The Syrian war is an ongoing civil war which began in March 2011. The conflict initiallystarted with pro-democracy demonstrations in the city Deraa, inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions; the underlying cause of the demonstrations was discontentment with President Bashar al-Assad due to high unemployment, corruption, and lack of political freedoms. After the government used deadly force to crush the dissenters, nationwide protests erupted, demanding the president’s resignation. The violence quickly escalated as opposition supporters took up arms, and the country descended into civil war.
Today, the war has evolved into a much more complex situation,with an increasing number of groups and countries becoming involved. Key supporters of the Syrian government have been Russia and Iran, while the rebel factions were backed by Turkey, Western powers (most prominently the United States), and several Gulf states who wish to counter Iranian influence in Syria.
This situation has led to several tensions: such as hatred between religious groups, primarily the Sunni Muslim majority against the president’s Shia Alawite government; the rise of jihadist groups in the opposition such as Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda; and the Syrian Kurds, who want independence. These tensions have led to numerous war atrocities and made peace negotiations difficult to implement.
The human impact of the Syrian war has been staggering and led to one of the largest refugee crises in modern history. While exact death toll figures vary depending on the source, over 500,000 people have been killed or presumed dead. The Violations Documentation Center has documented 191,219 battle-related deaths (including 123,279 civilians) as of December 2018. Overall, more than half of the population has been displaced; of which 6.2 million were internally displaced and 5.7 million fled abroad. The impact on heritage and civilian infrastructure was also serious: all six of the country’s Unesco World Heritage sites suffered significant damage, while in one district in Eastern Ghouta, 93% of buildings were damaged or destroyed by December 2017.
Human rights activists and UN inquiries throughout the war have documented war crimes being committed by all sides of the conflict. By February 2019, an estimated 13 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance; of which some 5.2 million were in acute need. Warring parties have made such issues worse by often refusing humanitarian organisations access to those in need; while physicians for Human Rights documented 550 attacks carried out on medical facilities by December 2018, which resulted in the deaths of 892 medical personnel. This has led to limited access to medical aid and healthcare for many civilians.
As of 2019, the Syrian government now controls large parts of Syria, including the major cities; however, the war and its impact on civilians shows no signs of ceasing. The situation remains highly unstable, as offshoot terrorist groups from IS and al-Qaeda remain active. In one of the latest developments, a UN-led independent commission of inquiry found grave war crimes committed by pro-government forces, the foreign powers backing them, and jihadist opponents in a battle over the Idlib province – the last significant rebel stronghold. The inquiry catalogued 52 “emblematic attacks” between November 2019 and June 2020, which led to civilian casualties and damaged infrastructure. The Syrian military and its allied Russian air force were accused of destroying hospitals, schools, markets and homes through their air strikes; though both governments have denied committing war crimes.
Areas controlled by jihadist militants (which dominate the opposition stronghold) are characterised by rampant abuse of human rights and negligible access to humanitarian assistance. The most prominent UN-designated terrorist group, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), has been accused of detaining, torturing and executing any civilians attempting to dissent, including journalists. Investigators found that HTS pillaged the homes of displaced civilians, and shelled civilian-populated areas held by the government “with no apparent legitimate military objective.” Furthermore, the battle over Idlib led to the largest wave of displacement in the war, with almost a million civilians forced to flee in harsh winter conditions.
In October 2019, Turkish military forces and a coalition of Turkey-backed armed groups began an offensive into northeast Syria, precipitated by the withdrawal of US troops from the border. Turkey stated that its aim was to push the US-allied Kurdish militias out of the buffer zone along the border, and that 18 Turkish civilians died as a result of Syrian Kurdish mortar attacks.
This situation has been described as a combination of worst-case scenarios by local and international aid workers. Firstly, the 100,000 civilians displaced have limited access to food, clean water and medical supplies; and many are forced to sleep out in the open. In addition, aid agencies fear that their ability to carry out cross-border operations to deliver humanitarian aid is limited in such a situation. Finally, Amnesty International has also documented serious violations and war crimes carried out by Turkish forces, such as unlawful attacks and summary killings upon these displaced civilians. For instance, an anonymous Kurdish Red Crescent worker described the result of a Turkish air strike on 12 October in Salhiye, in an area where displaced civilians were seeking shelter: “Everything happened so fast. In total, there were six injured and four killed, including two children. I couldn’t tell if they were boys or girls because their corpses were black. They looked like charcoal. The other two people killed were older men, they looked older than 50.” Other foreign powers who support the opposition are actively carrying out arms transfers to Turkey and other parties accused of violating international law – the US is the largest exporter of weapons, while other suppliers include Italy, Germany, Brazil and India.
However, Turkey and Russia are not the only foreign powers whose actions have directly impacted Syrian civilians. In 2014, the US launched Operation Inherent Resolve (an anti-IS campaign), which led to over 30,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. While most strikes were carried out by US warplanes, other countries participated in the coalition, including Britain, France, Australia, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Canada, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, and Bahrain. Since 2014, an estimated 11,800 civilians, including 2300 children and 1130 women were killed in these strikes. Dr Ali al-Bayati, spokesman for the IHCHR, stated that these reported deaths were much higher than the official numbers published by the coalition; accusing them of undercounting and failing to adequately investigate incidents of civilian harm. Additionally, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported scores of civilians killed even after Mr Trump declared victory over the IS in December.
Efforts to end the war have been futile despite 9 rounds of UN-mediated peace talks since 2014. Russia, Iran and Turkey have also set up parallel political talks – the Astana process- but these are also struggling to make progress. This can be largely attributed to a stalemate: President Assad is unwilling to negotiate with the opposition, while opposition groups insist that he must step down in any potential peace deal.
Why is there a war in Syria?: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35806229
Syria wants refugees back, but do they want to return?: https://sofrep.com/news/syria-wants-refugees-back-but-do-they-want-to-return/
Syria conflict: ‘Flagrant’ war crimes committed in Idlib battle: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-53322857
Damning evidence of war crimes and other violations by Turkish forces and their allies: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/10/syria-damning-evidence-of-war-crimes-and-other-violations-by-turkish-forces-and-their-allies/
War crimes committed by almost all sides in Syria: https://apnews.com/article/0946284d5fe839d66d7549fc910ae7a1
Fresh evidence of war crimes committed by all sides in Syrian conflict: https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/07/1067761
11,800 civilians killed in US-led air strikes: https://www.syriahr.com/en/118649/
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Author: Nikita Nandanwad
Editor: Kelsey Greeff
Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik