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On The 10th Anniversary Of The Syrian War, Hardship Persists On Both Sides

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ten years ago today, Syrians took to the streets, calling for the removal of the country's authoritarian regime.

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CHANG: They protested in the tens of thousands, but those early moments of hope were short-lived. As the Syrian government responded with brutality, the revolution became a civil war. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: After so many years of conflict, Syria is a wasteland of devastated towns and cities. And it's a conflict characterized by the indiscriminate targeting of civilians. Though all sides have committed atrocities, the Syrian government and its ally Russia have repeatedly bombed hospitals and schools. In 2019, they hit this busy marketplace in Maarat al-Numan in north Syria.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Footage from the attack shows wounded adults and children being dragged out from under flattened buildings. Local journalist and pro-opposition activist Fareed al Hor's home was destroyed in that strike. He says attacking civilian areas is an intentional strategy.

FAREED AL HOR: (Through interpreter) The shelling was crazy. The regime in Russia leaves the land scorched when they want something. They shell a city, shell with all sorts of weapons until they empty people from the area.

SHERLOCK: These kinds of scenes have been repeated across Syria. The regime has also used barrel bombs - oil barrels filled with TNT explosives - and nerve agents on its population. Both sides have been accused of using chlorine gas as a chemical weapon. ISIS emerged from the chaos and for a while controlled vast swathes of the country. Today, more than 500,000 people are dead. Thirteen million people, more than half the population, are displaced or live as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, parts of Europe and elsewhere.

Those that stay exist in a divided country. The regime once again controls most of Syria, but rebels backed by Turkey hold parts of the north, and Kurdish groups supported by the U.S. have much of the oil-rich northeast. Despite all this, opposition activist Rami Jarrah says he doesn't regret the efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

RAMI JARRAH: Not at all. Not at all.

SHERLOCK: He says the revolution gave Syrians a voice in a country where freedoms were stifled.

JARRAH: When this all started, it was a choice that was given to each and every single Syrian - is, you know, do you want something else? If you want something else, you know, there's a way out. We can try it. We might not make it. You know, we might fail, but you can try.

SHERLOCK: Jarrah, who eventually fled the country and now lives in Germany, still believes revolution was the only possible way to get change. In the government-held town of Sweida, local journalist Talal Atrache disagrees. He says he used to support dialogue to push the regime to liberalize, but he was always against regime change through force.

TALAL ATRACHE: And we know that in countries like Syria, where you don't have an alternative that is ready to take power and to govern the country, we know that any vacuum would lead to a total mess like it happened in Iraq and in Libya and in Afghanistan.

SHERLOCK: If the rebels had won, he says, Damascus would have fallen into chaos as the different Islamist factions that came to dominate the revolution would have fought for control. But for most Syrians these days, these kinds of debates about who should win the war are far from their minds. They are focused on just trying to survive.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: This woman in Damascus tells us there's just no way to explain how tough life is in this devastated country. She asks us not to use her name because she fears the regime could arrest her for speaking with American media. The economy in the parts of Syria held by the Assad regime has completely collapsed. She says there are shortages of everything. Some have profited from the conflict, but most people are destitute.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) This country is not ours anymore. We can dream. The reality is there's no future in this country.

SHERLOCK: And after so many years of war, she says, the only thing that remains unchanged is the regime's repression.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.