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.
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.
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.
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.