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The teen who helped start a revolution: a conflict that has killed 70,000 people in Syria and threatens to destabilize the entire Middle East began with a group of teenagers and a simple act of defiance.

In a Jordanian border town, the teenager goes unnoticed. He's one of hundreds of thousands of refugees who've fled to Jordan to escape the bloody civil war in Syria.

But this young man carries a burden--maybe an honor, too--that almost no one else shares. He knows that he and his friends helped start it all. They ignited an uprising.

It began simply enough, inspired by teenage rebellion against authority more than political activisim. He and his friends watched his cousin spray-paint the wall of a school in his home city of Deraa (dera-AH) with a challenge to President Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist-turned-dictator, about the upheaval then spreading across the Arab world.

"It's your turn, doctor," the cousin wrote in March 2011.

After the graffiti, the teenager and his friends were arrested and tortured, setting off demonstrations in Deraa that sparked Syria's bloody civil war.

It's been almost two-and-a-half years since the uprisings known as the Arab Spring began in December 2010 (see map, p. 15). The initial optimism that marked the revolts--the hope that a democratic Middle East was around the corner--has given way to harsh realities. In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began when a frustrated 26-year-old fruit vendor set himself on fire in protest, the assassination of a political opposition leader has sent the country back into turmoil. In Egypt, the economy has collapsed and the first democratically elected parliament has been dissolved, leading to talk of a second revolution.

Nowhere has the Arab Spring had bloodier consequences than in Syria. The initial uprising has evolved into a civil war with the goal of ousting President Assad. About 70,000 people have been killed and more than a million have fled the country. The idea of Syria as a nation is disappearing amid cycles of sectarian bloodshed that could lead to its breakup.

Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of Syria's population, are battling the brutal 43-year dictatorship of the Assad family. The Assads are Alawites, a Shiite sect that has held most positions of power in the government and military (see "Who's Who in Syria," p. 14).

U.S. Involvement

In February, the U.S. announced it would send $60 million of food and medical supplies to opposition fighters. The U.S. has condemned the Assad regime and warned it not to use chemical weapons, but it's been hesitant to supply arms directly to the rebels for fear the weapons would end up in the hands of extremists, including groups linked to Al Qaeda. The C.I.A., however, is now helping other countries, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, funnel arms to rebel fighters.

"We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind wondering where the support is or if it's coming," says U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Two years after the Syrian uprising began, the boys whose arrest sparked the first protest remain largely unknown.

Some of the boys from Deraa are refugees, like the teenager in Jordan. Now 17, he agreed, along with his father, to speak as long as his name was not revealed. They say they're protecting relatives left behind in Syria, but their reluctance also comes from shame they both feel: The boy's father gave his son up to the police to spare another son, and the teenager informed on three of his friends to try to avoid the torture he suffered anyway.

Despite all that has happened to his family and his country, the teenager says he has no regrets. "Why should I? It's good that it happened," he says. Speaking of President Assad, he says, "We found out who he really is."

It all began with the graffiti. Syria's government, nervous as leaders were being toppled around the Arab world, reacted furiously to the slight against President Assad, arresting the teenager and more than a dozen other boys and then torturing them for weeks.

The boy's relatives, neighbors, and hundreds of others in Deraa gathered for protests demanding the release of the boys. Security forces opened fire on the crowds. The regime thought that zero tolerance would head off an escalation; they were wrong.

Recounting those days, the teenager says he and his friends did not talk much about politics, but they saw on TV what was going on in other Arab countries. Small protests had begun to flare in Damascus, the capital. "It was the right time," the teenager says.

The next morning, he noticed intelligence agents at a school and had little doubt why they were there. "We knew what we did," he says.

Over the next few days, the police and the military roamed the city "day and night," storming the homes of suspects. The teenager went into hiding. "I thought it would pass," he says.

When the police finally knocked on the family's door, the officers threatened to take a different son. If the father gave up the teenager, the agents promised, he would be held only a few days. The father complied and took his son to the local security headquarters. The boy started crying and begging to be taken home. But the father left his son behind. When he returned home, his wife said, "You are to blame for anything that happens to him."

The abuse began as soon as the teenager was taken to prison, where he was beaten during his interrogations. "Are you the one who wrote it?" the interrogator asked.

The teenager said he dropped out of school when he was 8. "I don't know how to write," he told the interrogators for three days until, desperate for the abuse to stop, he confessed to spray-painting the phrase, though he had not. He also named three other boys who were there.

'People Became Uncontrollable'

Within two weeks of the arrest, his father received a call to go to the mosque for a protest, in part to demand the release of the boys. The father says he and the other parents were convinced that if they didn't protest, "they would have taken more children." The demonstration grew, and soon he saw almost everyone he knew in the city.

It's impossible to say how things might have turned out had the Assad government taken a more accommodating stance toward the protest. Activists from Deraa still insist that the pressures could have been contained and compromises reached, even after years of violent repression. Any such hope quickly passed as the deaths began to mount.

