Syria’s Last Breaths
The 15th of March, 2015, marked the fourth anniversary of the Syrian conflict. Monstrosities that have occurred since the beginning of the conflict were unimaginable, and thought to be halted by those who claimed all along that this was unacceptable and must be stopped. They have gone on, however, increasingly unnoticed and in the background of other conflicts. As the war has moved on to Iraq and yonder, we watch from afar, startled by the horror flooding many innocent civilians. Distracted by the terror of ISIS, we forget that beheadings are still a daily occurrence on Syrian ground. The conflict floats on, unabated.
It is approximated that 220,000 Syrians have lost their lives in the last 48 months. What once began as anti-government protests in March 2011 in the southern city of Deraa has escalated into a full-scale war fought by civilians. A displacement of about 11 million and a refugee population of 4 million leaves Syria at the top of any refugee exoduses in near history. Refugees make up half the country’s pre-crisis population. The UN projected that a total of 12.2 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria. 5.6 million of these are children. For humanitarian purposes, the UN launched an appeal in December 2014 for 8.4 billion dollars to provide help to the Syrians. This was after it had secured only about half of the funding it had requested that year. The government responded to the protests, demanding President Assad’s resignation with force, by crushing the forces. This didn’t stop the civilians, however, as by July of 2011, a few hundred thousand of them were flooding the streets around the country. Rebel brigades were formed as a result to tackle government forces to gain access and control of cities, towns, etc.
In 2012, fighting had reached the capital of Damascus and Aleppo. In June 2013, the UN estimated that 90,000 people had lost their lives in the conflict. Surprisingly, by August 2014 that figure had more than doubled itself, reaching an astonishing 191,000 civilian deaths. This continued to climb, and as the fourth anniversary got close, figures of over 200,000 were reported by the UN. As a result, neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are in the middle of a refugee crisis, as they are forced to provide accommodation for the helpless Syrians. When it comes to the financial state of the conflict, the UN published a report in March 2015 estimating that the total economic loss since the start of the conflict was around 202 billion dollars, leaving four in five Syrians in poverty. The education, health and social welfare systems of the country are also in a state of failure. As mentioned before, ISIS has left Syria in a state of a “war within a war”, battling al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front and Kurdish forces.
The political arena is made up of rebel groups and their deep divisions—rival alliances striving for control. The moderate National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is the most prominent group, backed by a few Arab and Western states. However, the influence they exude on Syrian ground is insignificant, and its dominance is naturally rejected by other groups. This leaves the country without a convincing alternative to the Assad government. With this dubious situation, the international community has taken a stand saying a political solution is the only way to end the conflict. Additionally, numerous attempts by the UN and the Arab League to negotiate ceasefires and start dialogue have nose-dived. January 2014 marked a new beginning for these negotiations. The US, Russia and the UN summoned a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, to implement the 2012 Geneva Communique, an agreement backed internationally calling for the creation of a transitional government in Syria resting on a mutual consensus. Unfortunately, the talks broke down after only two rounds, in February. The Syrian government was blamed by UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for their refusal to discuss the demands of the opposition and the insistence on fighting “terrorists”; also known as the rebel groups in the area.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says the organisation’s long-term strategic objective still rests the abovementioned strategy introduced in these talks. UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura has proposed freeze zones in Syria, where local ceasefires would be negotiated upon to allow deliveries with increased ease in these areas. The rebels of the city have rejected his proposal, admittedly, fearing the government will use the ceasefire to redeploy its forces somewhere else. For these reasons, diplomacy remains at a standstill, as those two rounds of peace talks achieved none of the progress that was hoped for. Marwan Kabalan, Syrian academic and analyst at the Doha Institute, told Al Jazeera « nobody really expected that we would reach this stage in which we will actually be having this national disaster in Syria.” The UN refugee agency UNHCR claims Syria is now « the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era ».
So what becomes of the Syrian future? Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from a refugee camp in Lebanon, claims many people have « lost hope » that the civil war is near an end. »When you talk to people here, they have lost faith in the international community. » She also said that many have been angered by the statement of John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States, who said the US does not want a chaotic fall of the Assad regime, because of an underlying fear « that extremists would take power ». »For people here, how they understand this is that the world wants to keep President Assad in power, » she said. The country’s infrastructure has decimated, the currency is in free fall and economists project that the economy has been set back by some 30 years. Most importantly, however, when it comes to the long term consequences, an image that cannot be denied is that a whole generation of children has entered a world of displacement and no education. Their future as well as that of their country does not look too bright. Ensuring their continued access to schooling is key in their protection, social stability and economic recovery.