October 2016 – Written by Emily Featherstone
‘An estimated 2.9m children inside Syria and at least 811,000 in neighbouring countries under the age of 5 have known nothing but a lifetime shaped by war’ (UNICEF, 2016)
Syria has been struggling through a civil war since 2011, with terrible consequences. Aid cannot be regularly accessed by two million children (UNICEF, 2016). Since the start of the conflict, over 4.5 million people, predominantly women and children, have been forced to leave Syria due to the violence, and there are estimates that 6.5 million people in Syria have been internally displaced (BBC News, 2016). 80% of the population are in poverty, and 70% of people cannot access safe water to drink (BBC News, 2016). We can become immune to shocking statistics such as these and pictures of the war on the news, but the situation in Syria is complex and doesn’t appear to be coming to peace. This article will try to make it easier for us to understand, and will hope to show why UNICEF’s Syrian crisis appeal is so important
The political situation in Syria:
The current President of Syria is called Bashar al-Assad, who inherited this role when Hafez, his father, died in 2000 (Almond, 2012). For almost 30 years, President Hafez ruled Syria, and was considered by many nations in the West to be controversial and hard-line (Almond, 2012). Syria is a Muslim country, with close to 75% of the population identifying as Sunni, but the President and his family are Alawite, which is a subgroup of the Shiite Muslim minority (Almond, 2012). Important positions in President Assad’s government were given to members of his family, and his support comes from Alawites and other minority groups who are afraid of the potential of Sunni Muslims gaining power.
So when did the war in Syria begin?
The ‘Arab Spring’ began in January 2011, starting with revolutions in Tunisia, as people wanted political change (RT 2016). Countries in North Africa and the Middle East were included in these uprisings, many of which were struggling with political repression due to autocratic leaders being in power for long periods of time, as well as high levels of corruption and unemployment (Almond, 2012). In Egypt the President Hosni Mubarak and in Tunisia the President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali were called to quit their office by demonstrators. President Assad was also demanded to step down, but did not. As part of his response, Assad ended the Syrian state of emergency law that had given his regime the ability to imprison anyone, despite not having a charge, and hold them for indefinite periods of time, a law that had been in place for nearly 50 years (RT, 2012).
The pro democracy demonstrations in Syria reportedly began as a response to the punishment of 15 school boys for anti-government graffiti (RT, 2012). The President’s response to these protests was severe, with security opening fire on them. This unrest gradually escalated, as the government regime’s opposition started to arm themselves, initially for defence and then to rid their local areas of the security forces. A notable amount of the opposition had crossed sides from the military.
From August 2011, the opposition tried to destabilise President Assad, and despite international condemnation from the likes of the United Nations and the Arab League, Assad would still not quit government (RT, 2012). The UN Arab League envoy, headed by the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, tried and failed to achieve a ceasefire in Syria. Kofi Annan then quit this role as a result, in August 2012 (Independent, 2016). In the last few months of that year, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was created, and was officially recognised as the ‘legitimate representative’ of the Syrian population by countries such as the USA, France, Turkey and Britain (RT, 2012). Around that time, the extremist group ISIS began to emerge. They became known as ‘Islamic State’ in June 2014 when they declared their own caliphate (BBC News, 2016).
Very bad turned to even worse during the spring of 2013, as it was reported that chemical weapons had been used in the war (RT, 2012). The first well known event took place in March in Khan al-Assal, which is near Aleppo. Many were killed- government soldiers as well as civilians (RT, 2012). In September of the same year Damascus was hit by a chemical weapon attack (BBC News, 2016). The international community were rightly outraged, and through this, experts from Russia were invited by the Syrian government to investigate (RT 2012). As the Russian report given to the UN stated, the chemical weapon attack had used Sarin nerve gas, for which the rebel group were deemed responsible for its creation and use (RT, 2012). The investigation team from the UN states it ‘collected clear and convincing evidence that surface to surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used’ (RT, 2012). In response to these chemical weapons being ‘used’ by the government in Syria, military intervention by the West was posed as a threat, particularly by Obama. Russia recommended that Syria should release its chemical weapons into the care of international officials, which led to the chemical weapons convention being signed by Syria (RT. 2012). This task reached completion in June 2014, clearing the country of its declared chemical weapons.
Peace talks were once again on the cards in February 2014 in Geneva, this time being led by Lakhdar Brahimi, a mediator from the UN Arab League (Independent, 2016). These talks did not manage to reach an agreement. Later that same year the true brutality of so-called Islamic State became clearer and flashed across news screens around the world, as the American journalist James Foley was beheaded (Independent, 2016). He was the first of five foreigners that were killed in such a way, and had their execution footage released by the extremist group. In September 2014, airstrikes led by the USA in a coalition were initiated, targeting IS in Syria (Independent, 2016). Islamic state have been managing to stay buoyed with fighters, as by April 2015, the UN Security Council were told that around 22,000 foreigners from about 100 countries had gone to Iraq and Syria to join radical groups such as IS by that point (Independent, 2016)
During this time, IS began its attack on Kobani, a Kurdish town on the border with Turkey. In January of 2015, Kobani is taken from IS by Kurdish fighters, who were aided by the airstrikes led by the US (LA Times, 2016). Soon after Jordan initiates strikes on the militants as a response to the murder of a Jordanian pilot captured by IS. Muath al-Kaseasbeh was burnt alive in a cage by IS, who then released a video of this horrific ordeal (Independent, 2016). It posed another damning reminder of the brutality of so-called Islamic State. The war has affected all groups, as many Christian villages in the Hassakeh province in the east of Syria were targeted by IS in February 2015. 220 Assyrian Christians were taken hostage (The News Arab, 2015). By May, Assad admitted his military had suffered severe setbacks (LA Times, 2016).
