8:44pm, 2nd March, 2018
‘Happy Holi, Everyone’
The entire nation is lost in festive reveries. It’s a dark picture of morbid contrasts that people in one country are painting their lives in pretty colours and in another part of the world, people haven’t been able to celebrate a festival in years. How will they? When the cacophony of violence around them has taken over their hope for a normal life? Those people watch their family and friends die every day, their houses up in flames, their lives in shambles. To them, a day of relative peace and survival is no less than a festival. Yes, I am talking about Syria, the country which has not seen normalcy since years.
Syria began its descent into civil war in early 2011, when government security forces shot and killed protesters. But if President Bashar al-Assad thought a show of force would end the protests, he was wrong.
Here is a timeline of key events in the Syrian civil war.
The Beginning of the war:-
The Syrian civil war grew out of the widespread discontent among the people of Syria with the Syrian government led by President Bashar Al Assad. Long before the war began, people complained about the prevalent corruption, high unemployment, lack of political freedom and state repression that were a characteristic of the Assad government. In March 2011, the first uprising of prodemocracy demonstrations began to erupt in South Syria, the city of Deraa being the epicentre. These protests drew inspiration from the Arab Spring protests early in 2011. The government retaliated by using brute force to crush the protests. This triggered nationwide protests demanding President Assad’s resignation. The government crackdown further intensified. In response, the opposition rebels took up arms, the reasons for which ranged from self- defence to the expulsion of the security forces from the local areas. The violence escalated in no time and Syria descended into civil war as numerous rebel groups were formed to fight the government forces over the country’s control.
The Rise of Jihadist Groups:-
The war would not have lasted this long if either the rebels or the government had managed to defeat the other and restore political stability in the country. But as the war stretched on further, it metamorphosized into an even dangerous form as Jihadist groups took advantage of the political unrest to seize large parts of the country. These groups emerged in the guise of government opposing forces but soon their real identity of extremist Islamic propaganda groups began to take shape. As if the people weren’t already suffering enough due to the violent struggle between the rebels and the government, they had to bear the brunt of the tortures of these Jihadist groups as they began expanding their territory of control. ISIS emerged as the deadliest of these groups and the atrocities committed by it against innocent civilians are no secret. Women, Children, journalists, no one was spared by them From murders to beheading to rapes to human trafficking to sex slavery, there’s not a single cruelty that ISIS has not subjected the people of Syria to.
Foreign Intervention in the war:-
At this point, regional and world powers began to intervene in the war including Russia, USA, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. All these countries claim that they are fighting the Islamic State but in reality, they provide military, financial and political support to the government or the rebels depending on whose sides their interests lie. So, the funding from these countries is the reason why the war has intensified and continued for so long. Each of these countries has intervened in the matter for the protection of their own interests. Syria has turned into a proxy battleground where these external powers are working as puppeteers to steer the course of the war into their own favour. For them, the war is just a machinery to strengthen their hold over the region. The external powers have fostered sectarianism in Syria which was mostly secular by pitching the Sunni majority against the Shia Alawite sect to which President Bashar Al Assad also belongs. What started as a revolution against state oppression now turned into a civil war fuelled with religious hatred. This led to both the community sides to commit atrocious crimes towards each other causing huge loss of life and property which further dimmed the hopes of a peaceful settlement.
President Assad’s victory is important for Russia in maintaining its interests in Syria. It launched air campaign in 2015 September to target terrorist groups but these strikes mainly hit the western powers backed rebel groups. 6 months later, Putin withdrew the campaign but intense air strikes continued until the siege of rebel help Aleppo that fell in December 2016.
Shia supporter Iran spends exorbitant sums of money every year to bolster the Shia dominated government. Iran provides military advisors, credit, oil transfer and subsidized weapons to the Syrian govt. Iran has even deployed combat troops in Syria. Syria is Iran’s closest Arab ally. It is also the main transit point for the Iranian weapons shipments to the Lebanese Shia Islamist Movement Hezbollah which also sends thousands of fighters to fight alongside the Syrian government forces.
US have carried out air strikes in Syria since 2014. US claims that it only provides assistant to moderate rebel groups as advanced weapons might fall into the hands of the terrorists. Turkey is another staunch supporter of the rebels. In 2016, Turkish troops drove the IS militants out of one of the last remaining stretches of the Syrian side of border. They forced the US to deploy troops to the Syrian Democratic Front controlled areas to prevent clashes.
The effect of the war:-
According to the UN, more than 400,000 people have been killed in the past 6 years. Five million people, most of them women and children have fled Syria. Neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey are struggling to cope up with the biggest refugee crisis in the recent history. About 10% refugees have sought shelter in Europe as the countries continue to argue over sharing the burden. About 6.3 million people are internally displaced in Syria. Around $ 3.4bn are estimated to be required to provide humanitarian assistance to the 11 million people inside Syria. More than half of the pre-war population of Syria i.e. 11 million people have been killed or have fled from the country. 85% of Syrians live in poverty with more than two thirds of the population in extreme poverty. 1.75 million Children are out of school. More than 7 million people are food insecure amid rising prices and food shortages. People continue to die as a result of incessant bombings, gunning and chemical attacks carried out by the warring forces.
Why have the peace attempts failed?
Neither side has been able to inflict a decisive defeat on the other. The International community was led to the conclusion that only a political solution could end the conflict. The UN Security Council had called for the 2012 Geneva Communique. Peace talks in 2014 broke down after 2 rounds due to Syrian govt’s refusal to discuss opposition demands. A year later, US and Russia persuaded representatives of the two sides to attend talks in 2016 to discuss a peace plan including ceasefire and elections. But the plans again collapsed. After the fall of Aleppo, the first face to face meeting of rebels and government officials took place in 2017 hosted by Kazakhstan, Turkey and Russia. Several UN mediated talks have followed since then yielding little success.
With the fall of Aleppo, the Syrian government has the four biggest Syrian cities under its control. But large parts of the country are still held by other armed groups. And although IS militants have suffered extensive losses, they still hold large parts of central and northern Syria. The end to the war is still nowhere in sight. Air strikes by Russia and U.S. continue as hundreds of civilians die every day. To call it a civil war seems wrong on so many levels now, because the war is not among the people, it’s on the people, by the government. The humanitarian crisis in Syria has reached an all-time low with UN Secretary General calling it ‘hell on Earth’.