After more than twelve years since the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, it may be useful to reflect on the question of whether we can learn something from it. After all, the Revolution has failed miserably: half a million people died, there are more than 10 million Syrian refugees, and the country is in ruins. The Syrian regime is still in power, and has regained control over most of the country, but several regions are still controlled by foreign powers and rival Syrian militias, who label the areas under their control as ‘liberated territories’. There is not any political solution in sight, neither is the reconstruction of the country as a result of imposed sanctions and lack of resources. Arab countries that in vain tried to help topple the Syrian regime for over a decade, are now reestablishing diplomatic relations with Damascus.

The following are some of the lessons which in my view should be learnt from the Syrian Revolution; and some should even have been learnt decades ago, long before the Revolution started. Several lessons seem rather basic, but opinions may even differ strongly about what should be considered as ‘basic’.

Providing a realistic honest picture is a better kind of friendship for the Syrian people than just giving nice words of moral support, and creating false expectations. Nevertheless, many of those who consider themselves to be ‘friends’ prefer a non-realistic picture in which (right) ideas about justice prevail over the realities on the ground: they stress what should happen instead of what can realistically be expected to happen.

Many observers, including Syrians, misjudged the Syrian regime’s strong potential to survive. Lack of sufficient knowledge of Syria has provided a lot of space for unrealistic and wishful thinking. It should be admitted, however, that also people with a lot of Syria expertise were strongly divided in their views on the durability of the regime, and that quite a few among them turned out to be strongly influenced by wishful thinking as well.

Those who wanted to topple the Syrian regime, should have been sure of their knowledge of it, in order to be sufficiently aware of what kind of reaction they could have expected. At the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, the Syrian Ba’th regime was already in power for almost half a century (since 1963). Therefore, knowledge of, and experiences with it, should have been widespread; it could hardly have been otherwise. It should, therefore, have been crystal clear from the regime’s brutal history, that any effort to topple it – whether peaceful or not – was bound to result in extreme violence, and that a blood bath was to be clearly expected. Stressing the argument that the Syrian Revolution was peaceful in the beginning – whether correct or not – was a moralist argument, which certainly influenced the way in which many people both inside and outside Syria were to evaluate the Revolution. It understandably attracted their sympathy and support, but this did not change the hard realities on the ground. Portraying the Syrian Revolution as a peaceful movement was morally convincing for many, as it (justifiably) led to great indignation about the Syrian regime’s terrible behavior.

But the Syrian regime could not have been toppled by peaceful demonstrations, nor by insufficient military force.

Syria is different from Egypt and Tunisia, whose presidents resigned relatively shortly after the Arab Spring demonstrations had started there, even before those in Syria.[1] Syria was also different from Libya, whose leader al-Qadhafi could be eliminated and killed as a result of foreign military intervention.

The strong intra-Alawi solidarity within the Syrian Ba’thist military elite and security services (mukhabarat) made a downfall of the regime from the outside rather an impossibility (except perhaps by a disastrous foreign military occupation, like in Iraq in 2003). The decades long experience of the regime in suppressing any dissent or opposition made it coup-proof. Only a revolt from within the regime might have been a very minor possibility. The opposition groups apparently strongly miscalculated and underestimated what they (predicably) could have expected from the regime.

The Syrian regime was wrong in committing so much excessive violence, including its bloody suppression of the demonstrations and its ruthless violent suppression of any opposition, as well as in its rejection of any essential reform measures which could, in its own perception, only undermine its power monopoly. And indeed: political reforms would have undermined the regime’s power monopoly, but economic reform, combatting corruption, and other measures would have been possible.

Don’t engage military with an adversary which is much stronger. Those who wanted to topple the Syrian regime, were not strong enough to realize their aims. By not taking this into account enough, they risked a bloodbath in which many innocent people were to be the victims, both as dead, refugees, and subsequently a destroyed nation. Those who were not strong enough to kill ‘the lion’ (in this case president al-Asad), seriously risked being killed themselves, together with their comrades, together with 100,000s of other Syrians who had not any say in it.

With the military intervention of Russia in 2015, the war was more or less decided in favor of the regime, but the war continues until this day, even though various fronts seem to be frozen.

