“Assad, or we burn the country,” Syrian government loyalists chanted in 2011. It was a statement of intent that proved to be prophetic.

In early 2011, the Arab Spring tore through Tunisia, then Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, and Jordan. Syria stood at the precipice as people rose up against the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad, who had ruled since 2000.

Assad had assumed power from his father who had himself taken power in a military coup and then ruthlessly cracked down on the opposition. Hopes that Assad junior would prove be a reformist soon dissipated as his regime too ruled with an iron fist: a security state that used terror and torture to keep control.

The regime responded to peaceful protests with force, gunning marchers down in the streets of cities like Daraa and Hama. The opposition – bolstered by mass defections from the army – turned to force. But the opposition was always fragmented, riven by internal dissent and a sharp divide between secularists, moderate Islamists, extremists, and the Kurds.

Nonetheless, they made significant gains. Assad responded brutally, gradually reclaiming control of much of the country through a campaign of indiscriminate bombing, siege and starvation, mass detention, torture, and killing.

As diplomats at the United Nations argued about what to do in Libya few seemed to understand that Syria was descending into a hell that would consume more than half a million lives, displace more than half the population, incubate the genocidal Islamic State, and draw in Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, the United States, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Britain, France and others – including Australia.

Except for the courageous Syrian White Helmets and a few humanitarian organisations, no-one made the protection of Syrians from atrocities their priority. As the UN’s envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, put it in 2015,

everybody had their agenda and the interests of the Syrian people came second, third, or not at all.