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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Sinai Peninsula: tracing the roots of Egypt’s Islamist Insurgency

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Sinai militants claimed responsibility for the October 2015 bombing of Metrojet flight 9268, killing 224 people (Image Source: Flickr, Irish Typepad)

When Metrojet flight 9268 was blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in October last year, the world was alerted to the creeping Islamist insurgency in Egypt’s remote north-eastern corner.  In the seven months since the deadly bombing in which 224 people lost their lives, the IS-affiliated militant group which claimed responsibility for the attack – Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province) – has further enhanced their ambitions and capabilities, prompting greater attention from concerned international observers. The rapid growth of the group, which now has an estimated 1,500 fighters and access to more sophisticated weaponry, signals the latest development in an increasingly worrying regional picture, in which conflicts are spiralling out of control and jihadist ideology is spreading to unstable areas. Whilst Islamic State (IS) have recently lost ground in their strongholds of Syria and Iraq, their affiliate branches in Libya and Egypt continue to grow in strength, with Sinai in particular being targeted as a new base in recent IS propaganda videos – signalling a potential shift in focus towards North Africa.

However, despite recent developments, the presence of militants in the Sinai Peninsula is nothing new. The region has a long and troubled history of instability and jihadist violence, which can be traced back through time to uncover how Wilayat Sinai has been able to establish itself as an emerging IS stronghold, at the crossroads of North Africa and the Middle East.

The current developments must be placed firstly within the Sinai’s geographical context: as a remote desert area, it is far from the control of the central government in Cairo, and has long been characterized by weak state presence and a climate of lawlessness. Secondly, it must be placed within a firm historical context: as a slice of territory located at the heart of one of the world’s most volatile and unstable regions, which has been fought over for decades.

In 1967, the Sinai Peninsula was captured by Israel during the six-day war, and was held until the Camp David Accords in 1978 led to a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, facilitating the eventual withdrawal of Israeli forces by 1982. In their place, a peacekeeping force made up of troops from 12 countries became permanently positioned in the area. Known as the ‘Multinational Force and Observers’, the role of the mission was to monitor the terms of the treaty and ensure that peace prevailed. A period of relative stability followed, during which Egypt’s former strongman president Hosni Mubarak oversaw the region’s transformation throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, with coastal towns such as Sharm el-Sheikh becoming popular holiday destinations for western travellers, as the tourist industry boomed and revitalized the flagging local economy.

Despite these economic successes along the coast, many of the indigenous Bedouin people of the Sinai felt isolated from the rest of the country: marginalized from the political process, denied access to the region’s natural resources, and excluded from the economic benefits of the thriving tourism industry. Whilst the coastal tourist resorts were made to feel safe for western visitors through the maintenance of a high security presence, the areas of Sinai to the north became increasingly unstable and lawless: smuggling routes flourished as state presence remained weak, with weapons being transported in tunnels under the border from the neighbouring Gaza Strip.

In the 1990’s, the area became a breeding ground for terrorists: individuals would travel to the Sinai to receive combat and arms training, before carrying-out attacks in other parts of Egypt. A group which shared the violent ideology of Al-Qaeda – Tawhid wal-Jihad – soon emerged after several factions united under a larger movement, and came to prominence in the early 2000’s. By 2004, the Sinai was no-longer just a training ground, but the site of deadly incidents: the group conducted a suicide attack on the resort town of Taba, killing more than 30 people. The following year, larger-scale attacks followed, when 88 people were killed in a series of car bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh during July 2005. The attacks were unprecedented in scale: they spread fear through the coastal towns and decimated the tourist industry, shattering the livelihoods of many locals and drawing international condemnation.

