The Syrian Crisis Story


The crisis in Syria began by protests in mid-March 2011, which called for the release of political prisoners. No one could have imagined that such a minor demand could trigger something so disastrous in the near future. Syrian National security forces immediately responded to widespread, initially peaceful demonstrations with brutal violence. From summer 2011 onwards, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refused to stop attacks and implement the meaningful reforms demanded by protesters. In July 2011, accounts emerged from various sources that government forces had subjected civilians to arbitrary detention, torture, and the deployment and use of heavy artillery. The Syrian people were also subject to the “Shabiha”, a heavily armed state sponsored militia fighting alongside security forces. Assad consistently denied responsibility for these crimes, placing blame for the violence on armed groups and terrorists, and yet denying humanitarian access to civilians. Along with the worsening violence, the lack of assistance from the UN and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) caused severe shortages of food, water and healthcare in the country.

The continued crisis lead to the formation of several opposition organizations such as the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella organization of exiled Syrians, and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a militarized group consisting of Syrian military defectors and armed rebels. August 2011 marked the use of violence by these opposition forces to end the regimes governance as well as the introduction of new militant tactics subjecting civilians to human rights violations. The conflict grew with civilians being targeted by both sides based on the presumed support or opposition to the Assad regime .The media blackout imposed by Assad regime made it difficult to assess the real picture of the conflict. As a result UN Human Rights council established an inquiry to investigate the alleged human rights violations and published several reports concluding that Syrian government as well the opposition groups have committed crimes against humanity.


Initially, local bodies like the League of Arab States and the Gulf Cooperation Council, were hesitant to respond, and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) was unable to reach a consensus on definitive action to end the conflict. After nearly a year of conflict, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan was appointed as Joint Special Envoy for the UN and the League of Arab States on 23 February 2012. He set forth a six point peace plan requiring all parties to work with the Special Envoy, a ceasefire, and timely provision of humanitarian assistance. The non-fulfilment of this deal lead to a de facto civil war .UNSC further deployed a UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) of 300 unarmed observers to facilitate the peace plan in April 2012 but that too ended as a failure and was suspended in a few months. Late July saw casualties mounting to 19,000 and several thousands of civilians seeking refuge in neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey .Citing the lack of political unity within the UN, Annan resigned from his position in the following month and was replaced by Lakhdar Brahimi, who faced a grave situation, with clashes between government and opposition forces fighting for control of Damascus, mass executions by government forces and a growing humanitarian crisis. In January 2013, he was quoted saying that the country was “breaking up before everyone’s eyes.” In July 2013, the UN reported at least 100,000 had been killed, that a staggering 2 million had fled to neighbouring countries, and 4 million remained internally displaced.

Meanwhile the opposition forces created a new coalition in Nov 2012 called National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Force This body found international recognition as an official representative of Syrian people. It was first recognized by the Arab League in November 2012, later by France, EU and, UK and US by December, and several others. Nonetheless, the opposition forces grew increasingly fragmented, divided by ideological gaps between secular and Islamic armed groups as well as pervasive managerial gaps. In April 2013, Al Qaeda confirmed its allegiance to the rebel forces and soon foreign fighters enlisted in the sectarian war in increasing numbers.


As early as April 2011, it was reported to the UN Security Council that Syria was plagued by the use of artillery fire against unarmed civilians, arrest campaigns, shooting of medical personnel aiding the wounded, raids in hospitals, clinics and mosques and destruction of medical supplies and arrest of medical personnel. It was also alleged that Syrian government denied access to international humanitarian groups and human rights organizations while simultaneously shutting all social media communications. The Commission of Inquiry on Syria presented its initial findings in November 2011, reporting evidence that crimes against humanity had been committed including sexual violence, torture, arbitrary detention and murder. The initial sporadic attacks evolved to targeted large scale violence spiralling to the level of usage of cluster bombs. Several other instances like attack near Houla resulting in death of 108 people and the massacre of 71 men in Aleppo were also reported. Human Rights Watch reported the use of torture in 27 detention facilities run by Syrian intelligence agencies and also released evidence of a clear chain of command responsibility for atrocities committed all the way up to high-level Syrian officials. Gross violations of human rights had been committed leading to harmful effect on the population. Furthermore, there have been repeated claims of the deployment of chemical agents by the Syrian government, which is known to have stockpiles of such weapons. Individual states such as United States, France, United Kingdom, have announced that they have evidence of the government’s responsibility to the use of chemical weapons.


In Feb 2014, UN announced that the number of Syrian refugees had surpassed 2.4 million and that of internally displaced people in Syria had crossed 5 million. The refugee crisis has taken its toll on bordering countries. According to the UNHCR as of Feb 2014, almost 594000 have sought refuge in Turkey, and over 545000 in Jordan, 867000 in Lebanon, 133000 in Egypt and 217000 in Iraq.

The primary reasons for fleeing appear to be atrocities committed against civilians. It was also reported that refugee populations faced dire conditions in the refugee camps and the hosting countries were experiencing severe pressure leading to resentment against the refugees. In Jordan, the World Bank reported that the influx of refugees is affecting the livelihood, public services, and basic commodities of the local communities, and announced its financial support to the government. Although Turkey has been more economically equipped to handle the refugee influx, social and political costs arose, resulting in an increased risk of sectarian spill over, particularly in areas sympathetic to Assad. Lebanon, is also significantly burdened by the conflict, where in April 2013, it was reported that one out of ten residents was a refugee. Lebanon’s hospitals, electricity, transportation systems are strained, and food prices are rising. Furthermore, the country is experiencing a re-ignition of ethnic and religious tensions, with violent clashes occurring between Sunni and Shiite communities and between supporters and opponents of Assad. Syria’s neighbouring countries have been stretched too thin and it has called for urgent assistance and increased funding from the international community.


August 2013 saw a series of videos and photographs reporting use of chemical weapons killing a high number of civilians in rebel held areas around Damascus , calling it “the world’s most lethal chemical weapons attack since the 1980s . A large number among the victims involved children and the total number of casualties ranged between 500 and 1300. The international community called for an immediate investigation of the use of chemical weapons after the attack on civilians. It reported that there was clear and convincing evidence that Sarin gas had been used in Ghouta, though it did not declare which side had deployed them. So far, both the international community and the Syrian government have both failed in their responsibility to protect Syrians, and particularly in light of the attacks, it has reached a tipping point that requires an immediate and meaningful response. Some countries, convinced that the Assad regime was behind the war crime and violation of international humanitarian law, declared publicly that a “red line” had been crossed. These countries therefore seriously considered a military operation in order to respond to the chemical weapons attack. However, others questioned whether a military response solely in response to the August chemical weapons attack would actually serve to protect civilians, or if it would be mostly designed to punish the Assad regime.

In the present scenario, diplomacy has won, with the Security Council showing rare unity on Syria by passing Resolution 2118 (2013), which requires Syria to destroy its current stockpile of chemical weapons. Further, it prohibits Syria from using, developing, stockpiling, and transferring chemical weapons. Should Syria not fulfil the terms of the resolution, whose compliance will be overseen by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Security Council may consider penalties under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The Syrian regime has thus far complied with the resolution, with the OPCW declaring that they had successfully destroyed most of the sites used for the production of chemical weapons in November 2013. It remains to be seen, however, whether the mid-2014 deadline for destroying Syria’s current stockpile of the munitions will be met in light of the ongoing instability. Despite this progress, fighting between the regime and rebels has continued steadily.
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