On 18 March 2011, Syrians across the country drew inspiration from the Arab spring and took to the streets demanding peace, human rights and democratic reform. Not only did these calls go unheeded; the government, which had ruled through terror since 1970, also responded with extreme force. Today, a little over ten years since the uprising began, Syria remains one of the most precarious states in the world, and in urgent need of further international action.
President Bashar al-Assad and his ruling regime showed no mercy in the response to the demonstrations, using enforced disappearance, torture, extrajudicial execution, and extreme military force, including aerial bombardment, heavy artillery and chemical weapons. The government was quick to portray the uprising as a fundamentalist Sunni movement that threatened minorities, and what began as a peaceful uprising swiftly degenerated into a full-blown military conflict with a prominent sectarian aspect.
President Assad had long presented himself as a secular leader who protected minorities and promoted modernity and inclusion, casting any opposition as backward and sectarian, but it is worth noting that the Assad regime regularly fostered and used extremist groups to destabilise neighbouring countries such as Iraq and Lebanon. The regime also released hundreds of extremist prisoners at the beginning of the uprising in order to undermine it, many of whom joined Al Qaeda, Islamic State (IS) and other extremist militia.
Thousands have since been killed; many others arrested and severely tortured. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), 227,413 people have lost their lives, at least 14,506 of whom were tortured to death. At least 149,361 people are currently in detention facing harsh treatment and 13 million have been displaced both within and outside Syria.
A decade of destruction
The 10-year conflict witnessed what a UN Commission of Inquiry recently described as the “most heinous violations of international humanitarian law and violations and abuses of international human rights law.” Syrian civilians were repeatedly targeted with airstrikes, chemical weapons attacks, and modern-day sieges under which many were forced to starve.
By July 2014 IS was reported to be in control of around 35% of Syria’s territory, with other hard-line militants controlling large swathes elsewhere. Religious minorities suffered in particular under IS rule, with Christians ordered to pay jizya or dhimmi tax, adopt the Islamic dress code, and worship behind closed doors, all in an effort to compel their conversion.
IS has now lost the territory it once held, but Syria remains a war zone. Many of those forced to flee the country are still too afraid to return. In many cases they would not even have homes to return to.
In the north of the country, Turkish-backed Islamist militia have seized swathes of territory where they enforce a strict interpretation of Shari’a law. Human rights groups have reported widespread abuses such as killings, kidnappings, rape and torture, as well as attacks on the Yazidi minority and their places of worship, many of which have been completely destroyed. Yazidi activists have also reported many cases of forced conversions and marriages.
This ongoing incursion presents further challenges, including risking the re-emergence of IS, as well as creating credible concerns of crimes against humanity occurring once again.
The struggle continues
The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has added to the misery of Syrians who face daily queues for bread, fuel, and medicines. The government has responded to this crisis by cutting subsidies on essential items and diverting resources to its military.
As the situation becomes ever more desperate for ordinary Syrians struggling to survive, the Assad family and close relatives continue to enrich themselves with rampant corruption and war profiteering, while claiming disingenuously that international sanctions designed to target specific officials in the regime are the reason civilians are suffering deprivation.
The current situation threatens the national and territorial integrity of Syria, and continues to pose a threat to international peace and security. The principle of responsibility to protect, which was endorsed by UN member states in 2005, effectively overrides the principle of state sovereignty when a government kills its own people. However, while some Syrians still support the Assad regime, many more who do not have also lost faith in the UN, feeling that the international community has abandoned them to the sectarian and corrupt government on the hand and extremist groups on the other.
As the Syrian conflict enters its second decade, it is essential that the international community steps up efforts to bring it to a peaceful end. Moreover, steps must be taken to bring about a political solution that places justice and human rights at its very core, otherwise the war would only resume and further destabilise an already unstable region.
By CSW’s Research and Advocacy Officer for the Middle East and North Africa