"People became uncontrollable," the father says.

Sometime after the protests in Deraa started, the father heard that the boys would be freed. The teenager, unaware of the spreading revolt, says he was put on a minibus with other boys from Deraa and sent home. When he arrived, his father recalls, "I didn't recognize him."

His son fled to Jordan about a year ago, where he spends his time looking for work as a day laborer and dreaming about returning to fight the government in Syria.

About four months ago, he heard that his cousin who had written the graffiti and somehow managed to avoid arrest, had joined the rebels as a fighter--and been killed.

Who's Who in Syria

Key players in the civil war

BASHAR AL-ASSAD (right), Syria's dictatorial president, inherited the post in 1999 from his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled ruthlessly after he took power in a 1970 coup. Despite early hopes that the younger Assad might allow democratic reforms, he has cracked down on dissent as harshly as his father.

SUNNI MUSLIMS account for 75 percent of Syria's population and are the backbone of the opposition.

ALAWITES are a Shiite Muslim sect that makes up 12 percent of the population but controls all the levers of power. (The vast majority of Shiites in Syria are Alawites.) Assad is an Alawite, as are most of the ruling elite, including military officers.

CHRISTIANS make up 10 percent of Syria's population. Minority groups like Christians and Alawites--who have supported the Assad regime--fear what would happen if Sunnis come to power.

THE FREE SYRIAN ARMY (above) is the main rebel group in Syria, made up mostly of Sunnis; its goal is to force Assad from power. It now numbers more than 100,000 fighters--a hodgepodge of activists, militants, and defectors from Syria's military. It's getting weapons from Turkey and Saudi Arabia with C.I.A. help.


More than 70,000 Syrians have died since the nation's bloody civil war began more than two years ago as part of the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East. A teen describes how some graffiti helped ignite the revolt.

* What do the opposition fighters in Syria hope to achieve? Why?

* Do you think that the uprising in Syria would have happened even if the teen's cousin had not spray-painted his message to President Assad? Explain.

* How do you think uprisings in other Arab countries affected Syria's civil war?

* What role are religious divisions playing in the conflict?


A century from now, what wilt history books say about the Arab Spring revolutions? Will the uprisings be recalled as events that democratized the Middle East--or as bloody failures? Support your prediction with evidence from the article.


Take a stand: Should the U.S. supply arms to Syria's opposition fighters?


Why do you think Syria's civil war has Lasted longer and proved deadlier than other Arab Spring rebellions?

One of the teens arrested for the graffiti that sparked the revolt says, "It's good that it happened. We found out who [Assad] really is." What do you think he means? How would you characterize President Assad and his government?

What choices does the U.S. have for dealing with the conflict in Syria? What response do you support? Why?

What challenges does Syria's conflict pose for the nation's neighbors?


In March, Syria's opposition forces chose a Syrian-born American citizen, Ghassan Hitto of Texas, to lead an interim government if Assad is overthrown.

(1) The violent conflict in Syria began when

a the nation's economy suddenly collapsed.

b a fruit vendor set himself on fire to demonstrate opposition to the Assad regime.

c Bashar at-Assad seized power in a coup.

d the government responded with force to a graffiti message.

(2) In Syria, President Bashar at-Assad and most other government and military readers are

a planning to hold free democratic erections.

b devout Sunni Muslims.

c members of the minority Alawite sect.

d currently in hiding in the city of Deraa.

(3) Since the conflict in Syria began, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to

a the United States.

b France.

c Jordan.

d Tunisia.

(4) How has the Syrian uprising changed since its early days?

a At Qaeda has taken charge of the Syrian opposition forces.

b The uprising has evolved into a full-blown civil war.

c The U.S. has gotten involved by pledging support for Assad.

d all of the above

(5) Which statement about the Arab Spring revolutions is true?

a After initial, progress toward democracy, several, nations are falling back into turmoil.

b The revolutions have brought Western-style democracy to half a dozen Arab nations.

c The revolutions have now spread beyond the Arab world.

d Initial skepticism has given way to growing optimism that the revolutions will lead to democracy.


(1) What role has the U.S. taken in the conflict in Syria so far? Should it do more? Why or why not?

(2) How do you think the continuing conflict in Syria will affect the region as a whole?

(3) What do you think the author means by the statement "the idea of Syria as a nation is disappearing"?



(1) [d] the government responded with force to a graffiti message.

(2) [c] members of the minority Alawite sect.

(3) [c] Jordan.

(4) [b] The uprising has evolved into a full-blown civil war.

(5) [a] After initial progress toward democracy, several nations are fatting back into turmoil.

Kareem Fahim is a New York Times reporter based in Amman, Jordan; Hwaida Saad reported from Beirut, Lebanon.
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Title Annotation:INTERNATIONAL
Author:Fahim, Kareem; Saad, Hwaida
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Apr 22, 2013
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