Mood: “What Syria is Going Through is Heartbreaking”

Regardless of their sect, ethnicity, or views of the regime, respondents agree on one thing: Syria is in a state of unprecedented crisis. No sector of society has escaped unscathed. The costs of the conflict — human and economic — and the divisions it has spawned have touched all. Many in the Sunni majority felt fury at the regime and its reprisals, religious minorities fear deepening sectarianism, and the displaced and refugees are despondent over their losses. There is little agreement on the causes of the violence or its solution. But many expressed deep dismay that the country has sunk so far, so fast.[1]

Syrians Traumatized, Polarized

All the respondents in this study were very negative about the country’s dire situation and the direction in which it is headed. It is one of the things on which regime supporters and opponents agreed, though they differ regarding who is to blame.

There are families that have been completely destroyed and families who were divided between supporters and opponents. There are those who lost a son or a brother, widowed women and orphaned children. Could there be more destruction than this?
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 32, al-Qamishli

Every Syrian has paid part of the price of what is happening. Some paid with their souls, some paid with their money, some with their houses, and others with their dignity.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 28, Aleppo

The country is getting worse. I think there will be more death and destruction because of the random killing. God help us.
— Sunni woman (pro-regime), 39, Raqqah

What Syria is going through is heartbreaking. The situation is really bad, there is destruction in every region and it has become a game for people to enjoy.
— Christian man (pro-regime), 56, Damascus

Even More Secure Areas Are Affected

Most respondents, even those in areas of Aleppo and Damsacus that have not been touched directly by violence, said conflict is close by, affecting their livelihoods, endangering their security, and driving internally displaced people (IDPs) into their areas.

My area doesn’t seem to be in Syria, compared to areas of clashes and the countryside. We thank God that now we have security. There are no disturbances. What disturbs us are the scenes of people who have left their homes and regions and moved to our area for security, safety, and help at the same time.
— Sunni woman (pro-regime), Damascus

The situation is bad. Our bread is cut off. You’re able to work only in specific areas. If an area is controlled by the Free [Syrian] Army and another by the regular [Syrian] Army, crossings are dangerous. If you pass, you may be shot. We’ve been besieged.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 38, Aleppo

Refugees and IDPs Devastated by Losses

Refugees in Jordan and Turkey reported enormous loss, insecurity, and destruction. Some described near-complete destruction of the villages they left and massive displacement.

The current situation is extremely bad, woeful. Most of my village is destroyed. No one has visited it for six months. Its people are refugees in the surrounding villages.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 34, refugee in Jordan

If you went to my village and saw it, you would say this is a ruin, not a village. My neighborhood is in Homs. It is destroyed and it is like an place or building abandoned a hundred years ago.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 50, refugee in Jordan

Nor did they feel that going into exile has guaranteed their security. A Sunni woman (anti-regime, 29), who took refuge in Turkey said, “People at the camp are afraid. They said that a desperate person may kill the world without caring what will happen because he is desperate. We are still here. There are no beatings or [war] planes, but people are afraid.”

Many IDPs recounted stories of loss similar to those told by refugees:

It is so demolished, no services, nothing is there. All the people left, nobody is there. All our neighbours’ houses are destroyed.
— Sunni woman, IDP (anti-regime), 48, Damascus, from Kaboun

There is a huge and complete destruction of my neighborhood, and I heard via the TV that it was bombarded with chemicals. It is a very difficult situation that cannot be described.
— Sunni woman, IDP, (anti-regime), 38, Damascus, from Damascus

Christians and Alawites Feel Besieged by Radicals

Many Christians and Alawites felt under siege from radical Islamic forces — particularly Jabhat al-Nusra — that they said are threatening their towns and holy places and fostering sectarianism. The September 2013 attack on the Christian village of Maaloula, which occurred during the fieldwork, was particularly disturbing to them and was mentioned numerous times.

They spread extremism, criminality, and allow discrimination among people. It became okay for a Christian to be killed or a church destroyed. That was obvious in Maaloula when the so-called Jabhat al-Nusra, those extremist mercenaries, entered it. They destroyed property and attacked religious symbols.
— Christian man (pro-regime), 56, Damascus

Even the dogs who claim to be Muslims have reached our Christian brothers in Maaloula. What more destruction and damage do you want? They have destroyed every region in Syria, even the mosques, churches, and ruins. That is what the Arabs have done in the name of Islam, especially Jabhat al-Nusra.
— Alawite man (pro-regime), 42, Tartous

Sunnis Fear Increasing Division and Violence

Concern about rising sectarianism and deepening social splits was not limited to minorities. Sunni respondents also feared worsening divisions among the country’s many factions will lead to more death and destruction. Both regime opponents and supporters feared more violence will follow the regime’s fall.

Everything is a mess and you do not know who the right side is anymore. We have the Regular Army, national commissions, strict Islamic groups, Kurds, and others. If the regime falls today we will need ten years to get rid of the mess. There will still be fights, warlords, destruction, and killing.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 47, IDP in Raqqah

There are many sects in Syria. Assad combined all these sects. People were living together. We never heard that this is Alawite, this is Kurdish, this is Arab, and this is Christian, and all these sectarian terms. If President Assad leaves, there would be a state of chaos.
— Sunni man (pro-regime), 27, Aleppo

Regime Supporters Blame Armed Militias and Outsiders, Opponents Blame Al-Assad

Not surprisingly, those on each side of the conflict tended to blame the other for the violence. The theme that foreigners — rather than Syrians — are responsible for the violence and fighting against the regime was particularly common in pro-regime responses throughout the interviews.

