By Rafael Panlilio
This March marks four years since civil unrest in Syria began. For four years, militant factions within the country composed of organizations with varied motivations and ideologies prolonging and complicating an increasingly sectarian conflict have been battling for territorial control. These increasing hostilities have resulted in combatants and civilians dead, injured, or fleeing their homes as refugees with great losses for all involved in the conflict and no signs of abating. Political rights and civil liberties are practically absent and human rights violations from both sides continue to go unanswered. As of yet, there is no end in sight to the hostilities but even if the war were to end tomorrow, the suffering of the millions affected would still be far from over.
Inspired by the by the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrian protests and demonstrations began to emerge in January of 2011. Activists were dissatisfied with the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Promises of strong economic growth and political reform were unmet with demands for the reinstatement of civil rights and greater democratization gone unanswered. On March 6, 2011 in Daraa, fifteen boys were arrested and tortured for posting graffiti propaganda on walls throughout the city with the phrase “the people want to overthrow the regime,” a slogan commonly used in the Arab Spring. In the week that followed, the number of protesters would increase and clashes with security forces grew more violent. March 15 would go on to be known as the “Day of Rage” with hundreds demonstrating in the streets of Damascus and Aleppo calling out for reform, the release of political prisoners, and the freedom of the boys incarcerated on March 6. Three days later on March 18, the “Day of Dignity” would see a day of peaceful protest and prayers with demonstrators chanting “God, Syria, Freedom” only to be dispersed forcefully by security forces once again. The pro-democracy protests increased and security forces began to open fire on the demonstrators with greater frequency. By July, the number of protesters grew from hundreds to thousands all over the country.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Suhair Atassi, a Syrian human rights activist, explained that prior to the protests of early 2011, Syria was a “kingdom of silence.” Citizens were hopeful for change but wary after the events of the Damascus Spring which saw the demonstrators put down after only a couple of months. Atassi commented,
As of February 2015, there have been more than two hundred thousand casualties as the result of the fighting with over one and a half million injured, a number that includes rebel and Islamic militants, regime soldiers and civilians. More than nine and a half million Syrians, half the Syrian population, have fled the country as refugees with . A UN investigation on the human rights violations that have occurred since the unrest began has found atrocities of murder, torture, and rape committed from both sides. Government and rebel forces have both worked to block access to food, water, and health services in pursuit of winning the war. In the past four years, more than twenty million lives have been changed forever.
With half of the country’s public hospitals damaged from the fighting, proper health care has declined. D Prior to the hostilities, basic education and literacy were experiencing a strong upsurge for both men and women and in all age groups. Now, with more than four thousand schools destroyed, nearly three million children are without adequate education. Agricultural production has dropped causing the country to now rely on import, humanitarian aid, and international aid for food. With attacks destroying water treatment and sewage facilities, access to water is diminishing and public utilities have been halted due to the hostilities. The economy has fallen as small businesses are forced to shut down and millions of Syrians have lost their jobs. State agencies, international actors, and humanitarian organizations now work to solve the problem of a crisis that has affected practically every dimension of the lives of the Syrian citizens.
With countless factions and combatants converging in Syria’s war, the conflict has grown into a multi-faceted geopolitical mess. Those fighting for the regime are made up of Syrian security forces and Iranian and Hezbollah militia groups with the regime receiving support from Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah maintaining the military advantage. The rebels are made up of close to a thousand different factions with around a hundred thousand combatants including secular moderates looking to take down the regime. They are now outnumbered by Islamists and Jihadists looking to build an Islamic state. Moreover, the participation of a myriad of independent and jihadist groups such as ISIS complicate an already complex situation. Even if the rebel forces were successful in taking down the regime, the factions making up the rebellion would continue to fight each other.
Brian Michael Jenkins with the RAND Institute writes that the national institutions of Syria are breaking down and the country is being divided by sectarian tensions, calling it an “existential sectarian war.” He predicts that a political resolution is unlikely and that the armed conflict would go on to last many years. He writes “Syria has ceased to exist – no government will be able to rule all of what was the modern state of Syria in the foreseeable future.”
Despite calls from world leaders to relinquish the presidency, President al-Assad has refused to step down, dismissing the West’s condemnation of his government’s actions and labeling any opposition to the government as an act of terrorism. Economic sanctions have been issued against Syria. While humanitarian aid has come from all over the world, the UN Security Council intervention on the human rights violations taking place in Syria is hampered due to a lack of consensus coming from vetoes by Russia and China, two permanent members of the UN Security Council as well as two of Syria’s commercial partners. Previous diplomatic efforts to find a political solution have met with failure. Estimates from the Syrian Center for Policy Research place the cost of reconstruction at $48 billion over a span of 25 years to replace what was lost.
In a collaborative project from the Wuhan University in China and the University of Maryland, researchers analyzed satellite images of Syria at night since 2011. Over the past four years, they had found that the number of lights visible during the night had dropped by 83% highlighting the massive loss to infrastructure and the migration of refugees away from their homes. “Four years since the crisis began, there is at present very little light in this tunnel. Over 200,000 people have been killed and a staggering 11 million have been forced to flee their homes,” said David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, a member of With Syria. WithSyria is an international coalition made up of 130 organizations advocating for greater humanitarian response to “turn the lights back on in Syria.” Although the lights are out, it should be remembered that there are still Syrians living there in a country that has been devastated for over four years. The Syrian people have suffered greatly having lost their homes and families, but they will not be forgotten or given up on.
“Syrians deserve much better from the international community – it is past time to show that we have not given up and will work with them to turn the lights back on” said Miliband.