FIVE-YEAR-OLD pupils pose in a classroom last week in the rebel-controlled area of Maarshureen village in Idlib province. March 15 marks the fifth anniversary of the protests against President Bashar Assad that led to the devastating conflict in the country..
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
In June 2011, Human Rights Watch reported that based on some 50 interviews with victims and witnesses to the Syrian regime’s actions in the city of Daraa in southern Syria, crimes against humanity were likely occurring. It is a reminder that five years after a rebellion broke out in Syria against 45 years of rule by the Assad family, the mass killing by the regime, and increasingly by other forces in Syria, has continued unabated.
Estimates point to at least 270,000 people having been killed. The real story of the destruction of Syria is in the major cities such as Aleppo, Hama, Homs and the suburbs of Damascus. Many of the major population centers resemble the hulking eviscerated scenes of parts of Europe after the Second World War – cities in name only.
Around 6.6 million Syrians are estimated by the UN to have been internally displaced, becoming refugees in their own country. Add that to the 4.8 million Syrian refugees registered outside the country and it means that half the country has been made homeless in this war. When I visited a refugee camp in Kilis, Turkey last month, we met a woman who had fled her home in Idlib after the regime bombed her village. She went to live near Aleppo and then was forced to flee again. She lived in a large cave with other villagers before moving to Turkey in 2014. That is the life many Syrians have been subjected to.
After two years of living as refugees, many of the 2.7 million who had fled to Turkey chose to move on towards Europe in late 2014 and early 2015. This set in motion an unprecedented refugee crisis that has caused a breakdown in the open borders of the EU’s Schengen zone.
That means that 30 years of the EU experiment of unimpeded travel may be coming to an end.
Similarly, a domino effect across Eastern Europe, as the EU passes the buck on these refugees, has left the poorer southern European countries burdened with caring for tens of thousands. Hungary and Macedonia and other countries have closed their borders.
This happens at an inopportune moment, as the UNHCR says 55 percent of those arriving in Greece are women and children, up from 10% or so last June. The most vulnerable Syrians are thus ending up on the EU’s doorstep when the EU proves itself least equipped to handle this issue. Add to that the 50% of refugees and migrants arriving from such far-flung places as Afghanistan, navigating the horrors of Syria, to get to Europe.
The destruction of Syria has made the refugee problem permanent because the Iran deal signed in July and taking effect in the months after cemented the empowerment of Iran in the region. The intervention of Hezbollah in Syria in late 2011 and Russia’s decision to use its air power in the conflict in September of 2015 increasingly matched similar support given to rebel groups by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
This internationalized the conflict and turned it into a proxy environment for the Shia-Sunni rivalry in the region. For all intents and purposes, however, the Iran-Hezbollah- Assad-Russia alliance has proved far more effective than the 95 rebel groups opposing them. There are some effective rebel groups, such as Ahrar a-Sham, and areas of rebel conflict such as Idlib that function like a mini-state, but for the most part the story of the Syrian rebellion has been a chaotic disaster that scuttled its chance to unseat the dictator.
Assad’s decision to brutally suppress the rebellion in 2011 led to the rebellion becoming increasingly Islamist in character.
This led to a cannibalization of the rebel efforts and the emergence of Islamic State and its spread, across central Syria and Iraq in the spring of 2014.
At that moment Assad could present himself as fighting “extremism,” an extremism he helped set in motion. His father had used the same excuse to bulldoze Hama in 1982, but what Hafiz Assad did in one city that year, Bashar Assad has done to much of the country.
The rise of ISIS helped encourage Iran to deepen its influence over Iraq. Iran, as noted, has come to aid Assad. It dispatched its revolutionary guards and also hired Hazara Shia fighters from Afghanistan to bolster the war efforts in Syria.
ISIS recruited tens of thousands of foreign fighters from abroad, to the extent that accounts of ISIS rule in Raqqa read like a narrative of a foreign takeover of Syria. ISIS brought slavery to Syria, brutal beheadings and ethnic cleansing of peoples far surpassing what other Islamist groups had done.
Its chaos turned Iraq into a fully failed state. The rise of ISIS also empowered the Kurds in Syria, and in Iraq, by cutting them off from the central government in both countries. The one positive development, in a sense, for Kurds was coming through this crucible of conflict in a much stronger position than in 2014.
The destruction of Syria is likely not the end of a story, but the beginning of a larger re-arrangement of the Middle East, in the way the Spanish Civil War was not the end of the struggle between Fascism and Communism, but a prelude to worse. The war in Syria is part of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, as well as the decision by the Gulf States to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Conflicts from West Africa to Western China are knitted together in a complex web.
Turkey’s renewed conflict with the PKK in Turkey, as well as its warmer relations with the Kurds of Iraq, are all part of the same web.
The conflict in Syria that has gone on for five years will have an effect for generations to come. Even relatively simple things like the lack of an entire generation missing their chance at an education in Syria and Iraq, will have long-term effects in the Middle East. Most tragically, the heritage and heart of the Levant has been ripped out, with minority groups such as Yazidis slaughtered and historical sites laid waste.
The first five years are over, decades more are left to come to grips with what has happened in Syria.