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Syria: 9 years of internal conflict

The origins of the current Syrian conflict can be pinpointed to the wider wave of 2011 Arab Spring protests, but no other county still feels its effect as strongly as Syria. Similar to several other countries in the region, 2011 was marked by widespread protests, mainly calling for democratic reforms and subsequently the removal of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The protests were fueled by a sense of inequality in the country and the lack of democratic progress that the general population had been hoping for since the ascent to power of Bashar al-Assad. The economy was progressing very slowly compared to neighboring and other developing countries and the youth unemployment rates had exploded. The country was plagued by reports of human rights violations, and in addition, the region had been facing a multi-year drought that lead to increase in food prices and migration of farmers to urban centers. This was enough to transform the country into a powder keg ready to explode.

The government failed to see the precarious state of mind of a a large part of the country and the protests escalated to a full-blown armed conflict after the President ordered the protests to be suppressed with force.

This started the second most deadly conflict of this century. There are four main belligerents involved in the conflict. First the Syrian Armed Forces which are the official forces of the government, supported by Iran, Russia and the Hezbollah. Second the Free Syrian Army and an alliance of Sunni opposition rebel groups. Third the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces that were also part of the US-led international coalition that was formed to fight the fourth party in the conflict, the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS).

Despite various international efforts for cease fires, the conflict is still ongoing 9 years later and has at various points spilled over to neighboring countries, mainly Lebanon and to a lesser measure Israel who has mainly been trying to manage their perceived threat of the Hezbollah and Iranian forces fighting in Syria. Various international organizations have criticized all the parties involved in the conflict, without exception, of severe human rights violations and massacres. Some of the violations also included the use of chemical weapons, such as sarin, chlorine bombs and sulfur mustard by both government forces and ISIL.

The current tally of the conflict is already mind boggling. An estimate 50% of the population of 20 Million has been displaced and the number of refugees is now estimated at over 5 Million. A large part of the refugees can be found today in Turkey and Lebanon as well as Jordan and Iraq, but the migratory crisis has been felt worldwide with throngs of refugees heading out of the region over the years.  The European Union, due to its proximity to the region has seen a lot of refugees come from Syria, but other countries worldwide have seen their share of Syrian refugees.

The death toll is estimated at over 500.000 already, including over 100.000 civilians and an additional uncounted number of permanently disabled and injured fighters and civilians. Health services are only partially functioning and an estimated 35% of the hospitals are out of service. Diseases have been prone to spread, especially in rebel held areas, due to poor sanitary conditions and lack of medicine and vaccines.

A large part of the country is also in ruins including major cities like Raqqa or Aleppo and a lot of cultural heritage sites have been partially or totally destroyed, such as the Temple of Bel in Palmyra.

The conflict is still ongoing to date, but several changes did occur in 2019. First of all most of the ISIL forces have been eradicated and only exist in small pockets. The second major development was the withdrawal of the US forces and a subsequent Turkish offensive in northern Syria to create a safe zone to protect the Turkish borders. There is currently a cease fire, facilitated partially by Russia, between Turkish and the Kurdish forces and the Kurdish forces have also agreed to work with the Syrian government.

Late 2019, a Syrian Constitutional Committee began operating in order to discuss a new settlement and to draft a new constitution for Syria. It is constituted of approximately 150 members, equally representing the government and rebel forces, but the Assad regime has not given its full ascent to the committee at this point.

The first steps towards peace have been taken, but the current situation in Syria is still very volatile. From an international perspective, the defeat of ISIL has definitely been an important step, as is the current hopes linked to the cease-fires.

Assuming a peace process is allowed to continue, with the support of all the remaining parties, there is going to be a long road ahead to reconstruct Syria. No official tally of all the destruction exists but the cost of reconstruction of the infrastructure will definitely be over 600 Billion USD. But the cost of construction is not the only issue a new Syria will need to face, there is another impending future headache linked to the return of millions of refugees and their re-integration into Syria. It will most likely take longer to give birth to a new Syria, than it took to destroy the current one.

By J. Costa

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