10 Factors That Led to the Syrian Uprising

Syrian Rebels Confront Government Tanks
ALEPPO, SYRIA - APRIL 09: A young girl watches an anti-Assad protest in the town of Binnish on April 9, 2012 in Binnish, Syria.

John Cantlie / Contributor / Getty Images

The Syrian uprising began in March 2011 when security forces of President Bashar al-Assad opened fire on and killed several pro-democracy protesters in the southern Syrian city of Deraa. The uprising spread throughout the country, demanding Assad's resignation and an end to his authoritarian leadership. Assad only hardened his resolve, and by July 2011 the Syrian uprising had developed into what we know today as the Syrian civil war.

They Syrian uprising started off with non-violent protests but as it was systematically met with violence, the protests became militarized. An Estimated 400,000 Syrians were killed in the first five years after the uprising, and over 12 million people have been displaced. But what were the causes?

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Political Repression

President Bashar al-Assad assumed power in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez, who had ruled Syria since 1971. Assad quickly dashed hopes of reform, as power remained concentrated in the ruling family, and the one-party system left few channels for political dissent, which was repressed. Civil society activism and media freedom were severely curtailed, effectively killing the hopes of political openness for Syrians.

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Discredited Ideology

The Syrian Baath Party is regarded as the founder of "Arab socialism," an ideological current that merged the state-led economy with Pan-Arab nationalism. By 2000, however, the Baathist ideology was reduced to an empty shell, discredited by lost wars with Israel and a crippled economy. Assad tried to modernize the regime upon taking power by invoking the Chinese model of economic reform, but time was running against him.

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Uneven Economy

Cautious reform of the remnants of socialism opened the door to private investment, triggering an explosion of consumerism among the urban upper-middle classes. However, privatization only favored the wealthy, privileged families with ties to the regime. Meanwhile, provincial Syria, later to become the center of the uprising, seethed with anger as living costs soared, jobs remained scarce, and inequality took its toll.

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In 2006, Syria began suffering through its worst drought in over nine decades. According to the United Nations, 75% of Syria's farms failed, and 86% of the livestock died between 2006–2011. Some 1.5 million impoverished farmer families were forced to move into rapidly expanding ​urban slums in Damascus and Homs, alongside Iraqi refugees. Water and food were almost non-existent. With little to no resources to go around, social upheaval, conflict, and uprising naturally followed.

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Population Surge

Syria's rapidly growing young population was a demographic time bomb waiting to explode. The country had one of the highest-growing populations in the world, and Syria was ranked ninth by the United Nations as one of the fastest-growing countries in the world between 2005–2010. Unable to balance the population growth with the sputtering economy and the lack of food, jobs, and schools, the Syrian uprising took root.

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Social Media

Although the state media was tightly controlled, the proliferation of satellite TV, mobile phones, and the internet after 2000 meant that any government attempt to insulate the youth from the outside world was doomed to fail. The use of social media became critical to the activist networks that underpinned the uprising in Syria.

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Whether it was a license to open a small shop or a car registration, well-placed payments worked wonders in Syria. Those without money and contacts fomented powerful grievances against the state, leading to the uprising. Ironically, the system was corrupt to the extent that anti-Assad rebels bought weapons from government forces and families bribed authorities to release relatives detained during the uprising. Those close to the Assad regime took advantage of the widespread corruption to further their businesses. Black markets and smuggling rings became the norm, and the regime looked the other way. The middle class was deprived of their income, further fomenting the Syrian uprising.

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State Violence

Syria's powerful intelligence agency, the infamous mukhabarat, penetrated all spheres of society. The fear of the state made Syrians apathetic. State violence was always high, such as disappearances, arbitrary arrests, executions and repression in general. But the outrage over the brutal response of security forces to the outbreak of peaceful protests in spring 2011, which was documented on social media, helped generate the snowball effect as thousands across Syria joined in the uprising. 

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Minority Rule

Syria is a majority Sunni Muslim country, and a majority of those initially involved in the Syrian uprising were Sunnis. But the top positions in the security apparatus are in the hands of the Alawite minority, a Shiite religious minority to which the Assad family belongs. These same security forces committed severe violence against the majority Sunni protesters. Most Syrians pride themselves on their tradition of religious tolerance, but many Sunnis still resent the fact that a handful of Alawite families monopolized so much power. The combination of a majority Sunni protest movement and an Alawite-dominated military added to the tension and uprising in religiously mixed areas, such as in the city of Homs.

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Tunisia Effect

The wall of fear in Syria would not have been broken at this particular time in history had it not been for Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation in December 2010 triggered a wave of anti-government uprisings—which came to be known as the Arab Spring—across the Middle East. Watching the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes in early 2011 being broadcast live on the satellite channel Al Jazeera made millions in Syria believe that they could lead their own uprising and challenge their authoritarian regime.

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Manfreda, Primoz. "10 Factors That Led to the Syrian Uprising." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/top-10-reasons-for-the-uprising-in-syria-2353571. Manfreda, Primoz. (2021, September 9). 10 Factors That Led to the Syrian Uprising. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/top-10-reasons-for-the-uprising-in-syria-2353571 Manfreda, Primoz. "10 Factors That Led to the Syrian Uprising." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/top-10-reasons-for-the-uprising-in-syria-2353571 (accessed June 2, 2023).