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Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has been a site of militant activity for decades. The IS-affiliated Sinai Province group has recently gained a foothold in the region (Image Source: CIA)

After the spate of attacks, the government of Hosni Mubarak cracked-down hard. Many of the militant group’s leaders were killed in gun battles with the security forces, whilst many more suspected terrorists were sentenced to jail. For the time being, the insurgency was supressed and the tourism industry recovered. However, the radical ideology of Tawhid wal-Jihad and Al-Qaeda did not disappear, and the groups served as an inspiration for future jihadism: many former members joined forces to form Ansar Bayat al-Maqdis – a group which would later transform into Sinai Province. The springboard which launched this new wave of terrorism was initiated in 2011: as the Arab Spring revolutions swept across the Middle East at lightening pace, the Sinai Peninsula experienced some of the most severe uprisings. It’s location in the far north-west of Egypt, led to an increasingly lawless scenario as the state did not possess the necessary resources to exercise full control; this fed into an atmosphere of instability and once-again made the Sinai a hotspot for terrorist recruitment.

Over the next five years, Ansar Bayat al-Maqdis became the most active and dangerous insurgent group in Egypt, carrying out regular attacks in northern Sinai, and even some in the capital, Cairo. In November 2014, the militant organization changed its name to Sinai Province and pledged allegiance to IS, stating a desire to be governed as part of a proposed caliphate extending across the Middle East and North Africa. From this point onwards, attacks increased in scale and complexity, signalling closer co-operation with IS leadership and the possession of more advanced weaponry. The Egyptian army has been the primary target of attacks, particularly since the removal of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. In January 2014 the group shot down an Egyptian military helicopter in an audacious attack with a ground-launched missile, likely to have been smuggled from Libya; this came just one month after a large-scale attack on a security compound in the northern town of Dakahliya, in which 15 people were killed and more than 100 injured.

The military-led government of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi placed the region under a ‘State of Emergency’ in October 2014, after 33 security personnel were killed in an attack claimed by the group. At the border with the Gaza Strip, the authorities effectively created a ‘buffer zone’ in an attempt to prevent the smuggling of weapons, through demolishing houses and digging a trench to make access to the border more difficult. In September last year, the government announced a large-scale campaign to crack-down on the insurgency, targeting buildings in the towns of Rafah, Arish and Sheikh Zuweid. However, attacks have continued, with suicide bombings, drive-by shootings and assassinations becoming a regular occurrence. There have been unverified reports that the group has targeted Egyptian naval vessels in the Mediterranean, with missiles fired from the shore. If Sinai Province does indeed possess this capability, it would be an especially worrying development given the central importance of the region to commercial shipping. The October 2015 downing of the Metrojet flight was the largest signal yet of the group’s intent; an attack for which it claimed responsibility, and indicated was in retaliation for Russian airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria. The same month, smaller-scale attacks were carried out at sensitive tourist sites, near the Pyramids at Giza and the Karnak Temple in Luxor, indicating the intention of Sinai Province to spread fear, damage the tourist industry, and inflict the maximum level of harm upon President Sisi’s government.

The pervasiveness and tactical adaptability of Sinai Province in the face the recent military crackdown, is an especially worrying development for Egypt’s security officials and outside observers. The presence of IS in the Sinai Peninsula is becoming an increasing concern, especially after IS recently launched an extensive media and propaganda campaign, aimed at increasing recruitment in Egypt. In the wider context, the main concern from the international community is that IS attempting a deliberate reorientation towards North Africa, as its territory in Syria and Iraq comes under increasing pressure. There is significant evidence to support this claim: Sinai Province appears to be increasing its recruitment and growing in strength; Libya has long been courted as a ‘second base’ for the jihadists, following the upheaval and chaos which followed the removal of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011; whilst Tunisia is the leading source of foreign fighters to IS, and has itself been the site of devastating terrorist attacks in the capital Tunis and the beach resort of Sousse.

Overall, the emergence of Sinai Province serves as a painful reminder that ISIS is no-longer confined within the borders of Syria and Iraq. Its ideology and violent tactics have the potential to take root in numerous areas across the Middle East, with similar characteristics to the Sinai Peninsula: areas with a troubled history of instability, marginalization and weak state presence; providing the ideal conditions for terrorism to flourish.

A version of this article was also published on International Policy Digest