the situation in syria
Briefly, what is the Syrian Civil War and refugee crisis, and who’s fighting who?
In a week’s time, the Syrian Civil War will have been raging for eight years. In that time, up to 1/2 a million Syrians have been killed amidst the fighting. A staggering 12 million have also been displaced both internally and externally (mostly to neighbouring countries), and around a million have sought asylum in Europe. In 2014, Syrian refugees became the world’s largest refugee group, overtaking Afghan refugees which had been the largest group for 30 years.
The refugee and humanitarian crisis that has spiralled out of control over the past 5 or so years is the product of raging war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies (backed by Russia, Iran and Lebanese based Hezbollah) and a mix of anti-government rebel forces and groups opposed to his autocratic rule and intent on overthrowing the government. This loose coalition of anti-government groups have received backing from a mix of international players such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey and a US-led coalition. With time, the conflict has also seen the heavy and brutal involvement of Islamists and Jihadists who have been fighting both pro-government and anti-government forces in a bid to win power for their own cause amidst the chaos, ISIL being the most prominent group here. Not only have ISIL added another caveat to the government/anti-government dichotomy, but they’ve also been in brutal conflict with other smaller Islamist/Jihadist groups also fighting for power (ISIL’s main opponent being the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front). A key issue for international backers like the US-led coalition, for example, has been ensuring support they do provide doesn’t end up in the hands of militants.
How did things begin to start with?
Understanding the Arab Spring or Arab Uprising is key to understanding what initially set off the current volatility in Syria. In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, set himself alight in protest of police harassment and autocracy in general. His death led to protests that soon exploded into the Tunisian Revolution. What spurred the momentum of the revolution was a multiplicity of factors, but broadly they were dissatisfaction with autocracy and corruption, youth unemployment and financial downturn: the same factors in other Arab countries (such as Syria) spurred the revolution to spread across the Arab World. By February, the Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak had been forced to stand down and protests in Libya against Gadaffi had erupted into the Libyan Civil War. In March, peaceful protests were starting to gain momentum in Syria. Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad’s response to protesters was hard-line, only furthering tensions and opposition. The establishment of the Free Syrian Army by a group of military defectors (set out to overthrow the government) in July 2011 and increasing conflict between protesters and government forces was the final tipping point for a slide into civil war.
Back to the situation on the ground… what’s happening in Eastern Ghouta?
Eastern Ghouta has military significance for the Syrian government: it’s close to the Syrian capital Damascus and is one of the rebel’s last strong-holds near the capital. As such, the government have had it under siege since 2013, with the current humanitarian situation in the area being described by the UN as ‘hell on earth’. A recent article by the Independent detailed claims by a resident of Eastern Ghouta of both government and rebel forces preventing the fleeing of innocent civilians. 1 The result is 400,000 residents experiencing daily shelling and a rising death toll as a consequence, with very little supplies or humanitarian and medical assistance being able to enter to alleviate the suffering. A recent bombing campaign by Assad’s forces and his international supporters has seen 500 dead in just over a week, equating to one of the most deadly bombing campaigns in the whole war. 2 Chemical weapons have also been used by the Assad regime throughout the conflict, and reports from the ground claim the government’s attacks on Eastern Ghouta over recent weeks has once again involved the use of chlorine gas on civilians. Today alone, the White Helmets (a volunteer rescue group of the Syrian Civil Defense) reported 30 suffocation cases, including women and children, after another chemical weapon attack by the Assad regime.3 To say rescue groups are working in difficult conditions would be an understatement.
Attempts to impose a ceasefire to allow civilians to be evacuated from the area are under-way but have been notoriously difficult to impose between the two sides. Whilst the UN Security Council have demanded a 30 day ceasefire, nothing has come and Putin has put forth a daily five hour cease-fire instead, involving the creation of a humanitarian corridor in and out of the area (this was reportedly put into action February 27th). The international community has condemned it as inadequate, however, and civilians remain under attack and the situation chaotic and volatile. Yesterday, March 5th, saw the deaths of 94 civilians despite the supposed five hour pause. A UN aid convoy was forced to cut its mission short amidst the shelling. 4
Civilians and aid-workers alike are in emotional and physical turmoil and the conflict shows no signs of stopping.
What can we do about it?
Something we can all do from the comfort of our own homes is to stop acting as if we are blind to the situation. None of us have an excuse to be totally in the dark about this when we have so much information available at our fingertips. It is, however, hugely complicated and hard to discern what we need to know from the information available, so I’ll link some pages below that give a rough overview of what’s happening and other tangible ways to contribute.
- Syria Civil War Explained (very recent)
- Why is there a war in Syria? (very recent. Both this and the above page detail the start of the conflict through to external powers’ involvement and peace initiatives being thought up by the UN.)
- Syria: The Story of Conflict (two years old but useful information regarding the start of the conflict)
- Guardian article on the supposed ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta
- Five ways the civil war has changed the world
WATCH (there are so many more videos online but I don’t want to over saturate you with information!):
- Syria’s War, who is fighting and why? (fairly recent, easy to digest and discusses the Trump’s administration’s move from attacking ISIL alone to launching attacks directly on Assad)
- Syrian refugee crisis explained and also background to the civil war that triggered it (2 years old so the stats aren’t up to date.)
- This website has a great list of 16 amazing charities working with Syrian refugees, feel free to look through yourself and find one to support if you can.
- Choose Love the shop is an amazing project established by the charity Help Refugees, an organisation doing incredible work with refugees from across the world, including Syria. The premise of the Choose Love shop is that you buy an item but you leave with nothing. The money you spend on an item (say, an emergency blanket, children’s boots, or hot food) will then go towards a similar item needed for a refugee. I just bought a collection of items on there, it’s super easy and straight forward. There are items for as little as £3.00 so anything you could spare is contributing to something real and tangible to someone who desperately needs it, especially throughout winter. Explore the Help Refugees website as it’s full of important information too.
None of this is simple and it would be easier for us to sweep it under the carpet. It’d be less emotionally taxing to switch off the TV and look away as screaming children fill our screens but as humans with souls and the ability to act with empathy, we can’t do that. They can’t just switch off the TV and hope it all disappears. I’m not an expert on this topic by any stretch, but we don’t have to be: being aware, offering what you can and simply raising awareness is still vitally important.