Those who tried to topple the Syrian regime cannot claim responsibility had they succeeded, but reject having had any co-responsibility in the bloody results, once they failed. They share at least some co-responsibility for its results, even though the regime, which wanted to violently eliminate any opposition against it, used disproportionate force, just like it did repeatedly in the preceding decades. The fact that the regime caused a multiple fold of deaths compared to the numbers caused by the Syrian opposition groups or the Islamic State (Da’ish), does not mitigate that co-responsibility. If the regime would have been responsible for 500,000 deaths and the opposition groups for ‘only’ 50,000, that does not mean that those who were responsible for ‘only’ one tenth of all deadly victims do not share any co-responsibility; and that, for instance, the Islamic State (Da’ish), the Islamist Jaysh al-Islam, or the Islamist Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, would be ‘better’ than the Syrian regime.

Those who wanted to topple the regime should have seriously taken into account what the regime was capable of doing in the past, with as its most important example the regime’s reaction to the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982. The regime at the time was indeed guilty of committing extreme and disproportionate atrocities, but the Muslim Brotherhood was co-responsible for what happened, because they triggered it with their revolt, after their secret network in the city had been uncovered by the regime. The Muslims Brotherhood completely misjudged that they did not have the slightest chance of bringing down the much stronger regime.

The Hama massacre was preceded by years of assassinations of individual Alawis close to the regime by Muslim Brotherhood extremists

(al-Tala’i’ al-Muqatilah orFighting Vanguards’), starting in 1976, as well as by their sectarian massacre of Alawi cadets at the military academy of Aleppo in 1979. It took the regime in 1982 almost three weeks to bloodily suppress the Muslim Brotherhood revolt, which indicates that the latter had a lot of potential to resist the regime’s ferocious attacks.

One would have expected that knowledge of the results in Hama – 10,000s of deaths, many of whom innocent and not at all involved with the Muslim Brotherhood – was deeply entrenched in the Syrian collective memory, but many at the start of the Syrian Revolution of 2011 appeared to have forgotten them, or imagined that this time the prospects for success were much more promising than in 1982. For them, the wall of fear was apparently broken.

Whereas the Hama massacre of 1982 was confined to only one city, the massacres and bloodshed during the Syrian Revolution took place in a rather similar way, but this time on a much bigger, national wide scale.

Many supporters of the Syrian opposition have argued that it was wrong to assign any co-responsibility to the opposition groups for the disaster that has overcome Syria after 2011. According to their reasoning, the Syrian people should have been free to demonstrate and rise against their suppressive dictatorship, and it would have been unjust to demand from them to ‘just shut up and suffer dictatorship and abuse forever’.[2] One could argue, of course, that the Syrian people should have been completely free to demonstrate and rise against their regime, just like in democracies (where there are, however, certain limits to the freedom of demonstration). But under the Syrian dictatorship, which even physically eliminates members of its own elite when their loyalty is in doubt, such claimed freedom predictably comes at a heavy cost in human lives. It therefore also depends on the importance one attaches to human life. If one does not care very much about the huge number of victims this revolution has caused (and which some have even compared to the bloody French Revolution of 1789-1799, which toppled the French monarchy), then one might continue unabatedly implementing the basic principles of Revolution by trying to bring down the al-Asad regime (as it were over other people’s dead bodies).

The same would apply to foreign countries that wanted to interfere in Syria without taking the predictable results into account, because it made them ‘feel good’ politically speaking, arguing that they were helping the Syrian people (next to serving their own presumed strategic interests), even if the result turned out to be half a million dead, more than ten million refugees, and a destroyed country.

Opponents of the regime generally argue that it is not them who have caused all this trouble, but the regime. After all, they did not do more than try to topple this terrible regime, which, however, ‘stubbornly’ refused to be toppled, whereas president Bashar al-Asad was not prepared to sign his own death warrant.3]

My argument is that it is only productive to carry out a revolution if there is a good chance that it will lead to positive results, even at the cost of some victims. But many of the victims have never been asked whether or not they wanted to be involved in the Syrian Revolution. The Syrian Revolution did not lead to any positive results at all, and the Ba’thist regime was not toppled like the French monarchy. The Syrian Revolution’s failure was to a great extent predictable, but those who predicted Bashar al-Asad’s strong potential for survival were occasionally framed unjustly as being ‘pro regime’.

