the first targets of Assad’s firepower was the Baba Amr quarter of Homs, where hundreds of civilians were killed.

Journalists become targets

In the first year of the war, Western news organizations were investing resources in covering the situation on the ground, but the regime and some of the rebel groups began to see the foreign journalists as targets. The renowned Sunday Times war correspondent, Marie Colvin, arrived in the besieged city of Homs on a motorbike, along with her reporting she also gave a series of powerful television interviews on the civilian toll the regime’s attacks were taking.

On February 22, in what was almost certainly a targeted bombardment of the makeshift media center in Homs, Colvin was killed along with French photographer Rémi Ochlik. The Syrian war would go on to claim the lives of hundreds of local journalists, but it was Colvin’s death which brought the danger home to the international media. They became very wary about sending their own employees into the war zone, and instead used some young, foolhardy freelancers for a time, before deciding to rely on mainly local sources.

Rise of the Islamists

Opponents of the Assad regime were seen in the early days of the war to be relatively moderate forces demanding democratic reform, but soon Islamist movements joined the jumble of dozens of rebel groups and painted the resistance to Assad in colors that were much less friendly to Western eyes. Scenes of fighters belonging to groups like the Nusra Front (which is funded by Sunni Gulf states and aligned with Al-Qaida) overrunning army bases and taking over tanks helped the regime’s propagandistic claim that it was confronting “Takfiri terrorists,” and created a dilemma for the West as to how far it would go to support the rebels.

The opposition’s propaganda production center

Kafr Nabl, a wealthy fig- and olive-growing village in the mountains of northwestern Syria, was captured by the rebels early on in the war and was transformed into a center for producing satirical videos lampooning the regime. What left perhaps the biggest impression on the West, however, were the daily photographs of locals standing in the street, holding a white banner with a message of defiance, in English, aimed at foreign leaders.

The messages challenged the regime’s narrative, which tried to blur the boundaries between the original protest of the uprising and Islamist terrorism. While the West has preferred to target the Islamic State and coordinate its moves to some degree with Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers, Kafr Nabl’s farmers have continued to prick the world’s conscience.


Raqqa falls to the rebels

Two years after the civil war erupted, the first provincial capital, Raqqa, in the northeast, fell to the rebels. At that point, the latter were still a joint coalition of Free Syrian Army groups and the Islamist Nusra Front. The late President Hafez al-Assad’s statue was toppled in the city’s central square. Soon enough, the Islamists took control and set up sharia courts. A few months later, the rising force in east Syria – Islamic State, or ISIS – captured Raqqa and turned it into its main national headquarters, a mecca for jihadists from around the world and a central jail for Western captives and sex-slaves.

Hezbollah comes out of the shadows

Assad’s Iranian allies directed Hezbollah, soon after the outbreak of the war, to stand by the regime and to assist it in putting down the uprising. As the Syrian Army was forced out of its strongholds, these allies came out of the shadows and openly joined in. In the battle for Al-Qusayr, a village in a key location that controls the smuggling routes from Syria to Lebanon, Hezbollah operated as a bona fide military unit, playing a key role in capturing the town from the rebels. The organization’s members celebrated with a military parade and hoisted Shia flags atop the local Sunni mosque, thus coloring the war as a Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict.

Iran’s here too

The officers of Iran’s Quds Force kept a low profile while operating on the Syrian battlefield. This video and others like it, documenting the force’s participation in the fighting, was posted to the Internet after it was discovered by a rebel group on a mobile phone found on the body of a dead Iranian officer. Similar clips, which were not meant for publication ended up on the Web, unveiling the deep involvement of foreign elements in the war.

Obama’s red line is crossed

After initial unverified reports of the use of chemical weapons by the regime against the rebels, the attack on Ghouta, an eastern suburb of Damascus held by the rebels, was impossible to ignore. Hundreds of civilians, by some reports more than 1,000, were suffocated by a substance that appeared to be sarin, a nerve agent. The testimony from the videos left no doubt that this substance had been dispersed by warheads on Syrian-made rockets launched from positions held by Assad’s army.

The clear red line set out by U.S. President Barack Obama had been crossed – the regime had used weapons of mass destruction against civilians. After two and a half years on the sidelines, it seemed that military action by the West in Syria was inevitable.

