Lara Kajs | 11 March 2022 |
In Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, what started as peaceful demonstrations for change turned into eleven years of human suffering. After many decades of suppression of freedoms, government corruption, and high unemployment, first under Hafez al-Assad and then under his son Bashar, the current leader of Syria, the people raised their voices. While the Arab Spring created an opportunity to be heard, the people’s cries fell on deaf ears and open conflict ensued. As the demonstrations increased and calls for Mr. Assad’s resignation grew louder, the Assad government ordered the military to use deadly force to crush the protestors. Eleven years later, Syria is still drenched in conflict.
The amount of suffering in Syria has been exacerbated by a decade of chlorine barrel bombs, sarin gas attacks, forced starvation and besiegement, rape as a weapon, torture, extrajudicial killings, unlawful imprisonment, disappearances, mass executions, and forced displacement – all of which lie at the feet of Bashar al-Assad.
Displacement and Humanitarian Need
An estimated fourteen million people fled their homes – half of the country’s population. Nearly seven million people fled the country within the first few years, and seven million more have been left internally displaced within the country. Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon host approximately eighty-four percent of the displaced persons and have struggled to cope with one of the largest refugee crises in recent history, only recently surpassed by the Ukraine crisis in 2022.
UN agency reports indicate that 14.6 million people in Syria need some form of humanitarian assistance with as many as five million in critical need. More than twelve million people in Syria cannot find enough to eat on a daily basis. At least half a million children are still chronically malnourished… still… after eleven years of conflict.
The UN counts at least 350,209 civilians and combatants killed in the brutal conflict and crisis, but the UN also suggests that the number is considerably higher. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the number is at least half a million and probably closer to 600,000 killed. Nearly 50,000 people are believed to have been tortured to death in government-run prisons. Another source lists a mass extrajudicial execution of some 80,000 in one prison.
In the past two years, the humanitarian crisis in Syria has been compounded by an economic crisis triggered by US sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s infrastructure has been decimated by constant shelling and fighting. Syrian currency lost eighty percent of its value and inflation increased to 140 percent at the start of 2022. The poverty rate in Syria is at an unprecedented ninety percent. The war-torn country has been deeply impacted by Covid, resulting in limited testing, a devastated health system, and barely access to vaccines – only 7.4 percent of the population is vaccinated.
UN satellite analysis indicated that more than 35,000 structures were damaged or destroyed in Aleppo alone before 2016. And while hospitals are protected under International Humanitarian Law, there have been at least 612 documented attacks on 367 medical facilities, resulting in the deaths of 938 medical personnel less than half the country’s medical facilities are functional.
State Terrorism with External Support
As the conflict escalated, the battle shifted from being solely between those for or against the Assad regime and also included foreign entities. The lines were drawn, and outside factors chose sides and began to send arms, fighters, and finances to various groups within Syria. And as the conflict intensified; extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and Al Qaeda inserted themselves, which deepened concern in the international community.
Both Russia and Iran have committed resources to aid the Assad regime. Russia used its military bases in Syria for air assaults in support of Assad. And while Russia insists that it only targeted opposition fighters, sources indicate they frequently targeted civilian communities.
Iran deployed thousands of armed, Shia Muslim militia hundreds of troops, mostly from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, but also from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen, and spent billions to help Assad.
Opposition forces have been supported by Turkey, the U.S., the U.K., France, and other European allies, as well as several Gulf Arab states including Saudi Arabia and Qatar which were eager to counter Iranian influence in the region. Led by the US, a global coalition deployed special forces and carried out airstrikes to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkish troops have seized long swaths of territory along the Syrian-Turkish border, and it intervened to halt a full assault by the Assad government in the last oppositional stronghold of Idlib. All parties are responsible for perpetrating war crimes.
The conflict does not appear to have an end in sight. What is certain is that it will take diplomacy and a political solution to resolve it. The UN Security Council has pressed for the implementation of the 2012 Geneva Communiqué which envisions a transitional governing body “formed on the basis of mutual consent.”
There need to be renewed efforts for a peaceful political solution and resolution. Nine rounds of UN-mediated peace talks have failed to make progress toward peace. Mr. Assad has been unwilling to negotiate with groups that insist he step down as a condition of the settlement. Resolution of the conflict is not an impossibility. It is not a question of if it can be resolved, but more a matter of the will of all parties involved to do it.
Photo Credit: Dera’a, Syria, Vita. Licensed under CC 2.0 license