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- The Syrian War - April 17, 2018
One of the most devastating calamities gripping humanity today is the on-going war in Syria. Upon researching, it came to our attention that not many know what is going on. In a bid to increase the understanding of the situation, though enough cannot be said, we are putting forward a short piece to encapsulate some key details.
This piece has been written by an intern, Sumaiya Bushra, with the guidance, inputs and editorial support of the Editorial Board.
Syria, once a beautiful and vibrant country, with its rich heritage and diversity, is merely dust now. Continuous air strikes and bombings have reduced the country to rubble. The Syrian war has entered its 8th year, and it is only getting worse.
Inspired by the Arab Spring’s ousting of the Libyan, Tunisian and Egyptian presidents, what started as a peaceful protest in 2011 soon escalated into violence. Unarmed demonstrators in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, were met with brutal and inhuman treatment being meted out on Syria’s President, Bashar al Assad’s orders. The demonstrators were confident in their ability to throw out President Assad, but the Syrian fate transpired far from what had been sought.
According to the UN, by June 2013, more than 90,000 civilians were killed in the conflict and by March 2018, over 400,000 more lost their lives. By the end of 2017, more than 5.4 million people had fled the country and 6.1 million were internally displaced. There are 13.1 million people still in need with 2.98 million in hard to access, besieged areas.
Civilian Syrians believe Syria’s most trusted neighbour, the Arab league, has deserted them and this has caused them grievous hurt. They blame them and Qatar for doing little to save them from their oppressor, President Assad. With roofs over their heads blown to smithereens, improper sanitation, lack of medical facilities, blockade of food supply and the ensuing starvation has grossly deprived Syrians of basic human needs. The war has seen unimaginable human rights violations, battering the fate of Syrians into the doors of darkness.
History has often witnessed that women and children are the most vulnerable group affected by war. This civil war in Syria has the same story to tell.
What caused the war?
Before the outbreak of the war, Syria was suffering with famine, unemployment, lack of political freedom and corruption under President Assad, who had assumed power in 2000. Civilians demanded democracy and took to the streets with peaceful protests.[i] However, in mid March, 2011, a 13-year-old boy was tortured and killed by Assad’s army in Daraa and a group of teenagers and children arrested for supporting the pro-democracy calls. This outraged the civilians who soon demanded President Assad’s resignation. That day, dozens of unarmed protesters were killed mercilessly by the regime. This sparked more violence nationwide and opposition supporters began to take up arms to defend themselves and to throw out Assad’s forces from their local areas. This escalated into a full-scale civil war, the worst humanitarian crisis after the Second World War.The civil war spread from Daraa in 2011 to Damascus and Aleppo in 2013. Assad refused to step down as a President and swore to crush the opposition, whom he calls terrorists.
Who joined the civil war?
The war manifested into not just one between Assad’s forces and the opposition, but into one with religious friction. The mix of different groups has caused massive mayhem. So, who are mainly involved in this war?[ii]
- 1. Defectors from the Syrian Army formed Free Syria Army (FSA) to fight against Assad’s regime as they felt the war was unfair and unjust. Hence, they formed their own group to fight for the civilians. The U.S, Turkey and the Arab league soon backed FSA, providing them military training and weapons.
- 2. On the other hand, Iran, a Shia majority country sent weapons and soldiers to Assad’s army and Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, to suppress the FSA.
- 3. The al-Qaeda group took advantage of the situation and entered Syria. The YPG or the People’s Defense Unit came into picture to fight the Kurdish nationalist movement, seeking an autonomous state between the border of Turkey and Syria. They had no intentions to join any forces as they were fighting for their own freedom.
- 4. The entry of the Islamic State, or formerly known as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Syria took another dimension in this civil war. Forming out of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2013, it grew to become of the primary ‘jihadist’ groups sparring with governmental forces in Iraq and Syria. Initially cash rich Arab states that supported the rebellion against Assad funded it. However, hostility towards it has intensified as it frequently has carried out atrocities against other rebel factions and civilians.[iii]
- 5. Assad’s regime was losing power until Russia got involved in 2015. Its involvement changed the entire course of war. Russian president Vladimir Putin backed up Assad in order to destroy the “terrorist groups” residing in Syria.
Present situation in Syria, the consequences and the measures adopted:
1. The relentless air strikes on Eastern Ghouta carried out by Russian warplanes from Feb.18th to Feb. 21st 2018 were described as one of the deadliest attacks ever witnessed in the world. Feb.19th was the single bloodiest day with a death toll of 127 civilians including 39 children killed in the bombardment.[iv] According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a U.K based group monitoring the conflict, said more than 500 civilians have lost their lives within a week.
