March 2011; the words ‘It’s your turn doctor,’ appeared spray-painted on a wall in Syria’s Daraa. The culprit’s a teenager, his words directed at President Bashar al Assad, a former ophthalmologist. Following a movement of uprisings across the Middle East, it was Assad’s ‘turn’ next to fall.
Dozens of children, reportedly as young as ten, are held hostage and tortured for weeks until the vandal confesses. Syrians respond to their leader’s ruthlessness with protests across the city. Security forces attempt to silence the protesters by opening fire, yet more Syrians join the rebellion. The government’s retaliation sparks an insurgence of radical groups to revolt against them and a civil war is born.
From the outside, it is easy to perceive the war as two sided, however the reality is much more complex. Assad’s original opposition was the secular group Free Syrian Army led by former military officials with the intent of creating a democracy. A few years into the war however the group has broken and is now random rebel militias fighting under it’s name. There are also a multitude of Islamic groups, ranging from moderate to extremist, most notably ISIS and al-Qaeda partner, Jabhat al-Nusra wanting to form an Islamic theocracy. Kurdish forces are also fighting hoping to obtain power of the territory, following their over 100-year long struggle for statehood. The greater issue at hand is that these groups aren’t only fighting Assad, but also each other.
Outside states are also influencing the war and whose intent in intervening is questionable. Syria’s flight and sea paths along with the country’s size and position is highly valuable, making it an asset as an ally. The U.S initially averted from the conflict until Islamic fighters moved into Iraq. They, along with a confederation of states including Australia, began airstrikes on Islamic targets in the area. Opposing Syrian neighbour Lebanon has shown Assad support along with Iran sending fighters and Russian bombing campaigns. Turkey opposes Assad however their attacks have targeted both ISIS and the Kurds.
Our most paramount concern within this conflict should be humanitarian and not political. Reportedly all parties, whether groups or governments, are guilty of targeting civilians and are accused of torture, abduction and employing children as soldiers. Assad has been accused of deaths in custody, arbitrary arrests, dropping bombs, cluster mutations, sieges and use of chemical weapons. Attacks involving poison gas leaks killed over 1000 people in Damascus during 2013, and at least 100 individuals in Idlib on April 4th of this year. Islamic groups are notorious for targeting civilians with tactics including public torture, executions, beheadings and kidnappings like the 154 Kurdish children in May, 2014. The effects are both extensive and astounding, with the United Nations estimating 400,000 dead, 7.4 million displaced and over 12 million needing humanitarian aid. The UN has had to cut many services as they can only afford to support half of the demanding need, including basic health and food subsides.
The unfortunate truth for Syria is that due to the widespread complexity and magnitude of the conflict no one knows how and when it will end. Resolution would be impossible to reach internally and instead relies on the moral assistance of outside parties; the results of which in the past have varied. In May 2014, 60 countries co-sponsored a Security Council resolution to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court but it was blocked by Russia and China. However, by July 2014 UN agencies were authorised to deliver aid within the country. The reality is despite attempts for action, no group is strong enough win the war itself. Many suggest negotiating a new government is the only way the war may be able to end. All that is certain is that no one could have imagined four words painted on a wall could bring this level of catastrophe to a country.