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War-Torn: the Unmaking of Syria (2011-2021)

March 1, 2021


  • Leila Vignal, Associate Professor Geography, University of Rennes-2
  • Rafaella A. Del Sarto, Associate Professor of Middle East Studies, SAIS Europe 

Vignal began her talk by emphasizing that the Syria we knew prior to the civil war no longer exists. The magnitude of material destruction and displacement over the course of the war indicates that there is a deliberate structure of violence which has forcefully spatially, socially, and economically restructured Syria. Effectively, the unmaking of Syria cannot be attributed to collateral damage as it exemplifies a distinct pattern of violence. With this framing, she asserted that it is illuminating not only to look at what has been destroyed due to the war in Syria, but how it has been destroyed. 
A timeline of the past decade was shown to situate the conflict’s transition from revolution to war. The period from 2011 to 2013, labeled as the “revolution of dignity” or karama, was characterized by massive spreading of the uprising movement and massive demonstrations, most notably in Hama, which were swiftly and violently repressed. For the regime, there was never room for negotiation to take place. As the war began to unfold in 2012, opposition to the regime of al-Assad started to militarize while also experiencing increasing internal divisions. Likewise, external military intervention took place on behalf of the regime as Iran and Russia became primary sources of funding for armaments and troops. 
As the war progressed, the regime became more dependent on the financial support of its Iranian and Russian allies. Encountering fighting on multiple fronts and an acute lack of human resources, there was an ongoing struggle to hold large swaths of national territory that had left the nation fragmented. These strategic difficulties led to the regime mobilizing mass violence against the population in order assert control over its shrinking territory. The direct intervention of Russia beginning in September 2015 shifted the balance in favor of the regime, primarily by decupling the regime’s offensive aerial capacity with the deployment of Russia’s aviation. Exclusive access to airpower, a capacity the opposition had never possessed, spurred the progressive recapture of territory by the regime forces from late 2016 onwards.
Focusing on geography of destruction in Syria, Vignal stressed how these capabilities alongside other types of conventional and unconventional weapons provided by international allies of the regime were used to target civilian populations in opposition-held regions. Examining a map of Aleppo, the overlap of areas that suffered the most damage and opposition-held areas was immediately clear. This type of violence extensively impacted ordinary populations, such as in Khaldiyyé in Homs, while other areas such as Yarmouk in Damascus instead suffered besiegement by regime forces. Resulting internal and external displacement occurred on a massive scale, with estimates ranging from half to two-thirds of the total pre-war population of Syria. The asymmetry of responsibility for violence against the population, weighted heavily towards the regime, demonstrates the regime’s propensity to destroy the country and weaponize the population in order to “win” the war.
What, then, does the future hold for Syria? The economy is devastated, resulting in a crisis of funding for al-Assad. The majority of the population is displaced in or outside of the country. Furthermore, internal supporters of the regime have been reduced to the bare bones. The regime, however, still will not entertain a political settlement and appears ready to keep hold of Syria even if in doing so it reduces the nation to a pile of rubble. Vignal noted that under these conditions, ambitious reconstruction efforts is essentially out of the picture. Without the regime agreeing to the UN-led peace and reconstruction effort, the broader international community refuses to provide necessary funding. It seems, then, that the fate of Syria and its millions of displaced citizens is to endure a situation of instability for years to come.