By Mwana Wa Njuguna and Amina Muktar
7 years tears and pain marking the memories of Syrians. A government fighting to stay in power, patriots turned rebels to end family dominance and humanitarian organizations caught in the middle. Over 400,000 people dead, from a teenager’s single wall graffiti of awakening. A civil war whose end no one can tell. A tough talking president, a military that is not ready to back down until every Syrian soil is under government control. This is the sad story of the Syrian war.
Before the war, Syria was one of the leading tourist destinations in the world. It was known for its history, rich culture and diversity. Its beautiful heritage sites were a testimony to the different cultures and civilizations that existed there Syria was full of ancient mosques, Roman ruins, and castles built during the ancient crusades. It was known as a cradle of civilization. The ancient cities of Aleppo, Damascus, Palmyra and Bosra were all UNESCO world heritage sites. Seven years later, the country is in ruins. Places of thousands of years of history have been leveled and worrying history is being written.
Before the war, UN did indicate that Syria had a population of 22 million people. An estimate of the country’s population in 2017 by CIA, World Fact File, was 18 million people. A number of explanations can be given of the missing 4 million people, but the contribution of the war is more evident. Speaking to BBC in 2015, Bashar did not agree that his army is killing civilians. He says, “Every war is a bad war, and there must be casualties, who are civilians.”
Syrian governance happens at two levels; the president and the prime minister. Syria was a unitary republic (here the central government is supreme and any administrative divisions exercise power delegated to them) before becoming a semi presidential state in 2012 after the adoption of the constitution that guaranteed the election of individuals who never made the Nation Progressive Front. The president is the head of state while the prime minister is the head of government. If the people hold a vote of no confidence in the prime mister, he is to submit his resignation to the president. The people’s council, legislature, is responsible for passing laws, approving government appropriations and debating policy.
The executive branch consists of the president, two vice presidents, the prime minister and the cabinet ministers (cabinet). The constitution requires the president to be a Muslim. On 7 May 2012, Syria held its first elections in which parties outside the ruling coalition could take part. Seven new political parties took part in the elections, of which Popular Front for Change and Liberation was the largest opposition party. The armed anti-government rebels, however, chose not to field candidates and called on their supporters to boycott the elections.
How did Syria reach where it is today?
The Arab Spring that started in Tunisia with the Tunisian Revolution, on 10th of December 2010 with an aim of regime change, quickly moved to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. The Arab Spring was a revolutionary wave of both violent and non-violent demonstrations, protests, riots, coups, foreign interventions, and civil wars. The Arab Spring sparked the 7 YEARS OF PAIN in Syria. Uninformed of how sever the consequences would be, 14 year old Mouawiya Syasneh with the aid of two other friends drew an anti al-Assad’s graffiti on their school wall.
The government’s reactions to the drawings attracted the masses to the streets, and in March 2011 pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in the southern city of Deraa, mostly to demand the release of the 3 boys who had been in custody for over 30 days. These protests did not stop even after the release of the boys, and had now moved to others cities like Aleppo, Homs and Damascus and they were now between groups for and against Al-Asaad. The government troops used excessive force to try and end the demonstrations which resulted to citizens picking up weapons and the emergence of rebel groups, ISIS, Al-Qaida (AQ), Free Reberation Syrian Army and al-Nusrah Front.
The protests now demanded the resignation of the president, Bashar Al-Assad. Bashar who took over from his father has been in office for 17 years and if you put together the time of his fathers reign, it totals up to 49 years. According to the Syrian constitution, you cannot impeach a president. The only way would be to vote him out, which is virtually impossible as Syria has not had free elections in over 50 years. The leadership in Syria is in a family dynasty, and with Bashar Asaad controlling the Baath party, it makes it even more difficult to get him out of office.
When asked about how his government handled the protests and the arrest of the three boys, Bashar told BBC, anyone could make mistakes. He goes on to say most mistakes are not at the decision making level but at the implementation.
After 45 days of torture as Syasneh narrates to the world through Aljazeera, they were set free to try and come down the protestors. The young star spoke to Aljazeera, after his release he could not believe what had become of the wall drawing. President Bashar is quick to highlight the protests were painted as peaceful demonstration yet many police men were killed during the early days of the protests. He says this prompted the security forces to respond.
