Counting the human cost of Syria’s destruction

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11 million Syrians have been displaced by the war: 4.8 million have fled the country, whilst another 6.1 million are internally displaced. (Source: Flickr, Jordi Bernabeu Farrus)

Now deep into its sixth year, Syria’s increasingly complex and intractable civil war continues to dominate headlines around the world. After more than half-a-decade of extensive international media coverage, the narrative of the conflict presented to Western audiences is becoming increasingly familiar, with major news outlets focusing predominantly on the fight against Islamic State and the growing role of international actors – the US and Russia – in the conflict.

Whilst this wider geo-strategic context and the global fight against terrorism are certainly important angles from which to report the Syrian civil war, there is a danger that news coverage will become increasingly sanitized and dehumanized as the conflict drags on and as ‘compassion fatigue’ begins to set in amongst audiences. It is therefore vital to ensure that the increased media spotlight on the high politics of diplomacy, military strategy and superpower rivalry does not come at the expense of highlighting the everyday suffering of the millions of Syrians caught in the middle.

This article will seek to explore the direct human impacts of the complex geopolitical drama which has unfolded across the previous six-and-a-half years at the heart of the Middle East, and will endeavour to consider the likely long-term physical and psychological impacts on what remains of Syria’s decimated population once the war comes to an end.

First however, in order to more-fully understand and comprehend the scale of human suffering in Syria, it is necessary to briefly review the major developments since the outbreak of the conflict and outline the key actors involved in the on-going violence.

The conflict began in 2011, after security forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad launched a brutal crackdown on demonstrators taking part in pro-democracy protests which had erupted across the country, forming part of the wider ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. By the end of the year, the country had descended into full-scale civil war as rebels formed the Free Syrian Army to lead the fight against government troops. Over the coming years, the violence dramatically escalated and the situation became increasingly complex, as opposition groups splintered into factions and foreign fighters poured into the country to join Jihadist groups such as Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.

As the conflict progressed it began to develop pronounced sectarian undertones, sewing division between elements of the Shia and Sunni population. This sparked the involvement of regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have each backed rebel groups aligned with their interests. The conflict has also drawn in world powers such as Russia and a multi-country coalition led by the United States. Russia has been a firm supporter of president Assad’s government and has launched airstrikes against opposition groups, whilst the US and its allies have predominantly targeted IS through an air campaign launched in late-2014, providing support to Kurdish militias and more moderate rebels whilst remaining firmly opposed to the Assad regime. The UN has accused almost all parties of war crimes and the killing of civilians over the course of the conflict, whilst all peace efforts and attempts to secure a meaningful ceasefire have failed.

With no end in sight, Syria is now the battleground for what has become a large-scale ‘proxy war’ with much at stake for regional and world powers – including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and the United States – who have all invested significant resources to influence the conflict according to their interests.

However, amidst the chaos and confusion of Syria’s seemingly never-ending destruction, many international observers seem to have overlooked the group which has by far the most at stake and the most to lose in this conflict: the Syrian people.

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Estimates suggest that 470,000 people have been killed during the Syrian civil war. (Source: Flickr, Freedom House)

After 68 – and counting – consecutive months of fighting since the March 2011 crackdown on protestors sparked a tidal wave of bloodshed, the war has resulted in human suffering and a humanitarian crisis on a scale which is almost incomprehensible. In total, a staggering 470,000 people have been killed over the past six-years of conflict, according to a recent report released by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research (SCPR). Of these deaths, approximately 400,000 were as a direct result of violence, whilst another 70,000 have perished as an indirect result of the war due to the lack of medical treatment, food, water and sanitation. This statistic reflects how the war has created a deadly, almost inhospitable environment within which starvation is rife and disease can spread easily, constituting disastrous secondary effects of the conflict which negatively impact the health and well-being of the population. The death toll in the SCPR report is significantly higher than the 250,000 quoted by the United Nations, which stopped collecting statistics in 2014 as a result of the difficulty in obtaining accurate information from inside the country. The latest figures indicate that almost 12% of Syria’s population has been killed or injured since the conflict began, with an estimated 1.5 million people having been wounded.