The following day, the U.N called for an immediate ceasefire, saying the situation was “spiraling out of control” after an “extreme escalation” in hostilities. The United Nations Security Council is struggling to facilitate aid deliveries. But Russia underlined that under the current draft any ceasefire would not apply to the Islamic State or Nusra front (al-Qaeda’s official affiliation in Syria). Russia was accused of delaying the resolution for a 30 day ceasefire.
According to SOHR’s partners in Syria, 45 schools in Eastern Ghouta have been attacked since the start of January 2018, with 11 completely destroyed. Attacks on schools and hospitals during the conflict are gross violations of international law. Syria hasn’t signed the Safe School Declaration – an international commitment to protect education from attacks and stop the military use of schools. Due to constant attacks on schools, majority of children are out of school and their right to education is being violated.
The consequences of attacks have left civilians starving to death due to food blockades and an acute shortage of medical help.[v] The Red Cross in Eastern Ghouta, reported that Assad’s regime did not allow humanitarian aid inside the town.
2. On March 16th, civilians faced another day of violence in the besieged Syrian enclave of Eastern Ghouta due to airstrikes carried by the Syrian regime and Russia. The violence has confirmed that despite the United Nations Security Council resolution, calling for an immediate 30-day ceasefire and allowing delivery of humanitarian aid, being passed in February, it has not been implemented.
Almost 12,000 people have been evacuated and are ready to leave the besieged areas but with international guarantees that they will not be detained or otherwise punished by advancing regime troops.
Ali al Zaatari, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, told the Guardian[vi] that UN personnel had provided some of the evacuees with humanitarian aid including hygiene kits and bedding and children had been vaccinated against polio.
These air strikes led to the postponement of aid-deliveries to more than 300,000 people in Ghouta.
Residents have been hoping for a negotiation between rebel groups and Assad’s regime that would allow a reconciliation arrangement or a large scale evacuation. The evacuation agreements followed when the Russian government received much criticism for its offensive acts in February and March that killed several hundreds in Eastern Ghouta.
3. A recent chemical attack in Douma[vii], the last rebel held area near Syria’s capital, Damascus, has killed at least 100 people on April 7th and 8th and grievously wounded many more. Assad and Russia however deny their involvement in these attacks, calling it a fabrication. According to activists from the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), which records alleged violations of international law in Syria, reported two separate incidents of bombs containing toxic substances being dropped by the Syrian Air Force.
The White Helmets, a group of rescuers, operating in opposition held areas in Syria, said that most of the fatalities were women and children.[viii] Aid workers have reported that an entire family has choked to death as they were hiding in their basements, trying to seek shelter from air raids and barrel bombs.
Doctors are currently dealing with more than 1,000 cases of people struggling to breathe after the gas attack. Patients have shown symptoms of respiratory distress, control cyanosis (blue skin/lips), excessive oral foaming, corneal burns and emission of chlorine like odour. Rescue workers also posted videos of people suffocating and foaming at their mouths and noses owing to the chemicals. Unfortunately, there are only a few physicians and medical staff in Douma to treat these patients. More than 100,000 are reported to be trapped and are in need of medical assistance.
UN Secretary General, António Guterres, said he was outraged by the reports from Douma and warned that “any confirmed use of chemical weapons, by any party to the conflict and under any circumstances, is abhorrent and a clear violation of International law.”
After a chemical attack, Jaish al- Islam, the last remaining group in Eastern Ghouta, has agreed with Russia to evacuate its holdout with its family and relatives. Earlier the rebel groups said that these evacuations would lead to large amount of forced displacement, but gave in after weeks of intense bombardment. The Syrian government has negotiated evacuation deals to clear the rebel enclave. Human Rights groups have also said that the evacuations are in violations of international law.[ix] The area is now under the Syrian regime in conjunction with the Russian military.
US President Donald Trump had warned Russia[x] pertaining to the chemical attack but the Russians have been denying the allegations and warned US against military action.[xi] However, the US, UK and France struck Syrian government targets early in the morning on 14th April, in a coordinate missile attack to retaliate against the use of chemical weapons. Russian authorities have condemned it, declared it to be in response to ‘staged’ accusations and have stated that they should have waited for the results from the inspection to be conducted by investigators of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). However, claiming security concerns, they have so far not been allowed to visit the site despite being in Damascus and have been granted permission to undertake the inspection, gathering soil and other samples, only on 18th April, 11 days after the chemical attack. There are concerns that the site may have been already tampered with, however, these allegations have been denied by Russia.[xii]
What transpires next will possibly emerge after OPCW’s report. And, what course this war takes and when it will be resolved is impossible to predict. However, one may hope that the light at the end of the tunnel is fast approaching. According to the UN, 500,000 have died in this conflict and 1.5 million people have been rendered with permanent disabilities. UNICEF has issued a statement showing a blank page, followed by the statement, “We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage. Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?”