These figures from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights indicate 106,390 Syrians including 19,811 children under the age of eighteen and 12,513 citizen woman over the age of eighteen have lost their lives. Casualties in detention centers and prisons of the regime 14,751 civilian casualties, they 14,572 men and young men, and 120 children under the age of eighteen, and 59 citizen woman over the age of eighteen. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights indicates that this statistic does not include the 45,000 citizens who were killed under torture in the detention centers and prisons of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and the observatory got the information about their death during the period of their detention. According to this organization, estimates of more than 500,000 people have lost their lives. The figures from the UN contradict this sighting an estimate of over 400,000, which actually shows how hard it is to tell the actual number of people dead. UNHCR indicates that 5.6 million Syrians have left the country to seek refuge in neighboring nations, like Turkey and Lebanon, and 6 million others are internally displaced.
Despite these devastating facts, Syria’s president seems even stronger in power than before. He says it is impossible for any government to survive without the support of its people. The support from the Saudi Arabia and USA has made the war difficult yet he acknowledges that the support from Russia and Iran to his government is impactful.
The human basic needs are food, shelter and clothing. Education is the engine of development of any nation. In a war tone region, education and health are hugely affected; the case of Syria has no difference. “We must not lose sight of the fact that – all over Syria – millions of people, in locations inside and outside the four de-escalation areas, continue to suffer because they lack the most basic elements to sustain their lives,” said Stephen O’Brien, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefing the Security Council.
The Syrian war has had a great impact on education. Many schools have been destroyed due to the war. In 2017, the United Nations verified 2,909 grave violations against children including 89 attacks on schools. A World Bank report last year said 49 education facilities in Aleppo had been destroyed and most of them became military bases. In 2016, airstrikes hit a school in the village of Haas in Idlib province which left 22 children and six teachers dead. Due to these constant attacks, schools have been destroyed and children are forced to drop out of school. Apart from that, many schools have been closed due to fear of being attacked. A good example is in the Afrin region where 261 primary schools and 50 secondary and higher education institutions with 65,000 students are currently shut down because of the fighting. The children who have dropped out of school are being forced to join rebel groups. According to UNICEF, almost 1000 children were recruited last year to fight in combat roles. About 1.75 million Syrian children are out of school and are behind in their reading and math skills. This is according to a report published in March 2017 by the International Rescue Committee.
The UN in a report published on 30th May this year shows that children are suffering with tens of thousands having been killed and many others forcibly detained, tortured, subjected to sexual violence, forcibly recruited and in some cases executed. Just last week, 30 children and women were injured in an attack by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) on besieged neighbourhoods in Deir ez-Zor as they were lining up to collect water.
The report continues to indicate that according to estimates nearly seven million children are living in poverty and some 1.75 million are out of schools with another 1.35 million at the risk of dropping out. Almost one in three schools have been damaged, destroyed, or otherwise made inaccessible.
The Syrian healthcare system has collapsed due to the many years of conflict. According to UN OCHA figures in 2017, 11.5 million Syrians did not have access to healthcare Out of the 11.5 million, nearly 5 million were children. In the capital Damascus, 1.5 million people did not have access to healthcare while in Aleppo, the number raised to 2.2 million. The situation is getting worse due to lack of human and material resources. Many of the hospitals are either closed or functioning partially. There is a shortage of drugs and medicines since many pharmaceutical and drug storage companies have been destroyed. The UN estimates 13.1 million people will require some form of humanitarian help in Syria in 2018. Syrians also have limited access to healthcare. Physicians for Human Rights had documented 492 attacks on 330 medical facilities by the end of December 2017, resulting in the deaths of 847 medical personnel.
According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) two hospitals it supports in East Ghouta were bombed last week, killing 38 and wounding 87, including five medical staff. “The doctors we are speaking to have not received any aid in Daraya and Duma, they remain completely blocked from any official humanitarian access. Barzeh, near Damascus and Al Waer, near Homs also face repeated closure of access, said Dr Bart Janssens, the medical group’s director of operations. “When convoys are getting through in other areas, the doctors we are working report that vital items such as surgical and unaesthetic supplies, blood bags have been removed. The quantities of IV fluid received are also consistently way less than what is needed.”
Former British Prime Minister David Cameroon speaking to the British parliament he said, “The reason we have a crisis is because Bashar has butchered his own people and ISIS have also in their own way butchered others.” He was trying to seek the support from the parliament to conduct airstrikes. On April 13, 2018 the British, French and US governments did launch airstrikes on Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta a week earlier. The US president Donald Trump has named Bashar as ‘animal Bashar’ and initiated airstrikes to respond to chemical bombings.
There is no accurate estimate for the economic cost of the ongoing war. A recent report by the charity group World Vision and the consultant group Frontier Economics estimated that the conflict has so far cost Syria $275 billion in lost growth opportunities — 150 times more than pre-war Syria’s health budget. If the conflict ends in 2020, the cost of the conflict will grow to $1.3 trillion, it estimated. A World Bank report estimates the damage to the capital stock in Syria as of mid-2014 to be $70-80 billion. The situation has deteriorated greatly since then.
Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq have borne the brunt of the economic impact of the war. Already in fragile situations, many of them are facing tremendous budgetary pressure. The World Bank estimates, for instance, that the influx of more than 630,000 Syrian refugees has cost Jordan over $2.5 billion a year. This amounts to 6% of GDP and one-fourth of government’s annual revenue. Cash-strapped Lebanon is also stretched to a breaking point and Turkey says it can no longer afford to take in refugees.
‘The Truth Smugglers’ a story by the FIFTH ESTATE, has a former forensic analyst of the Syrian government who took the photos that showed the world what exactly is happening in Syria.
‘Caesar’ not his real name is living in exile in fear that his government would be willing to kill him to end the story. As he tells his story to the world for the first time through The Fifth Estate, he says the photos were taken in order to show the superiors that their orders to torture and kill were being followed to the latter.
The US government, French and British governments have backed what they call moderate rebels with weapons and have been vocal about the war. In fact former US president Barack Obama in 2013 stated that the crisis could only end if Bashar stepped aside. He went on to promise that his government would continue to support Turkey in helping refugees and the ‘moderate rebels’ who are for transition.
In the minds of many, rebuilding the destroyed buildings, infrastructure and improving Syria’s economy will be the biggest challenge.
But as Dr. Wango narrates, wiping away the sad memories of witnessing brothers die, injustice, torture and even to the extreme, the loss of body parts that will be marks reminding them of the dark moments, will be the hardest challenge.
Money can rebuild destroyed infrastructure, but money cannot rebuild souls, neither can it rebuild destroyed trust. It may take a number of years to rebuild Syria; it will take even longer to heal internal wounds.
Clouds of sadness still linger in Syria, unpredictable moments of attacks, makes Syrians restless. In an interview with CNN in 2009, Bashar al-Assad’s wife criticized various governments involved in the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. She showed her compassion to the people of Gaza, being involved in the talks to try and bring peace in the region. For 8 years that saw the eruption of war in Syria, Asma Al-Assad has not been seen in public and has not come out strongly to defend civilians who are most affected by the war. In an interview with a local media in Syria, the first in years, she narrates her efforts in supporting families that have been left homeless and her involvement in the welfare of the injured soldiers and their families.
On the question of her support for Bashar, “It was not a question of preference. I stood by him because my conscience did not tell me otherwise.” As for her silence she says she is not one to look for publicity. In what seemed like a compassionate nature of the first lady of Syria, the interviewer narrates of her courage as she drove herself in one of the trips they accompanied her to visit the camp of the injured soldiers. She responds by saying if Syrians are not safe while walking in the streets or taking their children to school, why should I?
Bashar Al-Assad, is at the core of all the crisis in Syria, although he was not directly mentioned in the Panama Papers that exposed most world leaders and prominent business men in money laundering, two of his cousins were. A leak from someone working with Mossack Fonseca a law firm in Panama saw 11.5 million secret documents meet the public eye. The expose’ that involved various journalists around the world, associates Bashar’s cousins, Rami Makhlouf and Hafez Makhlouf with a number of shoddy business dealings that sees them accumulate money while evading tax. The US government placed sanctions on Rami, the richest man in Syria, and a close friend to president al-Assad, and froze his assets in Syria. An attempt to have his assets unfrozen in a Swedish court did not go through, as analysts say the protests in Syria were out of anger in uncontrolled corruption by Rami. A number of Rami’s businesses were destroyed as he controlled 60% of Syria’s economy, with one Syrian businessman who tried to oppose Rami from starting a monopoly in telecommunications, having been jailed for 7 years. Allegations of Hafez symbolizing repression are backed by many analysts who suffered in his hands and were threatened to pave way for his brother Rami’s businesses, according to Huffington Post.
When the Panama Papers reports broke in 2016, protests took place in many regions in the world from Saudi Arabia, Britain to Argentina to demand resignation of various corrupt leaders. Unsurprisingly, in Syria the Panama Papers reports were not available online neither were they reported on mainstream media. Le Monde a partner to ICIJ media reports of a correlation between three Syrian firms that had been blacklisted by the US government, through Mossack Fonseca managed to setup front companies in Seychelles. The companies were sanctioned for selling fuel to the Assad regime that could potentially have been used in the warplanes leading to death of civilians in indiscriminate bombings. Syrians have sleepless nights thinking of corruption, verifying of the allegations that the civil war may have been funded by money earned from corruption, will give them nightmares.