The conflict has also sparked the world’s worst refugee crisis since WWII as a result of massive population displacement across the country. In total, around 11 million Syrians – half of the country’s pre-war population –  have been forced to flee their homes. Around 4.8 million have fled across the border into neighbouring countries, whilst 6.1 million people have been internally displaced and 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria. Syria’s immediate neighbours have taken the largest share of the burden. According to Mercy Corps, 2.7 million refugees have entered Turkey, whilst Lebanon has taken in more than 1 million and Jordan has taken in around 650,000. Even war-torn Iraq is host to an estimated 225,000 Syrian refugees.

Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp serves as a particularly notorious example of the scale of the problem, now effectively constituting a medium-sized city which provides a semi-permanent home to more than 80,000 Syrians. The camp is beset by difficulties: there is a shortage of clean water and food supplies are scarce, whilst sanitation in the crowded settlement is inadequate for such a large number of people, facilitating the spread of contagious diseases such as cholera and polio.

In addition to those still in the region, more than a million Syrians have attempted the dangerous journey to mainland Europe, taking the difficult decision to leave behind livelihoods and family members. Many have faced uncertainties and endured months of hardship living outdoors as the land routes into Europe through the Balkans have gradually been closed, whilst thousands more have attempted the dangerous journey by boat across the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece.

For those who have been unable to leave or have decided to remain in Syria, the impacts of the war on their lives has been severe: families have been torn apart, towns and cities have been flattened, homes have been destroyed and livelihoods have disappeared as the economy has collapsed. Those injured have found it increasingly difficult to seek help, with the World Bank noting that more than 50% of hospitals across Syria have been either completely or partially destroyed, whilst thousands of doctors and nurses have been killed or have fled the country. In a particularly worrying development, hospitals appear to have been deliberately targeted in the northern city of Aleppo, which has experienced repeated bombardment from pro-regime forces. The SCPR report also found that at least 45% of Syria’s children are no longer attending school, which it said would have a ‘’dramatic impact’’ on the country’s future as generations were being lost. The number of children missing out on their education constitutes a disaster for the youth of a country which could once boast of having amongst the highest literacy rates in the Middle East. For the children growing-up in war-torn Syria, future prospects in terms of health are also fading rapidly, evidenced by a dramatic fall in average life expectancy from 70.5 years before the war, to just 55.4 years in 2015.

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Syria once had one of the highest literacy rates in the Middle East, yet now less than 45% of children attend school. (Source: Flickr, Jordi Bernabeu Farrus)

It must not be forgotten that as well as having to contend with poverty and deprivation, those who remain in Syria continue to face the fear of violence on a daily basis. Amnesty International’s 2015-2016 Country Report on Syria summarizes the multiple threats faced by Syria’s civilian population, and details horrific human rights abuses which have been carried out by multiple actors in the conflict. The report’s introduction states that government forces and non-state armed groups have ‘’committed war crimes, other violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights abuses with impunity’’ across the duration of the armed conflict, whilst US-led coalition and Russian airstrikes have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians.

The report goes into further detail, providing specific examples and outlining the main types of violence perpetrated against civilians by a range of actors on the ground. It says that government forces have carried out ‘’indiscriminate attacks that directly targeted civilians, including bombardment of civilian residential areas and medical facilities with artillery, mortars, barrel bombs and…chemical agents, unlawfully killing civilians.’’ Regime forces were also accused of ‘’enforcing lengthy sieges, trapping civilians and depriving them of food, medical care and other necessities’’, whilst the government’s security forces are blamed for the arbitrary arrest of thousands of ‘’peaceful activists, human rights defenders, media and humanitarian workers’’, with detainees often subjected to systematic torture and ill-treatment at the hands of their captors.

In addition, the report accuses numerous rebel and jihadist groups, particularly Islamic State, of carrying-out ‘’direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks including suicide bombings…and alleged chemical attacks’’, whilst perpetrating numerous unlawful killings of non-combatants.

The report did not accuse international actors of intentionally seeking to inflict harm upon the civilian population, but noted – as has widely been reported in the media and by observers on the ground – that scores of civilians have been killed in airstrikes carried out by both Russian warplanes and US-led coalition forces.

