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Thick smoke from an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition rises in Kobani, Syria, as seen from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

11 Years of War in Syria

What started as an anti-authoritarian uprising became a brutal international proxy war. However many years pass, the solution remains the same.

This week marks the 11th anniversary of the war in Syria.

The war in Syria should never have reached its 11th anniversary. Only an international political settlement can put an end to the fighting and the Syrian people’s suffering.

As a Syrian American, it is difficult to acknowledge such a grim milestone without feeling a profound sense of anguish over the nearly 500,000 lives lost, the displacement of over 13 million people, and the destruction of its cultural relics.

I often wonder whether Syrians and Palestinian refugees I’ve met during my visits there are still safe. I cling on to my pre-war memories, like my euphoric first trip to Aleppo to discover my ancestral roots. I also still remember that tranquil day in 2004 when I basked in the splendor of the impressive Roman ruins at Palmyra, years before ISIL terrorists badly damaged the ancient city.

Despite such unrelenting tragedy, the Syrian people have remained resilient while confronting the challenges before them. Refugees have also adapted to their resettled homes and refugee camps throughout the Middle East. While the circumstances are hardly ideal, they are focused on rebuilding their lives and some have started their own businesses. This speaks to their inspiring grit and bravery, which rarely makes the news.

Regardless of how many anniversaries pass, the solution to the conflict remains the same. The international community must broker a meaningful political settlement in Syria that will finally end hostilities and allow for much-needed reconstruction to take root.

The war started 11 years ago when “Arab Spring” protests for freedom and human rights broke out across Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

Around the same time, in the city of Daraa in southwestern Syria, a group of Syrian children painted graffiti on a wall opposing President Bashar al-Assad. In response, government security forces detained and reportedly tortured them.

Outrage over their horrific treatment sparked protests for the dignity of all Syrian people and a denouncement of the Assad family’s decades of authoritarian rule and corruption. Mounting poverty magnified their concerns, as Syria’s mostly agrarian-based economy had been suffering from the consequences of a severe drought. Collectively, these factors ignited a widespread uprising on March 15, 2011.

As demonstrations grew, Assad responded brutally and provided few concessions. Eventually, the initially peaceful protest movement evolved into a varied, armed opposition supplied by powerful regional states like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Non-state terrorist groups who opposed Assad’s rule, like ISIL, exploited the chaos.

The U.S. then led an anti-ISIL military coalition in 2014, which still conducts operations inside Syria and has further contributed to the violence. As the fighting intensified, long-time Syrian allies Iran and Russia stood by Assad. At Assad’s request, Russia formally intervened in 2015, and has undoubtedly kept him in power.

What started off as a Syrian uprising has mutated into multiple proxy wars, including at one point between the U.S. and Russia. Neighboring Israel, which still occupies the Syrian Golan Heights, frequently strikes Iranian targets inside Syria.

In the span of a decade, Syria has become a recruiting ground for terrorists, a battlefield for states competing for geopolitical interests, and a boon for the arms industry. It’s no wonder, then, that the world’s largest refugee crisis has ensued there.

The fundamental rights of the Syrian people who courageously rose up and demanded dignity have been disturbingly lost amidst this chaos. A 2021 report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria found that all sides in the conflict have committed the “most heinous” human rights abuses, including potential war crimes.

In one case, a U.S. drone attack in 2019 killed up to 64 women and children in the town of Baghuz, according to a New York Times investigative report. In other instances, Syrian military and Russian air forces have bombed civilian neighborhoods, hospitals, and markets. All parties must be held accountable for such crimes.

As the world’s attention focuses on Russia’s war in Ukraine, Russia has also continued its war in Syria, where conditions are dire.

Alongside the ongoing death toll and displacement of Syrians, the poverty rate hovers at 90 percent. Some 14.6 million people inside Syria depend on humanitarian aid. The Ukraine war has further threatened Syria’s food security, since most wheat imported to Syria comes from Russia and Ukraine.

The U.S. economic sanctions on Syria are also hurting civilians more than their intended targets. They have not led to Assad’s ouster, but they have left communities without essential commodities.

The war in Syria should never have reached its 11th anniversary. Only an international political settlement can put an end to the fighting and the Syrian people’s suffering. For the sake of the deceased and other long-forgotten victims, the international community must display the same resolve to end the war in Syria as it has so far in Ukraine.


© 2021 Foreign Policy In Focus

Farrah Hassen

Farrah Hassen, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is the Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. She wrote her Master's thesis in 2007 on Syria and the Iraq War at American University's School of International Service.

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