The Arab revolutionary wave of 2011 was slow to arrive in Syria. Public disobedience did not show its face until mid-March, a full month after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. When demonstrations did finally emerge, they focused on the grievances of Daraa, a middling-sized town near Syria’s Yarmuk River border with Jordan. The citizens of Daraa were outraged over state security service atrocities so heinous as to be out of character even for Syria. In early March, a group of 15 boys, aged ten to 15, imitated crowds in Tunisia and Egypt by spraying anti-regime graffiti on the walls of public buildings. Agents of the secret police working for General Atef Najeeb, a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad, detained the boys and tortured them by pulling out their fingernails. Angry citizens of Daraa took to the streets in protest. The regime reacted to the demonstration with lethal force. The Arab Spring had acquired “Syrian characteristics.”
The conflict between Daraa and Damascus soon came to symbolize the grievances of all disaffected Syrians against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Across the country, solidarity protests erupted in what soon became a weekly cycle. After Friday prayers, as worshipers flowed out of the mosques, demonstrations would erupt in many different cities at once. The authorities would respond with lethal force, sniping from rooftops and sweeping individual protesters off the streets and into its dungeons. On Saturdays, the funerals of martyrs would generate more protests and more killings by the authorities.
At the end of April, the regime attempted to break this cycle and reestablish its deterrent capability with a show of gruesome force. It laid siege to Daraa, cutting off electricity and water, conducting house-to-house searches and shooting anything that moved on the streets.1 It was during the siege that security forces tortured, murdered and partially dismembered a 13-year-old boy named Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, who almost instantaneously became a global media martyr. The city suffered greatly but did not back down. Nor was the rest of the country cowed. Protests continued unabated.
The contrast with Egypt was striking. In Cairo, protesters quickly paralyzed public life, and the military, for its part, refrained from firing on civilians. In a matter of days, foreign and domestic pressure forced President Mubarak to step down. In Syria, however, Assad managed to keep the biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, relatively calm by resorting to the selective killing of civilians in cold blood, some targeted but some seemingly random. Be that as it may, several provinces slowly slipped out of tight control. Hama, the fourth-largest city in the country, and Homs, the third-largest, displayed an unprecedented autonomy from Damascus.
By mid-July, at least...