Special coverage: What is going on in Syria?

Special coverage: What is going on in Syria?


511,000 people have been killed in the Syrian war

6 million children are displaced or living as refugees

2.5 million of them are out of school

8.6 million are now in dire need of assistance

3 million children are exposed to unexploded ordinance and land mines


What is going on right now?


The Syria war enters its eighth year on March 15. Right now the government of Bashar Al Assad is clearing up one of the last remaining rebel-pockets in the country. The focus for the past month has been on its operation in Ghouta, an eastern suburb of the capital Damascus.

Kids killed during the Ghouta chemical attack

News headlines, if you have been paying attention, have focused on undiscriminating bombing of the territory, which means anyone who happens to be in the area is brutally hurt or killed.

A Syrian Kurdish refugee from the Kobani area carries an injured child at a camp in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border.

However, the images of bloodied children being pulled out from the rubble seemed to have lost their impact since the carnage has been going on now for so long.

Is anyone doing anything about it?

The world is definitely condemning the situation, but the rhetoric has not been matched with any actions.

Syrian men carrying babies make their way through the rubble of destroyed buildings.

Nearly 400,000 of civilians are trapped in the rebel-held Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta as the government and allied forces, including Iran-backed militants and Russia, wage a relentless bombing and shelling campaign to the area.


The children

Children have been some of the biggest victims of the war in Syria.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has tracked the war since it began, has documented as many as 19,800 children killed since the conflict began in March 2011.

Abdul-Hamid Alyousef, 29, holds his twin babies who were killed during a suspected chemical weapons attack.

A study published in the Lancet in January shows that children are increasingly bearing the brunt of the fighting, making up 23 per cent of the civilian casualties in 2016, compared to 8.9 percent in 2011. The Lancet study reported at least 13,800 children have been killed from 2011 through 2016.

A Syrian boy is comforted as he cries next to the body of a relative who died in a reported airstrike.

And in the first two months of 2018, more than 1,000 children have been killed or injured, according to the UN.


What does it look like right now?

A Syrian woman carries the body of her infant after he was retrieved from under the rubble of a building.

In a report issued on Monday, Save the Children, said that its partners on the ground have described an “apocalyptic” bombing campaign that has targeted homes, more than 60 schools, 24 hospitals and other medical facilities and forced thousands to live in underground shelters.

Syrian medics helping a wounded child at the Dar al-Shifa hospital.

“The war is going on unabated with an incredible, unacceptably brutal impact upon children,” Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa told The Associated Press. “This is a war on children…Thousands of children have been killed, continue to be killed. Tens of thousands of children have been seriously injured. Many of them are going to carry scars for life. Thousands of children have been disabled by war.”


How bad is it outside of the capital?

Destroyed buildings in Homs.

Further north, hundreds of thousands in the Kurdish district of Afrin are also squeezed amid a Turkish offensive to expel a US-backed local Kurdish militia. “For hundreds of thousands of children in Syria, this is the worst point of the conflict so far,” Save the Children said in its report. Calls for cease-fires and humanitarian pauses have been ignored and the few aid convoys allowed into eastern Ghouta have had medical supplies removed before they depart for the rebel-held enclave. In its report, Save the Children said the number of people displaced has grown by 60 percent since the de-escalation zones were announced last July, with up to 250 children fleeing their homes every hour.


How did it get to this?

It all started on March 15, 2011

Taking a cue from Arab Spring protests sweeping the region in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, anti-government demonstrations broke out in Deraa near the border with Jordan, demanding the sacking of the city’s governor and security chief after they reportedly ordered the arrest of 15 children for writing anti-regime slogans on the school walls.

The regime of Bashar Al Assad has ruled Syria since his father Hafez was in power since 1979. Syrians have long complained of stifling dictatorship and corruption and one of the most brutal prison systems in the world.

The majority Sunni population grew to resent the minority Alawite sect in power, which over the years have subjugated and stifled any semblance of opposition or democracy. The torture and murder of 13-year-old Hamza Al Khatib ignited the anger of Syrians and more and more protests began to emerge across the country.

The government moved the army in quickly to put an end to the protests but it was already too late. Syrians no longer feared their government. By 2012 a string of mass defections from the government began to unfold, including the Prime Minister Riad Hijab. A coalition of opposition groups quickly formed. In the following years the momentum against the regime gained quickly and it seemed that Al Assad’s days were numbered as it lost major swathes of the country in the east, north and south. Its last pockets were Damascus and the western coast of Latakia, the main bastion of Al Assad’s Alawite sect.

In 2014 with the entrance of Daesh and the Al Qaida offshoot of Al Nusra Front, the opposition’s image took a sharp downturn. A propaganda war also emerged, backed by Russia, trying to shape world opinion against the opposition by portraying them as crazed and brutal Islamists. This worked in the regime’s favor and the West, which initially wanted to get rid of Al Assad, began to change their tune and prioritised the fight against Daesh against the removal of Al Assad.


How did the Syrians react to the war?

Syrians began leaving in masses, risking their lives by taking dingy boats across the Mediterranean in hopes for a better life in Europe.


Many of the boats capsized and many people drowned in their desperate attempt for human dignity. Images of thousands of Syrians walking across Europe on foot also garnered international headlines.

Syrian families, fleeing from various eastern districts of Aleppo.