Things have been deteriorating, and we lost security since the Takfiris entered Syria from the Maghreb, Europe, and even the US to destroy our heritage and country.
— Christian man (pro-regime), 42, Homs

Isn’t it wrong to destroy a country of peace and stability by mercenaries dealing with petroleum countries’ and the Israelis’ and Americans’ plans to demolish our country? This is a big lie to destroy us more.
— Sunni man (pro-regime), 48, Raqqah

Regime opponents put the blame for Syria’s destruction squarely at the foot of the president:

May God burn Bashar. He didn’t leave anyone alone, bombarding all the cities and streets. The city became a ghost town. It has only destroyed houses and buildings. He tried all the weapons on his people. He might want to exterminate Syria, which he governs! Damn him.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 37, al-Qamishli

Both sides should not be perceived in the same way. Assad’s shabiha [thugs] are the ones who destroyed Syria and they mostly deserve to be punished.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 30, Hama

Some opposed to the regime said both sides are responsible for the destruction, leaving ordinary people stuck between violent forces:

The regime is 100 percent bad and the opposition is not better. Everyone is fighting and the unarmed civilians pay the price. The Syrians who dreamt of freedom and better days are paying double price, because no side is having mercy on them.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 28, Aleppo

How Did Things Get This Bad?

Pro and anti-regime Syrians alike were bewildered at how things got so bad in their once stable, peaceful country. Some lamented that people who had lived peacefully together for years are now killing one another. Others struggled to understand how it reached this point.

Take a look around you and compare the Syria of yesterday to Syria today. We used to live a decent life, we had rights and we had duties. We would take care of our interests and have fun on our holidays and no one would impose on anyone. We lived in peace with no discrimination between the sons of the country or between religions and beliefs.
— Christian man (pro-regime), 56, Damascus

I did not expect it to happen. I didn’t expect the beating and fighting to reach this limit. I thought it was just a passing phase. I thought things would be resolved. Since the events took place in Daraa I thought they would be resolved.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 48, Jordan

Freedom of Expression Depends on Political Leanings

Syrians’ perceptions of their freedom of expression depended on which side of the regime they stand.[2] Supporters tended to claim that everyone is free to express their views. Some comments had a propagandistic feel to them.

Certainly, for sure, they feel free to speak and move after Mr. President gave confidence to all parties’ freedom, not only to the Arab Baath Party. With the existence of the Army, this gives us the freedom of movement because the Army is with the people, not against them, as America and its Arab country followers claim.
— Sunni man (pro-regime), 48, Raqqah

One pro-regime woman suggested that people were not free to speak in opposition-held areas.

(We can speak) because the Syrian regime is everywhere in Tartous and protects it. There is no Free Syrian Army here. There are many areas where people cannot express their opinions, especially those where Takfiris are.
— Alawite woman (pro-regime), 35, Tartous

Those who oppose the regime and who live in regime-controlled areas said expressing their views is impossible, out of fear of arrest or worse.

In Syria we have a saying: walls have ears. It means you should be careful, anyone who may hear you may inform on you. Personally, I have some relatives who are with the regime. They work for them so it’s impossible for me to say anything in front of this person.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 25, refugee, Turkey

I am against the regime. I live in an area that is under its control. Most people in it are supporters, so I can’t talk freely, while supporters can express [their views] freely and aren’t afraid of anyone.
— Alawite woman (anti-regime), 30, Tartous

Some regime opponents said there is a new-found freedom to express one’s views in places that have escaped regime control. “Yes, there are areas where you can talk freely. Those are the areas that are under the control of rebels and the Free Army, and of course as they are liberated you can talk freely,” said a Sunni man refugee in Jordan.

However, even in the liberated areas, some were wary of speaking out now because of the Islamic radicals. “No, there’s not much [freedom] because they are afraid of the regime and the liberated areas are afraid of the Islamic groups,” said one man, a Sunni IDP from Raqqah.

While most participants seemed to speak openly in the interview itself, several respondents implored interviewers to not reveal their names at the end of the interview, displaying an unusual degree of fear in the experience of the researchers.

No End in Sight

On both sides, there was also a sense that the conflict has become a stalemate that could endure for some time to come. There was a grim feeling among some that outside forces are in control and will not permit it to end.

According to what we see and hear, we have a long battle [ahead]. They have said, including the president, that it will last for years, and only a miracle from God will end this conflict.
— Sunni woman (pro-regime), 58, Damascus

I swear that it is tragic and I think it will last for a long time. I think that there is more than one country that manipulates us and all of them want to destroy Syria. No one cares about the Syrian people. All of them want their [own] benefits.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 24, Damascus

Neither side expects to win any time soon. This is perhaps the grimmest aspect of all: Syrians see no glimmer of hope of an end.

Thus, Syrians on both sides of the complex conflict have suffered profoundly, whether remaining in secure areas or forced to flee for their lives, whether religious minorities or members of the majority. While each side tends to blame the other, they have some things in common. Both are divided and ambivalent, and they share shock and dismay at the way their country has disintegrated. They cannot see how the conflict will come to a military resolution in the near future; all they foresee is war without end.

Shared suffering has produced other areas of consensus as well — including the desire for a negotiated settlement and accountability for abuses during the conflict. Of course, the intense polarization accompanying the conflict makes it difficult for many to envisage the compromises a negotiated settlement would demand. Others hope Syria’s history of tolerance and co-existence will prevail and, once those who committed crimes are held accountable, permit the country to come together again after the conflict.

  1. Methodology and demographic details on interviewees are available in the Appendices.
  2. Respondents were classified as pro- or anti-regime by the interviewers from the research firm. Their comments were generally consistent with these classifications, and many explicitly called themselves pro- or anti-regime.


He Who Did Wrong Should Be Accountable: Syrian Perspectives on Transitional Justice Copyright © 2014 by the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license). All Rights Reserved.


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