And in the theoretical case that Damascus would have been conquered by Islamist forces like Jaysh al-Islam, these certainly would not have established a democratic regime. Neither is there presently any democracy in the northwest, controlled by the Islamist Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, nor in the northeast, controlled by the authoritarian Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. The other northern areas controlled by factions of the Syrian National Army (previously the Free Syrian Army), supported by Turkey, generally have a quite different, non-Islamist signature.

Although it is of course much easier said than done, it would have been better to wait for the ‘right opportunity’, even though such an opportunity only existed potentially from within the regime itself. And an internal coup would be extremely dangerous for its perpetrators and difficult to carry out. Waiting for the ‘right moment’, even if that would appear as ‘forever’ would have been better, however, than to ‘lose patience’, and having the results that we have today.

And refraining from staging or continuing a revolution because of the strongly negative circumstances and predictable consequences has nothing to do with any form of cowardice, or lack of courage, but rather with pragmatism, realism and survival.

Not taking the large numbers of deadly victims into account, is a great mistake, the more so if nothing positive is being achieved.

Don’t trust the so-called international community to help you in such a way that your aims can be realized. The Syrian opposition groups thought, or at least sincerely hoped or believed, that the ‘international community’ was going to help them in achieving their objectives, because many outside countries had expressed sympathy with them and their professed aims. It turned out, however, that this ‘international community’ is not at all a homogeneous unit, but consists of both enemies and friends. And even friends may not act together in a unified way, but may each pursue their individual perceived interests, which may not coincide with the interests of the Syrian people they are supposed to support. Foreign and Arab countries each supported their favorite military opposition groups, which in turn occasionally turned against one another. The fact that there were two military operational centers in respectively Jordan and Turkey, channeling their military support, did not mean that there also was real effective coordination, leading to a unified military opposition at the front.

If foreign parties had wanted to arm oppositions groups in order to bring down the Syrian regime, they should not have armed them half-heartedly, but should at least have armed them sufficiently and full scale to be able to defeat the regime that was supposed to be toppled. Otherwise, they might – and in fact did – contribute to the defeat and killing of the military they were supposed to support, and to a prolongation of the bloody war. At the same time, these foreign countries should also have taken into account that their interference could lead to a war-by-proxy or confrontation with other countries, like Russia and Iran.

It was a miscalculation of the military opposition groups that they did not take into consideration enough that if the regime in Damascus would really start to be threatened – as was the case by mid 2015 – the regime’s allies would be called upon to help defend it. The Russians did so in September 2015, at the request of the Damascus government. Had the Syrian regime been seriously threatened earlier on, Russia would most probably have intervened earlier, because it did not want to lose its most important ally in the Middle East. The military opposition groups have often complained that if Russia (and also Iran and Hizballah) would not have intervened, they might have brought down the Syrian regime; and this might well have been true. They considered this to be ‘unfair’. If, however, on the other hand, those same opposition groups would not have received billions of dollars in military aid from abroad, they would not have stood the slightest chance against the regime.

Non-interference by foreign countries would have caused the war to have been much shorter, with much fewer victims.

It is better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing.

Do not create false expectations among the people you support, because this may encourage their actions in an unrealistic way, based on wishful thinking, with the effect that they will not only be defeated, but that it will also result in huge numbers of unnecessary deaths, destruction and refugees.

Do not make statements to which you do not give any adequate follow up, like mentioning so-called ‘red lines’, without consequences when these are violated. President Obama’s stated that if the Syrian regime would use chemical weapons, it would cross a red line. But once it reportedly happened, he did not take the action he earlier had suggested. Threatening with military intervention, albeit only implicitly, and subsequently not carrying it out, strongly undermined the credibility of the United States, and Western countries in general. It, moreover, gave the regime the impression that it could get away with almost anything.

Do not make statements for imagined domestic and international political gain, of which you can know in advance that you will not implement them in practice. On several occasions Western leaders called for the imposition of no-fly zones in Syria to protect the opposition and population from air-based regime attacks, but nothing came of it. This was partly due to the fact that imposing a no-fly zone implied direct military confrontation with the Syrian regime, which no Western country had the intention of doing (and after September 2015 it would also have implied military confrontation with Russia). The creation of safe havens was suggested repeatedly as well. Creating a safe haven somewhere in a border area would imply occupying Syrian territory, however, and therefore direct military confrontation with the Syrian regime. As a result, real safe havens were not imposed by foreign powers either. And the parts of Syria controlled by Turkey and others could not really be considered as ‘safe havens’. Western leaders on various occasions also called for setting up and imposing humanitarian corridors to help the population gaining access to food aid. This also turned out to be unsuccessful for similar reasons.

