Many newspapers across the world today have chosen as their main image a photograph of a five year-old Syrian boy who has just survived an airstrike. Like that of another little Syrian boy called Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea last year, the image has gone viral.
It appears that once again the image of a Syrian child has pricked the world’s collective conscience, igniting renewed efforts to alleviate the suffering of Syrian civilians.
Aleppo as a microcosm for the Syrian Conflict
The Syrian conflict has a prominent sectarian aspect for which the battle for Aleppo is almost a microcosm, with the government and Shi’a militia on one side, and the largely-Islamist armed opposition groups on the other.
Within this complex picture, civilians from all sides are increasingly vulnerable as none of the warring parties have shown commitment to or respect for international humanitarian law, especially in terms of non-combatants, freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) and other human rights.
Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria used to have 4 million inhabitants. Today nearly half are displaced, either internally or externally.
The city has been a battlefield since 2012, and as the overall situation in Syria has deteriorated relentlessly, attention on the suffering of its inhabitants has ebbed and flowed dependent on fresh atrocities.
However, the emergence of photographs and video footage of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting dazed and bloodied in an ambulance after being pulled from the rubble of his home appear to have galvanised international efforts to assist the people of Aleppo.
A City Divided
The war has divided Aleppo into three parts. Western Aleppo is under government control, Eastern Aleppo is under opposition control, and a small section sandwiched between the two is held by Kurdish militia.
It is estimated that approximately 300,000 people still live in Eastern Aleppo who, according to the UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, are at grave risk from water shortages and disease.
Worse still, civilian areas and structures have sustained heavy and constant ground and air bombardment by the Assad government and its Russian and Iranian allies. This includes the use of indiscriminate munitions such as barrel bombs, which are inaccurate and cause inordinate suffering to non-combatants.
The surge in violence in and around Aleppo caused the breakdown of peace talks in Geneva in April. Attacks fulfilling the international criteria for war crimes are clearly underway, including the regular targeting of hospitals and medical staff, and there is compelling evidence that chemical weapons may have been deployed by the government and allied forces.
Eastern Aleppo was under partial siege by government forces until July, when the government closed the area off entirely by taking the Castello Road, which was the last route used by the opposition to bring in supplies from Turkey.
However, in early August, a coalition of anti-government groups launched a counter-attack that enabled them to break the siege and take the strategic district of Al-Ramouseh, opening up a passage into the besieged areas. This significant gain by the opposition automatically placed regime-controlled Western Aleppo under siege, as its main supply route passes through Al-Ramouseh.
Islamist Group Changes Name but Retain Dogma
The success of Islamist groups, including the former Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nousra Front, in breaking the siege and providing respite for the civilians in Eastern Aleppo highlights the failure of the international community to bring this conflict to an end.
This is particularly significant coming after the Al-Nousra Front’s specious severing of ties with Al-Qaeda and change of name to Fat’h Al-Sham. There is a danger that this blurring of relationship to create a semblance of autonomy could lead many ordinary civilians, and perhaps even some moderate fighters, to advocate for their integration into the opposition. However, the group still espouses a dogma that is inimical to human rights in general, and FoRB in particular, despite its semblance of being less extreme than ISIS.
Given that these groups have not broken their ideological ties with Al-Qaeda, this would likely prove problematic should the UN resume talks in Geneva aimed at finding a political solution to the war, and may also jeopardise post-conflict stability and re-conciliation efforts.
Will a Prick of Conscience Result in Sustained Change?
Within hours of the pictures and video of Omran’s rescue going viral, the UN envoy to Syria had reiterated his appeal for a 48-hour ceasefire to allow the delivery of aid and the evacuation of the injured from both sections of Aleppo. Soon afterwards, Russia indicated that it would support weekly 48-hour ceasefires to provide humanitarian relief for Aleppo’s citizens, and a test run could be organised as early as next week.
However, it remains to be seen whether the wave of international remorse engendered by these undoubtedly powerful pictures will result in sustained and meaningful action to assist civilians.
There is no guarantee whether a ceasefire agreement will be implemented or whether it will only be adhered to temporarily.
Whatever may occur, it is the responsibility of the international community, represented by the UN, to exert pressure on all warring parties to ensure that they respect international humanitarian law, particularly with regard to non-combatants and civilian structures. They must also be made to commit to serious engagement in a political process for a sustainable solution to the conflict.
The UN must also consider sending a stabilisation/peace enforcement mission with a clear mandate from the Security Council to Syria at the beginning of the political process since, after nearly six years of war, trust between the various factions in Syrian society has been destroyed by deepening sectarian and ethnic divisions.
By CSW’s Middle East Advocacy Officer.