Syrian conflict enters 10th year; President Assad remains relentless


When Syrians took to the streets on March 15, 2011, they didn’t expect that their anti-government protests would turn into a complex war entangling rebels, militants and outside forces that would last a decade.

At least 384,000 people have since died, including more than 116,000 civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said last Saturday. More than 11 million people have been displaced internally and abroad.

All the while, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is consolidating its hold over a war-wracked country and is taking back territories with the help of Russian forces.

At least 4.8 million children have been born since the conflict started while 9,000 others have been killed or wounded, the UN children’s agency UNICEF said.

The years of revolution “illustrate the extent of the suffering we have known, between exile, bombings and deaths”, said rights activist Hala Ibrahim who now lives in the town of Dana, in Idlib province. “I left my university, my house which was bombed,” the woman in her 30s said. “We’ve lost everything.”

Originally from the northern city of Aleppo, Ms. Ibrahim left in late 2016 after the regime retook rebel-held areas and she sought refuge in Idlib. The north-western region – Syria’s last rebel stronghold – is the regime’s latest target.

Thanks to the military support of Russia, Iran and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, President Assad has clawed back control of over 70 per cent of the war-torn country.

A fragile ceasefire took effect in the north-west earlier this month, and Turkish and Russian officials have agreed to start joint patrols in Idlib. Syrian forces and Russian warplanes have bombarded the region since December, killing nearly 500 civilians, the Observatory says, and forcing nearly a million to flee, according to the United Nations.

Many of those unable to find space in camps have been sleeping in fields or sheltering in schools, mosques and unfinished buildings.

The UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, said on the eve of the anniversary: “The suffering of the Syrian people during this tragic and terrible decade still defies comprehension and belief.”

The Syrian conflict was born of unprecedented anti-government demonstrations in the southern city of Daraa in 2011.

Protests spread across Syria, but a violent crackdown soon saw rebels take up arms with backing from Gulf nations and wrest key areas from government control.

Militant groups also emerged, notably the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group which swept across large parts of the country and neighbouring Iraq in 2014.

“A decade of fighting has brought nothing but ruin and misery,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wrote last week on Twitter.

“There is no military solution. Now it is the time to give diplomacy a chance to work,” he added.

But in recent years, such efforts have failed and five foreign powers operate in Syria, with Russia and Iranian forces supporting the regime.

Despite an announced withdrawal of US forces last year, American troops are still stationed in the country’s north-east, in a semi-autonomous Kurdish zone.

After the fight against ISIS, Washington’s main objective has turned to curbing Iranian influence.

Israel regularly carries out air strikes on Syrian, Hezbollah and Iranian military positions.

And neighbouring Turkey, which supports local armed groups, has deployed its troops across the border.

“The horrific and enduring nature of the conflict is proof of a collective failure of diplomacy,” Mr. Pedersen said.

Still, Russia and Turkey, which back opposing sides in Syria’s war, yesterday launched their first joint military patrol along the key M4 highway in Idlib region, following a ceasefire deal earlier this month, Russian news agencies reported.

Russia sent military police and armoured vehicles to the patrol, which started from the settlement of Tronba in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in the country.

But the years of conflict have ravaged Syria’s economy and infrastructure. The UN estimated in 2018 that the conflict had caused nearly US$400 billion (S$564 billion) in war-related destruction. (Source: The Straits Times)