Do not attack, or militarily intervene in countries which do not constitute a military threat to your country. The results are almost always disastrous. Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Syria and Yemen are clear examples of how things can go wrong in a disastrous way, both strategically, and particularly for the populations involved.

Democracy cannot be imposed by military force.[4]

Breaking off diplomatic relations is generally not the way to solve conflicts, because it cuts off the possibilities of diplomatic contacts which may contribute to helping in finding a solution. In that respect, it would have been better for the countries involved, to have maintained these relations (which some European countries did), perhaps at a lower diplomatic level, if that would have been considered more appropriate. It is shortsighted to think that contacts with the Syrian regime via the UN Special Envoy for Syria are a sufficient alternative, without simultaneously having bilateral diplomatic contacts. Breaking them off was politically much easier than it is to restore them.

Dialogue is an essential way to help solving conflicts. Refusing any dialogue does not in itself help solving a conflict, even if such a dialogue might have turned out to be unfruitful. Neither does the refusal to having contacts with the main parties to the conflict. It generally is a loss of precious time. Political solutions that during the early stages of a war might perhaps have been possible, may turn out to be much more difficult or impossible later on, after more blood is spilled.

The alternative to a failed dialogue is not necessarily war, certainly not if the prospects of winning such a war are not realistic, and if such a war would create even further disasters.

Various Western and Arab politicians indirectly helped the war to continue with all its victims, refugees and destruction, by continuing to maintain so-called ethically and politically correct points of view concerning justice, without, however, providing the necessary means to help realise their just aims. Many maintained that they wanted to help the Syrian opposition, but in effect their so-called ethical correctness obtained an unethical dimension, by wanting to remain principled. By not being pragmatic enough to achieve their professed principles, these actors ensured that the bloodshed and multi-dimensional destruction were bound to continue, ‘against better judgement’. A pragmatic attitude, which might have helped achieving a political solution, could have been considered of higher ethical value than political positions that theoretically might have been ethical, but in practice did not achieve much more than a continuation of the bloody war, with all its victims, refugees and destruction.

In order to effectively oppose the Syrian regime, the opposition groups should have been united; but they were not. Issuing statements of a unified position is not enough. Military unification is needed in such a case, just as well. It took the main opposition groups almost five years to come to a common negotiating position, which was formulated in their Riyadh Declaration of December 2015. It idealistically stated their support for a ‘democracy through a pluralistic system in which all Syrian groups, including both men and women, would be represented, without discrimination or exclusion on the basis of religion, denomination or ethnicity and to be based on the principles of human rights, transparency, accountability and the rule of law as applied to all’.

There should, however, also be preparedness to implement these unified principles, once power would have been taken over by them. But parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham signed principles which were contrary to their ideological beliefs. Therefore, they could not be expected to implement the Riyadh principles in case they would have been the parties to seize power in Damascus. A dilemma was, of course, that the Islamist groups at the time could hardly be excluded, because they were among the strongest.

Once the Syrian Revolution lost its secular character in various areas, and took on a Sunni Islamist coloring there, potential support for it among religious minorities diminished substantially.

The chance of loosing a war is bigger when parties are disunited than when they are united. Leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition in Istanbul explained to me that whereas many Western countries expected the numerous civilian and military groups to come to a unified position, they should also realize that in organizations which are supposed to respect the principle of freedom of expression, there is bound to be diversity of opinion. And this is true. There was a great diversity of opinion among the opposition groups, some of them moderate and secular, others traditional Islamic, yet others radical Islamic. Most groups were Arab, Kurdish or Turkmen. In a period of war, however, ranks have to be united in order to adequately confront the adversary.

Take into serious account what can be expected to happen in case regime change has taken place. The results may be even worse. The argument that it is better ‘to deal with the devil you know’, was rejected by many, whereas there were no effectively united opposition alternatives in sight, except theoretically on paper. Those who think that the Islamist alternative would have been better, would disagree with the above, of course.

If you don’t want to accept refugees, do not interfere in military conflicts in other countries that are no threat to your country. Countries which militarily interfered in other countries, like in Syria, prolonging the war there, should also take the responsibility to generously accept the refugees emanating from such a war into their own countries.