The truth is revealed from the clips

Thousands of clips coming out of Syria, together with visual-recognition and geolocation software, created a new situation in which not only intelligence services could analyze information, but also media organizations, human rights groups and independent journalists and bloggers could. While Western governments were still wary about stating openly that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against civilians, nongovernmental organizations did so with authority. In this video, an expert from Human Rights Watch explained how footage from Ghouta was used to reach a chilling conclusion.

The chemical weapons are eliminated, barrel bombs remain

The Obama administration hesitated to carry out its plan to attack regime targets, together with Britain and France. Russia came up with a compromise: Assad’s regime would join the Chemical Weapons Convention and dismantle its arsenal. But even without the stockpiles of nerve gas, the president’s forces continued its indiscriminate bombing of civilians. Helicopters, hovering over rebel-controlled towns, dropped “barrel bombs” – large metal containers filled with explosives, shrapnel and in some cases also chlorine, a chemical not covered by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed to date by these bombs.

Refugee camps filling

The world, detached from the fighting in Syria, came to terms with the tragedy via the massive exodus of refugees, estimated at around 7 million, a third of Syria’s population. Some refugees were placed in camps in neighboring countries, the largest of which, Zaatari, was built on a desolate plain in northern Jordan near the border. Eight months after it opened in July 2012, it already numbered 80,000 residents.

The hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps were only part of the millions fleeing Syria. Most tried to avoid the desperation of the camps, where they were not allowed to work. They settled in the cities of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, seeking employment and facing hostile authorities. The hopelessness of their situation led many to seek an unclear future in Europe.


The starved refugees of Yarmuk

created a new situation in which not only intelligence services could analyze information, but also media organizations, human rights groups and independent journalists and bloggers could. While Western governments were still wary about stating openly that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against civilians, nongovernmental organizations did so with authority, neighborhoods and entire cities, in an attempt to starve them into submission. In 2013, the Yarmuk refugee camp, home to over 100,000 Palestinians, became a battlefield between rival militias of residents who supported the rebels and those who backed the regime.

Some 80 percent of the camp’s inhabitants fled but 20,000 remained, starving under siege for months, just eight kilometers away from central Damascus. The thousands of people clamoring for food when a rare United Nations supply convoy managed to get through to Yarmuk, created one of the most iconic images of the Syrian civil war and even managed to stir the West, but that didn’t change the situation on the ground for hundreds of thousands of citizens under siege.

ISIS productions capture the world’s attention

What the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians failed to do, the execution of one American did. James Foley, a freelance journalist kidnapped in 2012 who was held by the Islamic State for months with other Western captives, was beheaded in a professionally staged production. Foley was dressed in an orange jumpsuit, identical to those worn by prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and his executioner, nicknamed by Western tabloids “Jihadi John,” spoke to the camera with a London accent. He promised more killings of hostages, and carried them out, on camera.

The Islamic State kept coming up with more gruesome theatrical executions, from the immolation of a caged Jordanian pilot to the remote-controlled blowing up of prisoners with a child pushing the button. The televised killings of Westerners deflected the world’s attention from the much larger death tolls of the Assad regime, and for the first time caused Washington to launch attacks on Syrian territory, yet now only against the Islamic State. The regime was allowed to continue their offensive without interruption.

The Kurds join the war

During the first three years of the war, the Kurdish areas in northern Syria largely remained outside the fighting. The expansion of the Islamic State into Syria changed all that. ISIS besieged the Kurdish town of Kobani on the border with Turkey. The Turkish military deployed across the border but did nothing to help the fleeing Kurdish refugees. Kobani was just one of many besieged towns, but since this siege was by the Islamic State and the refugees were fleeing in the sight of Western camera crews, international pressure forced the West to act.

America comes to the Kurds’ aid

For the first time in the war, the United States carried out airstrikes in support of a local fighting force. The close cooperation with the Kurds allowed them to push the Islamic State back and regain control of Kobani. But the fact that the American-led coalition was only prepared to attack ISIS and not offer similar support to rebels fighting the regime only increased the despair in Syria. It also increased the flow of refugees. The rise of the Islamic State and the rebels’ inability to defeat the regime convinced many of the refugees in neighboring countries that they wouldn’t be returning home anytime soon.