Bashar Al-Assad is not one who gives interviews regularly, and when he does they are filmed by his press. Bashar has denied any wrong doing since the war broke in March 2011. A story by Vice News, HBO, interviews a number of Syrians and none could go on camera to point a finger to the government. The Fifth Estate illustrated one of the most inhuman ways that the government of Syria is using to deal with rebels. Military Hospital 601, which is an estimate of 2 kilometers away from the Presidential Palace being a ‘martyr’ ground with Caesar’s photos and Mazen Al Hummada’s testimony of what in his words he terms, unbelievable. “I never thought anyone would believe me. I was relieved to see the Caesar photos,” says Hummada. A man by all standards led a good life, except for freedom. Like everybody else he took to the streets, but he choose to record the moments of history, something that could see him land in Mezzeh Airport detention center in Damascus.
The mention of Mezzeh Airport causes butterflies to Syrians as it is known to use torture tactics to acquire testimonies. For months, Hummada would be questioned; he was tortured until he chose to agree with everything the authorities said. He could later start vomiting blood earning him a ticket to visit Military Hospital 601. “I opened the first door of the lavatory and saw dead bodies, I said to myself am dreaming this is not real, I pushed the second and saw more bodies, and I closed my eyes, turning to the sink I saw a body of a child, it was heart breaking.” Some how Hummada survived Mezzeh Airport and Military Hospital601, and the court found him guilty but let him free saying the 19 months he had served were enough. Today he lives in Turkey.
Barrack Obama pledging U.S support to Turkey.
The UN has indicated starvation as a war tactic being employed by the Syrian authorities. “We must not stand silent while violence flares up elsewhere in the country and parties continue to use starvation, fear tactics and the denial of food, water, medical supplies, and other forms of aid as methods of war,” stated Stephen O’Brien, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator. A number of reports have confirmed the use of barrel bombs that is against the International law and even chemical weapons. Bashar has often denied the use of this tactics.
Everyday brings forth fear for many Syrians. You see the sun rise and breathe with relief but you’re never certain that you will see the sunset. The greatest fear is that a smile is not long lasting. Burying your own fresh is not easy, but seeing them cry in pain and you can do nothing, is even more heartening. It is hard to say the war will end tomorrow, because Bashar seems more comfortable in power than before. I can tell almost certainly that the sun will rise tomorrow, and you can be sure that some day there will be a new Syria.
It has been seven years of war for the people of Syria, seven years of suffering, pain and devastation which prompt the question ‘will the war in Syria end?’And if it does end will things go back to normal? Will the millions of Syrians who have fled their country be able to go back? For many people, the war in Syria is far from over. As much as there has been a peace process, the biggest problem has been who to include in the peace process.
United States will breathe with relief after Erdogan successfully became the first executive president of Turkey on 24th of June. Turkey has been a long term ally of the nations fighting for a liberated Syria. In his victory speech Mr Erdogan said Turkey would act more firmly against terrorist groups and would continue to ‘liberate Syrian lands’ so refugees could return home. This is a huge stumbling block for the peace process.
Russia supports Assad, US doesn’t want Assad or Iran involved and Turkey doesn’t want the Kurds to be involved. This is a huge stumbling block for the peace process. Another problem is the large number of rebels existing in Syria. It will be hard or even impossible to include all of them in the peace process as it isn’t known who represents the opposition. The ideological differences and religious problems between the Shia Muslims (led by Assad) and the Sunni Muslims (the majority) is another big problem. The impossibility of these warring parties to sit down and negotiate leaves only one option, fighting until one victor emerges. The war in Syria may not end today or tomorrow but it will eventually end.
It may not be tomorrow, but one thing is for sure a day shall come when the children of Syria will wake up to sounds of birds chirping and not sounds of bombs and airstrikes. A day shall come when the people of Syria will be able to live normal lives. However, one thing is for sure the war has had a huge impact on the people of Syria. For some, life will never be the same.
As we publish this, Bashar Al-Assad is winning decisively managing to push the various militia out and regaining control. Mixed reactions are being received; one side happy of the results, another pain and tears are the cup of tea. For the people of Syria, a question we would love answered is, Have they found what they were after?
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT to CNN, BBC, ALJAZEERA, UN, UNHCR,THE GUARDIAN, THE FIFTH ESTATE, SYRIAN OBSERVATORY FOR HUMAN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION, CIA WORLD FACT FILE, WIKIPEDIA AND YESTERDAY TODAY PAPER.