Syria, Still in Chaos, Still Forgotten

The Middle East has been broadly characterized as a region rife with conflict. With recent headlines like “War within a war” from BBC or “Militants Kill Egyptian Security Forces in Deadly Attack” from the New York Times, that may be no surprise. These simple headlines often belie the complexity and severity of humanitarian crises in the area, ranging from the conflict in Syria to the forgotten war in Yemen. Throughout the year as a Kenan Human Rights writer, I plan to focus on individual crises and shed light on the historical and political context through a human rights lens. 

One of the most debated and relevant issues for the United States currently is that of Syria. Syria’s civil war and ensuing chaos has killed over 400,000 people. Moreover, the catastrophe caused five million Syrians to leave the country and six million internal refugees within the nation. The United States has failed to take an active role in responding to the conflict, especially in comparison to other Middle Eastern nations.

UNRWA, via AP (United Nations Relief and Works Agency)
The civil war originated in 2011, as the nation was swept up in the Arab Spring, with protesters calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Assad’s brutal suppression of the protests led civilians to take up arms and form resistance groups, spiraling into the conflict that we know today. However, this civil war is not only between those who support and oppose Assad. Rather, terrorist groups such as ISIS and remnants of al-Qaeda remain as well as the Kurds, who seek independence. This dynamics of the war are even more complicated by the presence of foreign entities, such as the United States and Russia, that have competing goals in Syria. Moreover, from a broader view, many Middle Eastern nations, such as Iran, Turkey, and Jordan, hold crucial stakes in Syria and have dealt with the ensuing refugee population that has emerged from the violence of this crisis. 

The United States, along with other international actors, has a clear goal of eliminating ISIS from the region. After over two years of airstrikes and support for groups on the ground like the Syrian Kurds, the United States has effectively weakened ISIS’ grip in Syria and retaken key cities such as Raqqa, Mosul, and Fallujah. This is crucial, as ISIS has wreaked havoc in the region, murdering and torturing civilians, particularly targeting religious minorities such as the Yazidis. ISIS is a group that has relentlessly used chemical weapons, as a form of warfare. Yet, ISIS is not the only actor in Syria that has committed international war crimes. The Syrian government, led by Bashar al Assad has viciously and knowingly dropped sarin on rebel held areas, targeting his own citizens, leading to over 24 attacks over the course of the war. In fact, earlier this year in April, in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, President Trump ordered the deployment of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. This has become a key problem in U.S. foreign policy in Syria, as debates have launched over what the United States’ end game is in Syria and how feasible any goals are as long as Assad remains in power. Questions linger over what Syria looks like after ISIS is defeated, such as who rules and governs in cities that have now been liberated.

Another issue is that Assad finds support from Iran and Russia. Since 2015, Russia has given military support to Assad and Iran has supplied advisors and fighters to bolster Syria’s ranks. This military support has enabled outcomes like the month-long bombing of Aleppo last September and October, killing over 440 civilians. Yet, the United States is not guilt free. Some allege the United States of committing war crimes. International coalition airstrikes, led by the U.S., were misdirected and killed 150 civilians in Mosul earlier in March this year. These follow instances of attacks on mosques and civilian schools in Raqqa. All actors are guilty of injuring innocent civilians and failing to sustain a durable ceasefire that provides temporary peace to civilians. This is why it may be no surprise that over 5 million Syrians have left home, seeking shelter in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, or Lebanon or even daring to cross the ocean to seek refuge in European nations.

John Stanmeyer (National Geographic)
The current approach to the refugee crisis is not sustainable. Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, bordering Syria, host the majority of refugees, a staggering 5 million. This number is even more shocking when considering the only 18,000 Syrians who have received entry into the United States and 1 million who have found asylum in Europe. In fact, in Lebanon, 25% of the nation’s population is composed of Syrian refugees, leading the president, Michel Aoun to announce to the international community that “My country cannot handle it anymore.” The generally opening arms of countries neighboring Syria comes into direct contrast with the closed doors of Europe and the United States. In our nation, President Trump has relied on a campaign of discriminatory rhetoric and even signed an executive order in January, banning Syrian refugees from entering the country, equating those who seek to escape terrorism with the terrorists themselves. In Europe, nations have strengthened their borders, establishing barbed wire fences and walls. Some countries, such as Italy, Poland, and Hungary, have even supported deportation and detention of refugees, laws that conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights. While the Syrian crisis is certainly complicated, it is shameful for developed nations that consistently herald their moral values and human rights to turn the other way as the refugee crisis unfolds. In the upcoming year, I intend to explore in depth the situation on the ground in Syria and resulting refugee crisis, uncovering the best ways to achieve a humanitarian solution. 

Katherine Gan is a T’21 Undergraduate and a 17′-18′ Human Rights Scholar at the Institute.

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