Idlib falls; Assad’s army on the brink

Iran and Hezbollah’s efforts to prop up the Assad regime were insufficient. Another provincial capital, Idlib, fell to a coalition of rebel groups, signaling the declining fortunes of a Syrian army that was no longer capable of fielding large units. Syria was being torn between the Islamic State and the rebels; the areas still controlled by Assad on the Mediterranean coast and around Damascus now made up less than 20 percent of Syria’s territory. The regime’s supporters in Tehran and Moscow faced a dilemma over whether to forsake Assad or deepen their involvement.

A million refugees flow into Europe

At first no one knew the name of the 3-year-old boy whose lifeless body was photographed at the water’s edge at Bodrum on the west Turkish coast. Hundreds of millions saw the image of the child who had been washed up on the beach after a boat trying to reach Greece capsized. One photograph told the story of Alan Kurdi, the child of a Kurdish family that twice fled Kobani and tried to emigrate to Canada but lacked the necessary documents. The picture came to symbolize millions of Syrian refugees striving to reach Europe in the summer and autumn.

They were forced to pay over $1,000 per head to smugglers for the short trip from Turkey to Greece. From there they continued on foot, in buses and trains, through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, often harassed and arrested. They were heading for the promised land, Germany. There, Chancellor Angela Merkel promised they would receive shelter and the prospect of a new life. Four and a half years after the war in Syria broke out, it had officially become Europe’s problem.

Russia enters the fray

The satellite images published in the West confirmed the initial reports that Russia had begun deploying warplanes at a base in Syria. In the first days, it still looked like a token show of force of a few aircraft, but over two weeks, the Russian presence built up with dozens of bombers, anti-aircraft batteries and artillery guns. The official mission was to fight “terrorists,” but Russia’s first Middle Eastern campaign since the end of the Soviet Union was targeted mainly against the rebels threatening the Assad regime.

President Vladimir Putin offered the West a partnership against the Islamic State, but in reality, when the Sukhois took off, in 90 percent of the cases, they were bombing rebel-held areas, not ISIS. Six months later, Putin announced that the Russian operation was over. The warplanes began to return to Russia. The Islamic State remained.

מטוסים ממבט הלווין

The Russian bombardment

The Russians launched an air campaign against the rebel strongholds, using also cluster and phosphorous bombs. Unlike the barrel bombs thrown from Assad’s helicopters, the Sukhoi bombers were more accurate but also hit civilian targets – mosques, schools, hospitals and bakeries. The aim was to break not only the rebels but the population supporting them described in the Russian propaganda as “terrorists.” Russia’s entry into the war allowed Assad’s army to regroup and receive Russian training and equipment while the air cover allowed regime-aligned Shi’ite militias to advance and begin recapturing areas held by the rebels.

The Syrian war threatens to go global

Russian bombers continuously provoked Turkey with incursions into its airspace. After repeated complaints, a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 that had allegedly strayed into their territory. One of the pilots was killed by the Turkmens. For a moment it looked like a military confrontation might break out between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member.

The Americans, who until then were hostile to Russia’s operations in Syria, tried to calm matters and increase their coordination with the Russians. To the dismay of Turkey and America’s Sunni Arab allies, the Obama administration had suddenly become receptive to the Russian demand that Bashar Assad be allowed to remain president as part of a cease-fire agreement.


The regime’s counter-offensive

Under cover of the Russian bombing, forces loyal to the regime were on the offensive. Although Syrian army units were active, mainly Shi’ite militias with foreign fighters from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, commanded by Hezbollah and Iranian officers led the fight.

The population of Madaya, once a popular holiday destination on the Lebanese border, found itself starving under a six-month siege by Hezbollah, which demanded that the rebels there surrender. People in larger places, like Syria’s once-biggest city Aleppo, feared they would soon come under siege as well, and many thousands fled. But this time they couldn’t leave Syria as Turkey had closed the border and they were stranded in a no-man’s-land.

Cease-fire. The protests return

After a series of failed attempts to impose a cease-fire, a “cessation of hostilities” was achieved through Russian-American diplomacy. Yet regime aircraft still bombed in some places, as the cease-fire could collapse at any moment. The truce was far from complete. Meanwhile, in rebel-held cities, the people used the precarious calm to return to the streets. Five years since the first demonstrations, they were out again demanding that the dictator leave.

The war in numbers

  • 14,000 children killed
  • Total population reduced by about 21%
  • Life expectancy plummeted from 70 to 55
  • Economic cost amounting to 255$ billion
  • 45% of the population (6.36 million) internally displaced