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Much of Syria’s infrastructure has been destroyed, leaving millions homeless and without access to adequate supplies of food, water and medical equipment. (Source: Flickr, Freedom House)

Overall, the scale of death and human suffering inflicted upon the Syrian population since hostilities began in 2011 is impossible to fully comprehend, in spite of the shocking nature of statistics documenting the number of those killed and injured. It is clear that over the course of the conflict, civilians have borne the brunt of violence: they have been attacked purposefully and indiscriminately by almost all armed groups operating on the ground, and are subjected to the additional fear of being killed in airstrikes carried out by international forces.

When the tragedy that is the Syrian civil war does eventually come to an end, it will leave behind a population both physically and psychologically scarred, with the effects reverberating across generations. The fighting will end at some point in the future and the Syrian people will begin to rebuild their country, as international actors re-focus their attention elsewhere in line with readjusted priorities and interests. The spotlight of the international media will also fade away, and for audiences in the West the Syrian war will likely become a distant memory – however as the world’s eyes look elsewhere, the very real experiences of suffering and the imprint of the war will remain in the minds of the Syrian people for decades to come.

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Angola’s low-level Cabinda insurgency shows signs of life

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The disputed Cabinda Province is an exclave of Angola situated between Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The FLEC rebel group has fought for independence since the 1960’s. (Image Source: CIA; Wikipedia)

In the six years since a high-profile militant attack in Cabinda on the Togo football team gained global attention, the long-running insurgency in Angola’s isolated Cabinda province has once again drifted out of international headlines. The conflict and fight for independence – led by separatist group The Front for the Liberation of the State of Cabinda (FLEC) – was assumed until recently to have fizzled out, underpinned by the assumption that FLEC has been in a state of gradual long-term decline, with less than 200 active members and dramatically reduced fighting capabilities. However, a recent spate of attacks have followed FLEC’s pledge earlier this year to resume its armed campaign against the Luanda government, signalling a period of heightened intensity and demonstrating that the struggle for Cabinda is far from being over.

FLEC can best be described as a relatively small and fragmented insurgent group, who contest Angola’s ‘occupation’ of the territory and have fought for independence since the early 1960’s.  The group first took up arms against the former colonial power, Portugal, before continuing their insurgency after Angola gained independence in 1975. Cabinda – a thin slice of territory situated between Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – is home to around 700,000 people, and as an exclave, is geographically isolated from the rest of Angola. The insurgency was at its strongest during the Angolan civil war, which ended with a peace deal in 2002 between the government and the main rebel group UNITA. The nationwide conflict allowed FLEC to exploit an atmosphere of chaos and disorder within the country, enabling it to run an effective campaign of guerrilla warfare which was successful in destabilizing the region.

At the end of the civil war, Angola’s newly-elected MPLA government launched a direct and sustained offensive against FLEC, severely degrading its military capabilities and sending its leaders fleeing into exile. During the 2000’s, the group’s presence significantly waned as it splintered into disparate factions, including FLEC-Posicao Militar (Military Position) led by an exiled leader in France, and FLEC-FAC (Armed Forces of Cabinda) – a larger and better-organized faction, which continued to wield considerable influence over the organization. In 2006, Angola’s government reached a controversial peace deal with one of the group’s factions, which was signed on behalf of FLEC by divisive figure Antonio Bento Bembe, who later joined the Luanda government. Bembe had little credibility amongst the majority of FLEC’s supporters, and as a result, the memorandum has been described by analysts as largely meaningless and ineffective. The peace deal served only to cause further divisions and frictions within the group, which has since fractionalized further and continued its insurgency, albeit at a low level of intensity such that it has barely registered with the outside world.

However, this widespread perception of FLEC’s diminishing power altered dramatically in January 2010, when separatists launched a surprise attack on the Togo football team’s bus, as it passed through Cabinda province for a match in that year’s African Cup of Nations tournament, which was hosted in Angola. The government and armed forces were drastically under-prepared and three people were killed by the rebels, drawing international attention to their struggle for independence and reminding the world of FLEC’s determination to pursue its cause. While a tragedy for the innocent people killed, the event sparked concerns at the time from analysts and human rights advocates that the government would launch a fresh crackdown on Cabinda, which had already been subjected to years of repression to compound its economic underdevelopment and high poverty rate. Prior to the attack, a 2009 report from Human Rights Watch had already raised concerns over arbitrary arrests, torture and inhumane treatment by Angolan security forces in Cabinda, carried out with impunity away from the scrutiny of international media spotlight.

