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How Syria's civil war began, in one devastating timeline

A March 2011 photo shows protesters marching in the Syrian city of Damascus.
A March 2011 photo shows protesters marching in the Syrian city of Damascus.

The Syrian refugee crisis crashing against Europe's shores has been, in many ways, a wake-up call for the West: that it has a responsibility toward refugees, that there are dire and growing crises in the world, that checkbook humanitarianism won't cut it anymore. And it has forced us to confront a truth we have known but struggled to avoid for years: Syria's civil war is one of the greatest catastrophes of our lifetimes.

How, many are naturally wondering this week, did this catastrophe come to be? How did it become so bad? Colleague Zack Beauchamp offers a brief, simple explanation of Syria's war. But it is worth dwelling in particular on how this war began, and how it spiraled from a few Arab Spring protests into a war so horrific it has killed 250,000 and displaced half of Syria's population.

Iyad al-Baghdadi, an Arab Spring activist now living in Norway, recounted the war's origins in a series of tweets on Saturday. His timeline, four years after the events he describes, is difficult to read, looking back on the courage of those Syrian protesters, knowing what Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and the world had in store for them. Baghdadi's tweets (reproduced here with his generous permission) are a helpful primer, a reminder of the evils of the Assad regime, and an implicit but devastating reminder of how the world has over and over failed Syria's people:

Warning: the link in the tweet below links to an extremely graphic image.

Foreign policy communities in Washington and elsewhere have debated ever since then, and will probably debate for the rest of our lives, what, if anything, the world could have done differently to prevent this catastrophe. I can't claim to have an answer; I'm not sure anyone can. Baghdadi offers some thoughts that are worth reflecting on as the repercussion of 2011 now wash onto European shores: