In the 6 years of the Syrian Civil War over 470,000 have died, 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance and there are over 5.1 million refugees, according to the Human Rights Watch and the UN. Europe has faced its worst migration crisis since the Second World War. Syria’s conflict is complex and unclear and the web of allegiances and military backers has added to the complexity.
During early 2011 a number of Arab and African countries saw protests, demonstrations and uprisings. The period came to be known as the Arab Spring. Some countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt, toppled their governments, others, such as Libya, fought short civil wars. Syria was not an exception and protesters took to the streets against President Bashar al-Assad who inherited the position of President from his father in 2000. In March 2011, Assad’s army fired shots against peaceful protesters.
During these protests 15 boys were detained and tortured by Assad’s forces and one of them, 13-year old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, died. In July 2011, the protesters began shooting back. Some soldiers defected and the rebels became the Free Syrian Army. The uprising had become a civil war and 60,000 would die in the first 18 months of the conflict.
Assad encouraged Jihadist groups to join the rebels so that the movement would be associated with extremism and it would be harder for any foreign backers to aid the rebels. In January 2012, Al Qaeda set up a Syrian branch while the Kurds in the north seceded.
In mid-2012, the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah stopped patrolling the border and invaded to support Assad. By late 2012, Iran, in support of Assad, began sending daily cargo flights and there were hundreds of Iranian soldiers on the ground. The Gulf States then began funding the rebels to counter Iran and the civil war became a proxy war.
In December 2012, the rebel group coalition known as the Syrian National Coalition was recognised by Friends of the Syrian People Conference.
2013 was a significant year in the conflict. The Gulf States intensified their support for the rebels via Jordan and US president Obama ordered the CIA to train and equip the rebels. Then, in August, Assad used chemical weapons against civilians in an area of the suburbs around Damascus. Once the CIA training and arms arrived in Syria in the same month, the war became a power war including the US on one side and Russia on another.
In February 2014, a faction of Al Qaeda broke away due to internal disputes and called themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They fought with other rebels and the Kurds and created their own state, in a region about the size of the UK that covered both Syria and Iraq. They called it the “Caliphate.” The US launched an airstrike against ISIS in September 2014. The Pentagon began a programme for training rebels but only those fighting ISIS, not Assad. The programme failed and openly showed that for the US fighting ISIS was a bigger priority than fighting Assad.
In August 2015, Turkey, an ally of the US, bombed the Kurds in Iraq but not ISIS which demonstrates the confusing alliances that were playing out in Syria. Then a month later Russia, who had been supporting Assad, became directly involved in the fight and began airstrikes. They claimed to be targeting ISIS but instead bombed rebels including those backed by the US.
By the end of 2016 Assad, with the help of Russian and Iranian militia, took control of Aleppo, the rebels’ last stronghold. Assad’s forces surrounded the city and cut off food supplies while airstrikes bombed the city filled with civilians as well as rebels. Aleppo had been the most populated city in Syria and was left in ruins. UN humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke called the attack a “complete meltdown of humanity.”
Early this year Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, killing 85 including children. This attack is being investigated by the UN as a potential war crime. Assad has called the reports of chemical weapon use as a fabrication used to justify US intervention.
The US launched Tomahawk missiles on an Syrian airfield from where it is believed that the chemical attack was launched. This marked the first direct action in the war from the US. In July, US-led forces took Raqqa (Syria) and Mosul (Iraq), ISIS’s two capitals, killing a number of civilians in the process.
On 9th July of this year there was a ceasefire in Deraa brokered by Russia and the US after Putin and Trump met. Russia is deploying troops to police the ceasefire zone. Since January 2017 Russia has been in talks with Iran and Turkey about “de-escalation zones” in three southern regions where there are fewer extremists and the fighting is less intense.
The conflict has had repercussions around the globe. 4.8 million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Neighbouring countries have welcomed many of them; Egypt has accepted 122,000, Jordan accepted 660,000, Lebanon accepted 1 million, and Turkey has accepted the most, 3 million, while Gulf states, specifically Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, and Bahrain, have accepted none. The UNHCR were not prepared for the scale of this migration and many camps are over-crowded and under-supplied.
There have been 952,446 refugees applying for asylum in Europe between April 2011 and May 2017 (UNHCR). The Dublin Regulation means that a refugee has to stay in the country they arrived in, which has put a huge amount of pressure on countries like Italy and Greece.
Jordan has accepted 660,000 refugees. UK has 67 times the GDP of Jordan, yet will allow only 20,000 refugees to enter between 2015 and 2020.
The head of the UN commission for refugees, Antonio Guterres has said that “Syria has become the great tragedy of this century.” There are 13.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance and the UNHCR’s funding appeal has reached only 23%. The conflict has become a complicated web of warring factions, proxy war and power play. It has become morally ambiguous and almost impossible to take sides. The newest ceasefires will not spell harmony and it is unclear how much longer it will continue. Even if a victory is found, either outcome will bring with it its own problems. Unrest will continue if Assad wins. A dangerous power vacuum will appear if he loses. There are many countries that have significant stakes in the outcome: Russia, the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia.
In all this the victims are the 6.6 million displaced within Syria and the 5.1 million who are fleeing and seeking asylum outside of it. Europe and the countries surrounding Syria are struggling to cope with the levels of refugees and this problem will intensify as the conflict persists.