This is the first in a series of special posts on major issues of the Syrian conflict as it enters its third year. Today's post focuses on internal dynamics.
Two years ago this week, a giddy excitement punctured the spring air. Syrians were reeling from the events unfolding in Tunisia, Egypt and particularly, Libya. At home, sparks and rumours of dissent were emerging. Small protests calling for reform and dignity were taking place after prayers in the southern city of Deraa. In Damascus, I walked among the hundreds of thousands of people out on the street in support of President Bashar al-Assad. I asked them why they were rallying at that particular time. I got no proper answer. Amid the loyalist crowds, I got a phone call from a friend in Deraa hysterically telling me that security forces were shooting people in the streets, that there were bodies lying in the streets around her. It was the most surreal of afternoons.
Since then, support for and opposition to the revolt among Syria's 22 million citizens has hardened. The wealthy urbanites haven't joined the opposition, nor have, for the most part, those from Syria's minority religions.
During the first couple of months, there was an incredible opening of public discussion in restaurants and cafes in the major cities. It was startling to hear people openly debate whether regime leaders should stay or go; what things the government should change; how "outside forces" were trying to destabilize the country.
But as more and more people died, and as demonstrations spread from Fridays to weekdays and from town to town, open political discussions turned to arguments and fights. Friends on opposing sides of the revolt stopped meeting up for coffee. Battle lines were drawn up. The talking stopped.
Today, many of those who took to the streets in protest to or support of the regime bear arms. Tens of thousands have died. Syrian society is in a most divided state. Those who have lost loved ones and homes – on either side – swear revenge.
Of course, today the vast majority of Syrians who live in areas that the regime has given up support the revolutionary forces. Many Syrians who hate the regime but continue to live under its rule quietly get on with life, having been cowed into submission in the face of breathtaking violence from the government. The destruction of the country has strengthened the belief among many Syrians that revolt and its consequent change mean disaster; that Bashar is best; that any change is bad; that democracy is for others, not for us.
Thinking back since those early days of hope, when excitement and a sense of change filled many streets and hearts, it seems the worst-case scenario has since played out. The Syrian government has used all means at its disposal to crush dissent on an unimaginable scale. In March 2011, few – certainly not I – thought it would resort to such levels of violence. The country's unique social fabric has been all but destroyed. A once broadly secular society has been forced by the violence into the arms of two extreme camps: Assad or Islamic militancy. Those left standing in the middle are living from day to day, fearing suicide bombings, health crises, rising food prices, or whatever else tomorrow may bring.
The immediate future for Syrians looks bleak. The violence won't recede until rebels overthrow Assad – and even then, more pain awaits. The price of revolt, by comparison cheap in Egypt and even cheaper in Tunisia, has, indeed, been very costly for Syrians.
Tomorrow's post focuses on international responses to the conflict.