“A Shameful Tragedy”: The Fate of Syria’s Civilians

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by Zoë Sands

The war in Syria is immensely complex, and it has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians to date. Recently, several factors – including the ongoing stalemate within the UN Security Council and President-elect Trump’s desire to shift focus away from Syria – have made it clear that civilian suffering will continue for some time, barring unforeseen changes in the status quo.

As the United States and Europe move to tighten their borders to keep out refugees, the war in Syria is intensifying, killing and displacing record numbers of people. As of December 15th , the Syrian Army of Bashar al-Assad had reportedly seized rebel-controlled east Aleppo, where civilians have spent weeks under siege without access to food or functioning hospitals. An estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the civil war began in March 2011, and another 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The UN Security Council has received harsh criticism for its failure to end the Syrian tragedy; in the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the ongoing suffering “shames us all.” The diplomatic gridlock in ending the war has also created an unusually vitriolic dynamic in the Security Council, reminiscent of Cold War politics. Following the collapse of a week-long US-Russia ceasefire in September, the French, UK, and US ambassadors to the United Nations walked out on Syrian government representatives in protest of the Assad regime’s bombing campaign. Russia has been accused of using bunker-busting and incendiary bombs “more suited to destroying military installations” on the homes and shelters of the 275,000 civilians who were living, at the time, in rebel-held east Aleppo.

In addition, attacks on water supplies have denied water “to those most in need,” as Matthew Rycroft, the UK ambassador to the UN, pointed out during the emergency Security Council session on Syria on September 25th. “In short,” Rycroft continued, “it is difficult to deny that Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes.”

Both Syria and Russia deny targeting civilians and breaking international law, claiming only to be targeting terrorist groups, despite evidence that ISIS has virtually no presence in east Aleppo. For its part, Russia blamed the breakdown of the September ceasefire on rebels in Aleppo, and slammed the UK and US for their “overall unacceptable tone and rhetoric. ” Fortunately for Russia, in the wake of Mr. Trump’s election, the rhetoric is already changing in Russia’s favor.

Despite these tensions, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remains steadfast in his intentions. He recently reminded the Security Council that “international unity can make a difference,” and appealed to stakeholders to return to the negotiating table. But as of December 13th, with Assad’s advance into east Aleppo and the ongoing evacuation of remaining civilians, it’s unclear what kind of “difference” the UN could make.

At this stage, there is no clear path to peace. The UN Security Council is as unlikely as ever to successfully negotiate a ceasefire; Trump’s intention to “not [focus] on Syria,” so as to avoid conflict with Russia, has only emboldened Russia and the Assad regime. In November, days after Trump and Putin spoke on the phone about “regulating conflict,” Pro-Assad forces launched intense airstrikes in the rebel-held region of east Aleppo.

A short time later, amid continuing accusations of war crimes, Russia announced that it will withdraw from the International Criminal Court. On December 5th, Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution at the Security Council that called for a seven-day ceasefire in Aleppo to allow for safe access to aid. Today, Aleppo has mostly fallen to the Assad regime, but the violence hasn’t ended – heavy shelling is still preventing the safe evacuation of civilians from the city.

Moving forward, Trump’s desire to regulate the conflict in Syria without focusing on the Russia-backed Assad regime is unlikely to result in peace for Syrian civilians. Even if Assad’s victory in Aleppo lowers the level of immediate violence in the region, Syrians are still trapped under the same oppressive Assad regime that triggered the Syrian civil war to begin with. In a 2015 document published by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, investigators found that the Bashar al-Assad’s crimes against humanity far outnumber those of ISIS militants and other jihadist groups. The Assad regime is responsible for ten times more Syrian civilian deaths than ISIS.

Moreover, a total military victory for Bashar al-Assad “will leave Syria and Europe exposed to resurgent Sunni terrorism, as in Iraq,” says Staffan de Mistura, United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria. Assad’s victory risks leaving many disenfranchised civilians searching for a cause, and joining ISIS may seem an appealing option. “You will not win [such civilians] over unless there is a political solution,” warned de Mistura. Thus, Trump’s policy, focused solely on the military destruction of ISIS in a probable alliance with Russia and Assad, is unlikely to result in a long-term defeat of terrorism and or to create peace for civilians.

There are no simple solutions to civilian suffering in Syria. Even a radical change in Trump’s proposed policies on Syria –  which could mean sacrificing amicable relations with Russia – would not guarantee peace. One alternative stance for the US would be to back the rebel forces that are apparently still active in parts of east Aleppo, and in the province of Idlib, one of the few remaining rebel footholds in Syria. But backing a group of rebels whose identities are largely unknown is dangerous, too. The US might end up clearing the way for the another authoritarian government to take power, as it did with Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam and Pinochet in Chile.

Another possibility would involve a controversial intervention from the UN General Assembly: Resolution 377 A (V) could still be used to break the diplomatic stalemate within the Security Council. Resolution 377 A (V), “Uniting for Peace,” states that if the Security Council “fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security” due to a lack of unanimity among its permanent members, the General Assembly “shall seize itself of the matter.” This resolution was adopted in November of 1950, when the USSR attempted to stop the Security Council from protecting the Republic of Korea, which was then under attack by North Korean forces. However, to use such a resolution and override veto power would risk undermining the authority of the Security Council. Such a move could further complicate the situation in Syria, exacerbating the suffering of Syrian civilians in the long run.

Barring such an intervention, prospects for striking a peace deal and toppling the oppressive Assad regime are dim. In combination, the stalemate in the UN Security Council, Trump’s apparent ambivalence toward Syrian civilians, and the Russian-backed Assad regime’s recent victory in east Aleppo make for a bleak picture of the future. In addition, the current trend of isolationism in domestic politics suggests that intervention by a foreign government is unlikely. At this point, the most probable outcome is a pyrrhic victory for the Assad regime, “followed by a long-term, low intensity, but extremely painful guerrilla war, in which Syrians continue to die,” as Staffan de Mistura has predicted.

In the face of these grim prospects, many outside the government are taking action to ameliorate civilian suffering; numerous aid organizations around the world have mobilized to provide support. At this point in the war, humanitarian aid has the best chance of making a real difference.




Several news outlets have published articles suggesting ways to offer support to Syrian civilians, including Time, the Huffington Post, and the Independent.

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