Regional and international players like Russia, Turkey, the US and Iran all began to vy for areas of influence in Syria which made the war messier and bloodier. It no longer was about the dictatorship of Al Assad and pro-democracy movements–it became an international war in which the Syrians seemed to be only bystanders and victims.

In 2016, with the entry of Russia, Al Assad’s most important ally, the northern city of Aleppo, second most important to Damascus fell from the rebels and since then the regime has gained the upper hand. The regime, with the help from Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias, have taken back most of the country from the rebels.The last remaining pockets are Idlib in the north, Deraa in the south and eastern Ghouta.


Who are the key players in the war?

Four-year-old boy with a bloodied face sitting in an ambulance.

The opposition is wide and diverse and backed by several countries with opposing interests.

A large section of the opposition are affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. These are backed by Qatar and Turkey. Another section of the opposition, backed by Saudi Arabia, were not also Islamist but not affiliated to the Brotherhood. The Free Syrian Army, were mostly secular in nature, and made up of Syrian army defectors. The regime of Al Assad has been loyally backed by two important allies—Russia and Iran. For Russia Syria is important because it’s the last foothold of influence in the Middle East. It is also the only access to the Mediterranean Sea, which is of strategic importance to Russia and has a naval base.

Since it put boots on the ground in 2016, it has built several military bases in the country to cement its control. For Iran, a longtime ally of the Al Assad regime, the fight for Syria was existential. Its loss would mean it would no longer have a ground link to transport arms from Iran to Lebanon where it supports the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Hezbollah was one of the first foreign entities to enter the war and were largely credited with rolling back the advances of the Free Syrian Army. The United States initially was anti-Al Assad but since the war against Daesh took precedence, it has changed its insistence on Al Assad’s departure as part of a political solution. The US also has boots on the ground in Syria’s east and has backed the Syrian Kurds, upsetting Turkey.

Turkey has also shifted its focus, initially insisting on Al Assad’s departure. Now it is focusing its energies on Syrian Kurds looking to create an autonomous mini-state along its northern border with Turkey. Turkey objects to this and fears such a move will mobilise and incite its own substantial Kurdish population to revolt against Turkish rule.


Where do we go from here?

Syrian refugee Ahmad Alkhalaf, whose arms were blown off above the elbows in a refugee camp bomb blast in 2014.

While it seems that Al Assad has effectively won the war—the country is broken beyond repair many believe. The major warfare could be winding up soon as the government moves to mop of pockets of resistance in Ghouta, Idlib and Deraa, but protracted conflict is very likely—much like what happened in neighbouring Iraq after the fall of Saddam. Al Assad has lost moral legitimacy in the eyes of most Syrian people and most of the world and his fate is unclear at the moment. A series of upcoming conferences are hoping to reach a political solution where Al Assad is eventually transitioned out of power.

However, Russia and Iran have objected to him leaving power immediately. A new Syrian constitution has allowed Al Assad to run for an additional term which could see him in power for the foreseeable future. With Syria effectively divided, it is unclear what Al Assad will in fact be in control of. Turkey has already began its intrusion into northern Syria where it is fighting the Kurds. US has a firm presences in the Daesh-liberated eastern areas of Syria where the oilfields are.

Syria’s war has ‘cost the economy $226 billion’ and it could take decades for Syria to dig itself out of the ashes. Many countries such as China are vying for important contracts to rebuild–hoping to make huge financial gains.


Syria: A tragedy of our times

Gulf News Editorial 


It is a war of chemical attacks, of barrel bombs, of deaths by torture in prisons, of beheadings on camera, of millions of refugees

On March 15, 2011, the people of Syria began peaceful protests against the dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad. The regime, instead of listening to the legitimate demands of the protestors – for jobs, dignity, end to corruption, end to brutality – responded in the only way it knew, shooting down demonstrators on the streets or torturing them in its dungeons.

Seven years on, more than half a million people are dead, over 11 million out of a prewar population of 20 million are displaced, the country lies in pieces, the social fabric has been torn apart, and the regime shows no signs of ending it cruel practices, as illustrated by the bloodbath that Eastern Ghouta has been subjected to for the past month.

Almost as shocking as the regime’s vile conduct has been the deafening silence of the international community. Bodies of Syrian babies these days elicit little more than a shrug, while the United Nations continues to “call for an end to the bloodshed”. Both the UN-backed talks in Geneva and the Russian-sponsored negotiations in Sochi have failed to raise any real prospect of a political solution to the conflict.

Syria is a tragedy of our times. It is a war that has been played out daily on our TV screens and through gory, outrageous videos on YouTube. It is a war of chemical attacks, of barrel bombs, of deaths by torture in prisons, of beheadings on camera, of millions of refugees in unhygienic camps, of childhoods stolen, of futures destroyed.

The regime has been blamed for 85 per cent of all deaths. Close to 20,000 children – innocent non-combatants – have been killed, most of them in indiscriminate bombardment by Al Assad’s army and militias but many also in gruesome massacres.

The Daesh terrorists, and extremists in the opposition have also been responsible for a fair share of the atrocities. While the international community and forces on the ground found common cause in eradicating the Daesh cancer, they also got involved in power games that have prolonged the conflict and added to its already bewildering complexity. Increasingly, it appears that the international actors inside Syria are consolidating their zones of influence in the country, making a mockery of its sovereignty.

It is clear that Al Assad is on track to winning this war. But his victory is hollow and has come at a terrible price for the country he claims to represent.

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