Sanctions have hardly ever helped achieving the aims for which they were supposedly intended. The sanctions against the Syrian regime are supposed to force it to change its behavior, but have not achieved anything positive yet, rather the contrary. They are supposed to hit Bashar al-Asad and his core supporters, but rather than hurting the Syrian regime elite, they hurt numerous innocent Syrians under his rule much more. If sanctions are imposed, they should also be accompanied by detailed clarifications on how or when these sanctions can be lifted. If there is any vagueness in this respect, sanctions may not be lifted at all, even if the sanctioned party would have taken various forthcoming measures. Imposing sanctions is much easier than lifting them.

El-Mostafa Benlamlih, the former UN Assistant Secretary General and Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator a.i. in Syria, wrote the following about the imposed sanctions after he resigned in 2023:

‘Syrians are skillful and enterprising people. They need the recovery of the systems essential to life: water, energy, mobility, and a functional local administration so that they can recover and rebuild their lives. These were exactly the systems that the donors refused to support on the pretext that they would benefit and legitimize the ‘Regime’. It was clear that we, the UN and our humanitarian partners, had to do other things than what we have been doing. We could only do this with the support and adherence of the same partners who had constantly imposed restrictions and red lines on our action. Red lines, restrictions and sanctions remain a political tool but could be relaxed despite the publicly expressed official positions. Increased support for recovery could come from both conventional and Gulf donors. It is up to us, the humanitarian community, to show that we are up to the task in a redefined relationship with our partners, including national institutions.’[5]

Sanctions forbidding reconstruction will not be of any help to the numerous homeless people of Syria. Humanitarian assistance will not be enough to provide them with a solid roof above their heads, and will prevent rebuilding houses, hospitals, classrooms, water treatment plants, electrical generation, power transmission grids, road surfaces or day care centers. The US Caesar sanctions are directed against any person or company that rebuilds such things.[6]

Not all Syrians abroad support the US and EU sanctions imposed on Syria, but the most important Syrian opposition organizations, including the Syrian Opposition Coalition, do. For them, any attempt that might still contribute to the fall of the al-Asad regime, has apparently priority over the fate of the Syrian people inside the country, who actually could also be considered as being regime hostages.

Most of the Syrian refugees living abroad may never return to their country, if only because they don’t have houses anymore to go to, neither would there be enough work for many of them because of the economic situation, and particularly also because of the lack of security due to the potential threats against them by the security services (mukhabarat). And many have already started a semi-permanent new life elsewhere. The regime is not eager to readmit any people whom it considers as opposition, and it could well use remittances of Syrians abroad for their families inside the country. It looks like a vicious circle: many countries abroad want the Syrian refugees to return to their homes, but refuse to contribute to the reconstruction of Syria. But as long as the refugees cannot return to their country, which should at least be reconstructed to a substantial extent, they will try to stay abroad. Lifting the sanctions which hurt the Syrian people would therefore help increase the possibilities for the Syrian refugees to return to their country.

It is better to have failed negotiations than a failed war.[7] And ‘unrealistic positions’ should be avoided during negotiations, albeit that opinions differ on what is ‘unrealistic’. The party that thinks it will win the war, generally does not really want to negotiate. The party that is bound to lose the war, tends to be the more willing to negotiate. In the Syrian case, the weaker opposition parties want to negotiate on basis of the principle that the stronger regime has to step down at the end of the negotiations, together with its having to be court-martialed, and bringing all those with blood on their hands to justice. This has turned out to be a completely unrealistic scenario.[8]

If the weaker party demands ‘too much’ during the negotiations, it runs the risk of ending up with less than with which it started the negotiations. But once the weaker party would be able to turn the tables and would become the stronger party, it doesn’t want to negotiate any longer with the party that has lost its all-dominant position.

The thesis that the Syrian regime was prepared to seriously negotiate, once it was put under sufficient pressure appears to be logical, but turned out to be unfounded when it came to reality. For the regime it is (almost) everything or nothing. It will at most accept some cosmetic changes, as far as its powers are concerned. The regime’s will can only be broken by military defeat, after which negotiations (with the regime) would no longer be necessary (but they would still have to take place among the numerous rival opposition groups, as a result of which no clear end would be in sight yet).  