Looking at Cabinda’s situation in the wider geopolitical context, a single most significant driving factor in its troubled history can be identified: oil. The presence of extensive energy resources in Cabinda is key to understanding its insurgency, along with providing an explanation for Angola’s desire to retain control of the province. Angola is amongst Africa’s largest producers of crude oil and has signed highly lucrative contracts with energy firms from the Unites States and China. It produces more than 1.75 million barrels of oil per day, of which approximately half is pumped from offshore fields off Cabinda’s Atlantic coastline – making the province a rich source of export earnings and providing an essential source revenue for the Luanda-based central government, which for this reason is unlikely to ever allow Cabinda to declare independence. Despite its resource-wealth, Cabinda remains Angola’s most impoverished region, with few benefits from the oil industry trickling down to local people. This causes much resentment amongst the region’s inhabitants, and continues to provide motivation for FLEC’s armed struggle against the state.

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Angola’s government announced a controversial peace agreement with FLEC in 2006. However, the group has since splintered into factions and the low-level insurgency continues. (Image Source: David Stanley, Flickr)

Since the attack on the Togo team bus, the insurgency has continued at a low-level, under the radar of western news outlets. However in February 2016, FLEC issued its most significant statement in years, declaring that it would resume its armed campaign after the government failed to respond to its request for talks. The press release stated that FLEC would once again adopt the ‘’military way’’ until the Luanda Administration agreed to a ‘’serious and concrete dialogue’’.

So far, FLEC appears to have stood by its tough rhetoric, evidenced by a spate of attacks throughout 2016. FLEC released a statement earlier this year to AFP news agency, saying that it staged two attacks in March resulting in the deaths of around 30 Angolan military personnel, including an ambush on 13 March in the northern town of Buco-Zau which killed 20 government troops. This was followed by an extremely rare incident in May, during which armed men claiming to be from FLEC boarded an offshore Chevron Gas Platform off the coast of Cabinda. According to witnesses, the group of 5 militants approached the rig on a speedboat, before boarding the platform and warning foreign energy industry workers that they should leave the province. Although no-one was harmed, this incident offers the most significant indication yet that FLEC possesses the level of capability necessary to target the country’s heavily-guarded energy installations. Since the altercation, the Angolan Navy have stepped-up patrols around the dozens of oil and gas rigs dotted along Cabinda’s coastline, whilst civil society activists have reported an increased military presence in the province.

Recent months have seen further reports of clashes between FLEC fighters and the Angolan armed forces. FLEC has claimed that 9 Angolan soldiers were killed and 14 wounded in clashes during July, in addition to another 12 troops killed during an ambush on 4 September in the Buco-Zau region close to the border with the DRC. However, it must be noted that Angola’s government has neither confirmed nor denied these reports, which are often difficult to independently verify due to the supposed location of the incidents in remote areas. Some analysts have indicated that the reported rise in violence could be attributed to the death of 88 year-old FLEC-FAC founder Nzita Henriques Tiago in Paris earlier this year. This theory suggests that the death of such a unifying figure has the potential to cause further splintering into sub-groups, which would then naturally seek to increase their influence by raising the intensity of their operations, which could provide an explanation for the increased level of separatist activity witnessed so far in 2016.

The renewed violence puts Cabinda’s plight back under the spotlight: it remains a geographically-isolated, underdeveloped and impoverished region, with its people receiving few benefits from the province’s substantial oil wealth. Some have even drawn parallels with the situation in the Niger Delta, where militants have long fought for greater control over resources from the central government and foreign-owned energy companies. Despite the reports of renewed clashes, the Angolan government maintains that FLEC poses no overall threat to stability in the region, with provincial Governor Aldina da Lamba Catembo confidently declaring that FLEC ‘’does not exist’’. However, recent events contest this assertion, and instead suggest that Cabinda’s five-decade old insurgency may be about to enter a period of heightened intensity.

In the wider context, the deteriorating situation in Cabinda is unfortunately not a one-off: instead, it serves as yet another reminder of the problems long-associated with the ‘resource curse’, which appears to remain prevalent across many states in Africa and across the developing world. Cabinda is therefore an example of how the resource curse can make already-complex territorial and nationality-based disputes worse: fuelling resentment, compounding failed attempts at development, and often giving rise to intractable conflicts.