How the civil war in Syria developed into a violent struggle between local, regional, national, and international forces and caused one of the most catastrophic humanitarian crises around the world.
Since its outbreak in March of 2011, the conflict in Syria has cost the lives of approximately 500,000 people and displaced more than half of the country’s population. This conflict involved countless mass atrocities, including crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of genocide. The majority of which have been perpetrated and carried out by the Syrian government, extremist groups, and Syrian allies.
More than seven decades after the Holocaust and over twenty years since the creation and adoption of the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute, a regime in Syria is targeting its own people, while the international community which has pledged to step in when one country fails to do so, continues to stand by.
This crisis has developed into a violent struggle between local, national, regional, and international forces, and has caused a humanitarian catastrophe of staggering proportions. Syrian women, men, and children are under constant terror and bombardment of their neighborhoods, homes, schools, markets, and hospitals.
People are subjected to starvation, lack of medical care, and exposure to violence, and have endured torture in detention centers and enforced disappearances. Syrians have been the victims of chemical weapons attacks, rape, torture, and murder – all of which are banned under international law.
As of March 2021, the number of Syrian refugees worldwide, stands at 6.6 million, with 5.6 million being hosted in countries that are neighboring Syria. Another 6.7 million are internally displaced within Syria, and over 13 million people are also in need of humanitarian protection and assistance. These statistics are disturbing, as Syrian refugees make up one of the largest portions of refugees worldwide.
There are undoubtedly egregious crimes happening in Syria, and these crimes must not go unpunished or unnoticed, as victims have the right to truth, reparations, and most importantly, justice.
Historical Context: The Arab Spring
The Syrian civil war, which has undoubtedly devastated the entire country of Syria along with the neighboring countries, is a complex conflict which involves several nations, terrorist organizations, and rebel groups. What started as a nonviolent protest in 2011 quickly escalated into warfare, and although there are many complicated motives that led to this violence, one event known as the Arab Spring, stands out as perhaps the most significant catalyst for the conflict.
In early 2011, a series of economic and political protests in Tunisia and Egypt broke out. These revolts were nicknamed the Arab Spring and served as an inspiration for the pro-democracy activists to do something similar in Syria.
In March of that year, fifteen Syrian children were arrested and tortured for writing graffiti, inspired by the Arab Spring which sparked outrage and demonstrations throughout the country. Citizens demanded the release of the children who were still arrested, along with greater freedoms and protection of their rights for people in the country.
The government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, responded by killing and arresting hundreds of protestors. Anger, shock, and fear spread throughout Syria, with many of the civilians demanding the resignation of President Assad.
Upon refusing, war and violence broke out between Assad’s supporters and people who opposed him. With this said, however, even before the Arab Spring, many Syrian citizens were not happy with the government, as people lacked freedoms, and the general living conditions in their country were not safe. Several human rights groups have accused Assad of habitually utilizing torturing, political detention, repression of civil liberties, and killing political opponents throughout his presidency, since his inauguration after the death of his father in 2000.
A crippling economy, high unemployment rates, environmental issues such as a severe drought and governmental corruption, were other issues that generated frustration among Syrians under Assad’s rule. Along with Assad’s government, there is the Free Syrian Army, the self-declared Islamic State of Iraq, the Levant (ISIL,) and the Al-Nusra front, which is a radical break-off group tied to Al-Qaeda.
Another significant factor in this conflict is the tense religious atmosphere in the country. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, however, Syria’s government is dominated by members of the Shia Alawite sect. Tensions between these two religious groups have been an ongoing, deeply rooted problem through Syria and other nations in the Middle East for quite some time now.
Both the Syrian government, and groups within the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, have been consistently targeting, torturing, and killing civilians based on either ethnic background, religious identification, or political designation.
The Syrian government has imprisoned and killed over 11,000 political opponents over the course of this violence and has used violence and torture, such as barrel bombs, and cluster munitions to attack Syrian civilians in a direct attempt to decimate civilian population centers.
There have been at least seventeen mass killings carried out by the government and pro-government militia since the beginning of the conflict. Furthermore, the Islamic State has targeted ethnic and religious minority groups in the region, including Christians, Yazidis, and Shi’ites in an attempt to eradicate non-Sunni Arabs in Syria. There have also been reports of the Islamic State using child soldiers as well as sex trafficking young women throughout the Islamic State territory.
Furthermore, the Islamic State has destroyed multiple historic sites within Syria as an attempt to rid the country of what it considers to be idolatry.
This ongoing conflict and violence in Syria have become one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies since World War II, with over 12 million Syrians cleansed from their homes in what is the deliberate undertaking of ethnic cleansing by Assad and other extremist groups.
Perpetrators have attacked and bombed civilians enforced the disappearances and executions of thousands of Syrians, and tortured countless detainees in custody. Armed groups have besieged civilian areas, and have also committed abductions, torture, and killings.
There have been no consequences to these attacks against civilians, only increasing the risk that these mass atrocities will only continue. Between November of 2019 and March of 2020, at least 1,500 airstrikes were launched on southeast Idlib and western Aleppo, in addition to ground attacks and indirect fires. The impact on civilians and infrastructure was severe, with over 650 civilian deaths recording and health facilities, schools, markets, recreational centers all being destroyed.
This violence is just one instance that reflects the pattern of the Syrian government, and its allies to target elements of civilian life and infrastructure intentionally and systematically throughout the Syrian civil war.
Despite the Syrian civilian uprising, President Assad has stayed in power. This, however, may not have been possible without the government’s ally, Russia. Allies since the Cold War, Russia has military bases in Syria and sells billions of dollars worth of weapons to Syria each year.
Russia recently came under criticism for its role in civilian attacks and for aiding a regime that uses chemical and other internationally banned weapons against its own citizens, however, Russia and the Syrian government denied involvement in the April 2018 attack, and accused rebels of fabricating this incident, despite video evidence.
Russia has also prevented the United Nations from addressing the conflict, as the country has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and has veto power. Russia has vetoed every resolution aiming at resolving the conflict, including resolutions calling for ceasefires, sanctions, investigations into chemical weapon use, and a proposal to refer Syrian crimes to the International Criminal Court.
According to the United Nations, more than half of one million people have been killed in Syria since the start of the war, and as of 2019, more than 5.6 million Syrian have fled the country while over six million are internally displaced.
External military intervention, including the provisions of arms, airstrikes, and troops in support of proxies in Syria have also threatened to prolong the conflict. Outside influences and coalitions such as Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and the U.S., are increasingly operating in proximity to one another which also exacerbate and complicate the conflict.
These crimes being done in Syria must not go unpunished and unnoticed, as victims and their families have the right to truth, reparation, and most importantly, justice.