And in the theoretical case that the regime would have been defeated in, for instance Damascus by the Islamist Jaysh al-Islam, this would not have meant that the regime would also have been defeated in other regions elsewhere, like, for instance Latakia, Tartus, Homs or Aleppo. It would simply have resulted in Syria being divided into different military zones of influence (or a kind of military patchwork) than it is today, and that the civil war would have continued even longer. But all those who tried to topple the regime failed.

Syria expert David Lesch has concluded that the Syrian regime does ‘not like to be told what to do – or even to have something strongly suggested’, let alone by outside powers. And that the regimes of Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad have always refused to make concessions from a perceived position of weakness: they will only do so from a perceived position of strength.[9]

The problem is, however, that after 2011, Bashar al-Asad did not want to negotiate from a position of relative strength either, at least if this could lead to a sharing of real power with the opposition. Nevertheless, mutual negotiations would have been the better, or least bad option, taking into account all death and destruction.

The Geneva Communique of 2012, which later was endorsed by the UN Security Council, was formulated in such a way that it could be acceptable to both the regime and the main opposition groups. It mentioned ‘the establishment of a Transitional Governing Body which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place. That means that the Transitional Governing Body would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.’

The position of President Bashar al-Asad and the main figures of his regime in the ‘Transitional Governing Body with full executive powers’ immediately became a principal point of dispute. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that President al-Asad could not take part in such a Transitional Governing Body, whereas Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov denied this. The Syrian opposition in general strongly rejected any role for President al-Asad, even during the ‘transitional period’. For the Syrian regime itself it was President al-Asad who was to decide on such issues, not the opposition, nor foreign countries. Clinton insisted (like many other political leaders) that Bashar al-Asad should step down, but the Geneva Communique did not mention anything about the position of the Syrian president, neither did it mention regime change. But most Arab and Western parties wanted more than what was stated in the Geneva Communique, and this was clearly counterproductive in searching for a solution. The opposition groups imagined that with the help of Western and Arab parties they could impose a ‘political transition’ (which became a kind of euphemism for regime change). It was only after more than ten years that most of the Arab governments stepped down from their earlier wish for regime change, once it had become clear that they had failed to bring down the regime.

Most of the Arab countries that in vain had tried to bring down the al-Asad regime with tremendous military and financial support to the Syrian military opposition groups, started to drastically change their position in 2023, by readmitting Syria into the Arab League, and by reestablishing diplomatic relations with Damascus, arguing that this would be in their strategic regional interest. With hindsight, the Syria from before the Revolution had been better for them, but now it would be in their interest to help rebuilding the country, as long as the sanctions did not interfere too much with their interests in this respect.

Syria expert Bente Scheller has concluded that the Syrian regime usually follows the practice of a ‘waiting game’, simply sitting out a crisis until it has overcome it, in order to afterwards continue as it did before.[10] This is what happened in this case again.

The parties that were claiming too much during the initial stages of the Syrian war (by clearly threading outside the agreed texts), in the end ended up with less than they perhaps otherwise might have achieved. Staying within the limits of the agreed texts was not any guarantee for success, but going outside of them in the way that happened, was in this particular case a guarantee for failure. The Western and Arab parties that made these claims outside the parameters of the Geneva Communique, created the false impression to the opposition that their claims could be realized. They, moreover, made it politically impossible for the opposition groups themselves to claim less than their foreign supporters did.

The regime should, if it really had wanted a solution, have started to implement UN Security Council 2254 (2015) without delay, and immediately allow humanitarian agencies rapid, safe and unhindered access throughout Syria to reach people in need; release any arbitrarily detained prisoners; immediately cease any attacks against civilians and civilian objects as such, including attacks against medical facilities and personnel, and any indiscriminate use of weapons, including through shelling and aerial bombardments. Implementing these parts of Security Council resolution 2254 would not really have weakened the regime’s military position, because the included measures hardly had any strategic military value; except perhaps in the sense that the military opposition groups might also profit from food and medical supplies. Bombing civilians and civilian medical facilities, for instance, had no strategic military value, as long as these were civilian only. Therefore, it should have been relatively easy for the regime (and the Russians) to start implementing it.

Countries that want to topple a regime, should also take responsibility for its aftermath. In the cases of, for instance, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, this has not happened. Intervening countries in various cases simply continued their intervening policies in other countries, leaving the previous ones in rubble, without taking any responsibility.

