Syria is a “living nightmare”, UN secretary general António Guterres has said. An Arab Spring protest 10 years ago on Monday in the southern Syrian city of Deraa precipitated warfare that has devastated the country, displaced half its people, and left swathes of its territory under occupation.
Deraa demonstrators initially demanded the release of schoolboys detained for spray painting walls with, “The people want the fall of the regime”, the slogan of Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings that toppled long-serving leaders.
When Syria’s security forces responded violently, Deraa’s demonstrators and Syrians across the country called for the ousting of president Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father in 2000.
The regime did not buckle but cracked down, eliciting violent responses from armed groups that escalated into a civil war, drawing in al-Qaeda and other extremists as well as foreign governments with conflicting agendas.
Fighting has wound down but, the country is not at peace. Instead of regaining sovereignty over its territory, Syria is divided among hostile factions. The government holds 70 per cent of the country, 25 per cent is occupied by US-backed Kurdish forces and five per cent by Turkey in partnership with jihadi groups.
Fugitive Islamic State fighters roaming the eastern desert target the Syrian army; criminal elements kidnap and kill civilians in the south. Government-allied Russian military aircraft, based in Latakia province, rule Syria’s skies but Israeli war planes flying in Lebanese air space frequently fire rockets at Syrian military bases hosting Iranian-sponsored militiamen backing the government.
The only force uniting Syria is Covid -19, which spares no one.
UN-brokered talks between government and opposition delegations launched in Geneva in 2014 have achieved no progress toward a political settlement.
The fifth round of talks, begun in January to draw up a new constitution, has been suspended after the government delegation rejected a proposed draft on the grounds that protracted negotiations would delay presidential elections set for spring, giving Assad a fourth term in office.
Uncertainty and economic sanctions have dramatically depreciated the Syrian currency, reduced essential imports and prevented Syria from reconstituting infrastructure, homes, farms and manufacturing plants.
During lulls in fighting, expatriate Syrian businessmen, who missed the good life in Damascus and Aleppo, returned home to prospect for reconstruction projects but were not prepared to risk their money without assurances that major rebuilding was under way.
The UN has estimated the cost of reconstruction at $117 billion. Most would have to come from foreign governments and international institutions but new US secondary sanctions, imposed last year, have scared off major investors.
Instead of engaging in modest rebuilding, the government has been compelled to fight famine by spending diminishing resources on food and fuel subsidies and wages for public sector employees.
Syria’s daily Al-Qassioun newspaper has estimated that a family would need the monthly equivalent of $304 in Syrian pounds to live decently but civil service salaries amount to just $24.
A majority of Syrians suffer from trauma. Children growing up since 2011 know nothing but warfare, privation and loss. While most living in Syria do not receive counselling, refugee children are afraid to go back to their country. They risk permanent exile and statelessness.
Unless Syria escapes foreign intervention and the harsh sanctions regime and rebuilds, the situation can only deteriorate further. New waves of refugees are likely to flow into Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, swelling the ranks of the poor and burdening host countries that cannot afford additional Syrians.
Three dozen humanitarian aid agencies have warned of growing human suffering and irreversible damage inflicted on the country if increasing humanitarian needs are not met and a political solution is not found. The nightmare is set to continue if Syria continues its downward spiral.
Syria’s 10-year war in numbers –
387,000 – Estimated death toll, 115,000 of them civilians
12,000 – Children killed or wounded
13m – Syrians now living under government control
6m – Number displaced within Syria
5.1m – Refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan
600,000 – Estimated Syrian refugees in Europe
12m – Syrians suffering food insecurity