In 2011, a movement known as the Arab Spring took the world by surprise. It began in Tunisia when the police confiscated a poor street vendor known as Mohammed Bouazizi’s wares. With no means to support his family, he had nothing to lose and set himself on fire in front of the local police station. Protests in favor of Bouazizi and against Tunisia’s corrupt regime led to the downfall of President Ben Ali just a few weeks later. The movement in Tunisia spread all across the Arab world, with citizens protesting against autocratic regimes and demanding democratic reforms.
In Syria, citizens empowered by the Arab Spring began to protest against the country’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad. The protests quickly turned bloody when the military opened fire on protestors in the capital of Damascus in March 2011. The world quickly turned its eyes on Syria, which soon fragmented into rebel troops, who sought to oust Assad, and pro-Assad forces, who wanted him to remain in power. Rebels were armed by Western countries, particularly the United States, who were keen to see Assad taken down. They began gaining their own territory within Syria, effectively creating a “state within a state.”
However, in wars, there is no easy way to define who the “good guys” are and who the “bad guys” are. Assad’s forces used tactics like chemical warfare, which included releasing toxic gases on civilian populations, leading to dozens, even hundreds of deaths. These gas attacks became a rallying cry for Western countries to intervene on the ground, but what was often ignored is that the rebel forces, believed to be the “good guys,” had themselves often engaged in chemical warfare and other crimes against humanity. Both rebel and regime (supporters of Assad) forces were known to attack civilians with violent actions like rape.
Perhaps most significantly to later events that would play out in the Middle East, the country did not remain divided along the factional lines of the rebels and the regime. Despite numerous attempts for ceasefires, weapons continued to pour into Syria and fell into the hands of radicals, including a band around a cleric known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He would come to be regarded as the caliph, or religious and political leader of the newly formed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Other factions that formed included the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist group whose name means “victory for the people.” The group follows a strict form of Islam known as Salafism, which can be primarily described as following not only the teachings of Mohammed in the most stringent way possible but following them within his cultural context. In other words, you have to dress the way that people did in the sixth century and cannot use any technology that was not available back then. They also took over significant territory in Syria.