Shouldn’t there also be any accountability for nót bringing the al-Asad regime down, at least in those countries which only halfheartedly supported and armed the Syrian opposition? Arab countries that massively supported the military opposition (but not sufficiently), in fact helped the war to continue with all its destruction. It looks as if some of those countries are now willing to contribute to the reconstruction of destroyed Syria, because it is in their regional interest to cooperate and live with the al-Asad regime that survived in spite of their efforts to topple it. They cannot choose their neighbors, but have to live on with them. For countries faraway from Syria, this may be different. Starting the reconstruction of Syria with the help of regional Arab countries may provide an opening to a solution.

Several authoritarian ruled Arab countries suggested that they wanted political reform in Syria, including democratic reforms, whereas they would never have accepted similar reforms in their own countries. Therefore, their policies were rather based on strategic considerations than on democratic principles. Various Western countries applied double standards in this respect as well. What they demanded from the Syrian regime, was not similarly applied to most Arab authoritarian regimes or Israel, because these were considered as their allies or friends.

If it turns out that the road chosen by a revolutionary movement is not the one leading to its desired aims, a different course should be considered, instead of continuing the path as originally envisaged. In this respect the Syrian opposition might have changed course years ago, once it was clear that al-Asad would win the war (although not the peace), and that their negotiation demands had turned out to be unrealistic.

Continuous indignation about the Syrian regime’s bad behavior is fully justified, and the so-called international community can certainly not remain silent about it, also because of the many innocent victims. But it is not enough in itself to reach a solution. It is the results which count, not just the so-called ‘good intentions’ and declarations expressing indignation.

In the end, most countries will tend to follow their own strategic interest, whether or not they sympathise with the fate of the Syrian people.

After all the bloodshed and destruction, I don’t believe that it is possible to achieve a just solution anymore, if it was ever possible at all. It will at most have to be a compromise, but the Syrian regime appears not to be willing to make any such compromise. And a military ‘solution’ is not really a solution. The present situation may be a settlement for the time being. Real stability and prosperity remain out of sight for the foreseeable future, but no rule is eternal. A new revolution or military coup d’état is bound to take place again someday, although there is no guarantee that successor regimes will bring the required stability and prosperity, let alone democracy.

It is the Syrians themselves who have to come to a political solution, but much depends on who is the most powerful.

[1] I have, from the beginning, been opposed to the phrase ‘Arab Spring’, especially because it was hailed in its initial stages (and also later on) so over-enthusiastically – almost naively – and positively. It must have been obvious enough to those who know the Middle East that it would proceed very differently and be far less rose-colored than what was popularly believed. In the meantime, all ‘Arab Spring’ countries, without exception, are much worse off than before.

Nikolaos van Dam, ‘Has the bloody ‘Arab Spring’ been a success?’, Strategic Review, The Indonesian Journal of Leadership, Policy and World Affairs, Vol 2 No 3, July-September 2012, pp. 117-126.

[2] See the comments of former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, , 23 November 2021. Nikolaos van Dam, ‘War crimes in Syria: a shared responsibility’, Syria Comment, 3 July 2021.

[3] Nikolaos van Dam, ‘Bashar al-Asad is not going to sign his own death warrant’, The Montreal Review, October 2011.

[4] Nikolaos van Dam, ‘Democracy cannot be imposed by military force’,

[5] El-Mostafa Benlamlih,

[6] Steven Simon and Joshua Landis in ‘H.R. 3202: Analyzing Legislative Efforts to Block Arab Engagement with Syria’,

[7] On the occasion of the first anniversary of the Syrian Revolution in March 2012, I suggested that dialogue with the regime would be key to any solution, and that 10,000 dead (which was the number at the time) would be better than 300,000 dead which might turn out to be the result if the war would be continued without any communication or negotiations with the regime. But the opposition strongly rejected this point of view at the time. See: Dutch television program Pauw & Witteman, 7 March 2012; and Aljazeerah Arabic, ‘One Year Syrian Revolution’, 15 March 2012.

[8] Nikolaos van Dam, Syria: No room for political compromise’, Fanack, 20 July 2018, 

[9] David W. Lesch, Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad (London, 2012), pp. 143, 213.

[10] Bente Scheller, The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game. Foreign Policy under the Assad’s, London, 2013.