The international response continues through 2015, with Russia joining the airstrike offensive, notably in favour of Assad’s military, however (LA Times). In Vienna, 17 nations met to accept a transition plan timeline for Syria (Independent, 2016). It covers there being presidential and parliamentary elections within 18 months, administered by the UN, alongside there being a new constitution. The UN Security Council then promote this ‘Vienna Road Map’ by undertaking Resolution 2254 (Independent, 2016). A further attempt to hold peace talks takes place in February 2016, but fails again. They were indirect between the opposition and the Syrian government, and the issue of a Syrian army offensive in Aleppo, supported by Russia, was the stated point of contention (LA Times, 2016). The talks started again in March. The coalition between the Syrian government and Russia managed to take back Palmyra again from IS. Russia aided the government’s forces from the air. Palmyra is one of the places often discussed on the news, as it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is being destroyed by IS (Jeffries, 2015). Much of Syria’s long history has been erased, including destruction to one of the ‘great temple sites of the Roman eastern provinces’ – the Temple of Bel, which was built in AD32 (Jeffries, 2015). This has been considered a destruction of world history as well as Syrian identity.
In the last few months, soldiers from Turkey entered Syria to aid the rebel groups to force the IS militants and rebels led by the Kurdish to retreat from an area of the border of these two countries (Arango et al, 2016). Also, 20 civilians are killed near Aleppo due to an airstrike on Lorries involved in the UN aid convoys, prompting the UN to suspend such action (Cunningham et al, 2016).
The situation in Syria is still very serious, brutal and impacting the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians. The search for peace proves especially difficult, with numerous sides and groups involved. Children are still at risk, still unable to go to school, still unable to have enough to eat and drink. Children are still in the line of war. This is why UNICEF is focusing on Syria.
Almond, K (2012) Syria explained: What you need to know. CNN. Available from: http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/24/world/meast/syria-101/ [Accessed 23/10/2016]
Arango, T. Barnard, A. Yeginsu, C. (2016) Turkey’s Military Plunges Into Syria, Enabling Rebels to Capture ISIS Stronghold. The New York Times. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/25/world/middleeast/turkey-syria-isis.html?_r=0 [Accessed 24/10/16]
BBC News (2016) Syria profile- Timeline. Available from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-14703995 [Accessed 15/10/2016]
Cunningham, E. DeYoung, K. Roth, A (2016) U.N. suspends aid convoys in Syria after deadly attack on relief shipment. The Washington Post. Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/end-of-syria-cease-fire-marked-by-new-offensive-and-bombing-of-aid-convoy/2016/09/20/92aead0c-7eb7-11e6-ad0e-ab0d12c779b1_story.html [Accessed 24/10/16]
Gilsinan, K (2015) The Confused Person’s guide to the Syrian Civil War. The Atlantic. Available from: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/syrian-civil-war-guide-isis/410746/ [Accessed 23/10/2016]
Hubbard, B. (2016) His Grip Still Secure, Bashar al-Assad Smiles as Syria Burns. The New York Times. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/18/world/middleeast/his-position-still-secure-bashar-al-assad-smiles-as-syria-burns.html [Accessed 24/10/16]
Independent (2016) Syrian civil war timeline: Tracking five years of conflict. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syrian-civil-war-timeline-tracking-five-years-of-conflict-a6929411.html [Accessed 15/10/2016]
Jeffries, S (2015) Isis’s destruction of Palmyra: ‘The heart has been ripped out of the city’. The Guardian. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/02/isis-destruction-of-palmyra-syria-heart-been-ripped-out-of-the-city [Accessed 24/10/16]
LA Times (2016) Chronicling a disaster: A timeline of the Syrian civil war. Available from: latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-timeline-20160314-story.html
Ponniah, K (2016) Syrian conflict: why are children so badly affected in Aleppo? BBC News Available from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-37472975 [Accessed 24/10/2016]
RT.com (2016) From Arab Spring to 2016 truce: RT’s timeline of 5-year Syrian war. Available from: https://www.rt.com/news/335711-rt-syrian-war-timeline/ [Accessed 15/10/2016]
The New Arab (2015) War in Syria: timeline of key events. Available from: https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2015/3/13/timeline-syria-4-years-of-devastation [Accessed 23/10/2016]
UNICEF (2016) No Place for Children. The Impact of Five Years of War on Syria’s Children and their childhoods. Available from: http://childrenofsyria.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/SYRIA5Y-REPORT-12-MARCH.pdf [Accessed 15/10/2016]
UNICEF (2016) B. #ChildrenOfSyria. Available from: http://childrenofsyria.info/ [Accessed 24/10/16]