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Syria civil war: Seven years on, rebels say 'we have paid a huge price for freedom. We cannot stop now’

With new offensives in Afrin and Eastern Ghouta, 2018 has already witnessed one of the bloodiest chapters in a war that shows no signs of slowing down

Wednesday 14 March 2018 16:51 GMT
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Civilians suffered during the fall of Aleppo in 2016, which turned the war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favour
Civilians suffered during the fall of Aleppo in 2016, which turned the war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favour (Reuters)

It was hard to foresee the scale of the war to come when protesters took to the streets of Damascus and Aleppo in a “Day of Rage” on 15 March 2011.

“Your turn, Doctor [Bashar al-Assad],” Arab Spring demonstrators chanted as they demanded the release of 15 teenagers arrested for daubing walls with anti-government graffiti.

Arrests and beatings did not deter them. They drew courage from the recent falls of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia in similar Arab Spring protests.

Scenes of devastation in Syria after deadly shelling and airstrikes and eastern Ghouta

After three days of the exceptionally rare demonstrations, the government had had enough. On 18 March, four protesters in Deraa – most reports say they were unarmed – were shot dead by security forces which opened fire on a crowd.

The killings provided the catalyst for a revolution which has morphed into a conflict unlike any other modern war, shaken the world’s faith in the power of the United Nations, and left many questioning the sanctity of international humanitarian law.

The full repercussions of the myriad proxy wars currently being fought in Syria are yet to be understood.

What is certain is that more than 500,000 people have been killed, half of Syria’s pre-war population has been forced to flee their homes, and an entire generation of Syrian children has never known anything other than war.

“Syrians’ faith in the UN is very low at this point,” says Hadi al-Bahra, a member of the Syrian Negotiation Commission and its negotiation delegation to the UN-led Geneva peace talks process, referring to the inability of the international community to implement a lasting ceasefire in the conflict.

“If there are no consequences for military actions, the regime will push forward with committing crimes on a daily basis,” he says. “But the UN is the only option we have to work with.”

On the eve of the conflict’s seventh anniversary, the violence shows no sign of stopping.

On some fronts it is becoming even more complicated – and deadly. Syria now shows dangerous signs of descending into an entrenched state of warfare such as that suffered by Iraq and Afghanistan, subject to the whims of internal warlords and proxy powers.

The fall of the eastern rebel-held side of Aleppo, thanks to Russian airpower and Iran-backed ground forces, at the end of 2016 marked a turning point in Syria’s civil war, shifting the tide of the conflict in President Bashar al-Assad’s favour.

With Isis’s caliphate dismantled after the battle for Raqqa last year, the other long-standing front in the Syrian theatre also began to wind down.

And yet 2018 has seen one of the bloodiest chapters in the war yet.

In Eastern Ghouta, more than 1,000 people have been killed in a three-week-old offensive to retake the area.

The Damascus suburb has been besieged by government forces since 2012 and was also the scene of a sarin and chlorine gas attack in 2013, one of the worst chemical incidents in modern history.

In recent months, however, Mr Assad’s government has tightened the siege, leaving its estimated 400,000 civilians struggling with dwindling food and medical supplies. At the same time, it has stepped up the military campaign.

Syrian Arab militiamen threaten to massacre Kurdish population

The violence unleashed in the area since a new wave of Russian-backed bombing began on 18 February has been unprecedented. Activists on the ground report the use of illegal barrel bombs and chlorine gas – claims the Syrian army has repeatedly denied.

The rebels – among them a small number of al-Qaeda-linked militants – are now facing a ground assault that has retaken more than half the area and are facing the prospect of bussed evacuations to the last rebel stronghold of Idlib in the north-west.

“I don’t want to leave Eastern Ghouta. My children grew up here, it’s my home, this is the place they know,” says American citizen Deana Lynn, who has been trapped in Ghouta for several years.

“I think people in general, they don’t want to leave or become displaced. What would they do in Idlib? They would have to look for a home or they’d have to leave for Turkey or Europe.

“We hope it won’t happen to us… I just hope we’ll be safe.”

Turkey opened a new front in the already messy conflict in January, invading the Kurdish-held canton of Afrin in the north-west.

Scores of civilians have been killed during Ankara’s curiously named Operation Olive Branch, designed to oust Kurdish YPG fighters it sees as the Syrian extension of its own outlawed PKK movement.

The US state department, rudderless and understaffed in the Trump administration, has not yet been able to balance the conflicting interests of the YPG, its ground allies against Isis, and its Nato ally Turkey.

“[Russia’s repeated vetoes on action] has caused real damage to the Security Council’s reputation,” a European diplomat says on the condition of anonymity.

Last month Russia agreed to a ceasefire in Ghouta – a rare unanimous UN decision on Syria. But the cessation in hostilities has largely gone ignored.

“It’s even more damaging for the Security Council to agree something and then not to see it executed than it is to see it deadlocked,” says the diplomat.

“The risk is that the Security Council looks impotent and irrelevant, and other countries start to operate outside of the Security Council. It looks like you don’t need it anymore, that it doesn’t matter.”

In diplomatic circles, once-strident calls that “Assad must go” are no longer very loud.

Despite round after round of failed peace talks in Geneva, the UN is adamant a diplomatic solution to the crisis must be agreed, even as Russian and Iranian intervention on the battlefield has once again put a military victory within the Assad government’s reach.

The Syrian government was not receptive to Russian diplomatic efforts during a separate peace process in Astana and Sochi in 2017 and January this year.

The European diplomat says the international community is now hopeful Russia, wishing to limit reputational damage, can be pressured to bring Mr Assad to the negotiating table – but others are not so optimistic.

“Russia does not have enough leverage on the regime to change anything,” says Hadi al-Bahra.

“Iran’s militias are the ones that have really propped up Assad, and they are the main financiers of the regime. They have advanced billions of dollars in lines of credit to the government. They are the ones more in control.”

The beginning of the end of the war is still at least five years away, Mr Bahra says. Even if serious attempts at reconciliation and reconstruction are made, Syria has undergone vast demographic changes in the last seven years, with entire communities emptied out of neighbourhoods and bussed elsewhere at the end of battles.

Boris Johnson suggests the UK could strike Syria in response to Assad's attack on eastern Ghouta

The fate of hundreds of thousands of people detained or disappeared in Mr Assad’s prisons is another painful issue that could well derail any fledgling attempts at dialogue.

At this point in the conflict, the opposition has no choice but to keep going, Mr Bahra says.

“We have paid a huge price in this war. When we have sacrificed so much, we cannot stop now.”

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