The conflict in Syria has been going on for five years now, but unfortunately, most people still don’t know what it’s really about.
It is a situation that has caused more than 250,000 deaths and has forced almost five million people to flee the country, and yet most First World inhabitants it is something that flies past the news for a couple of minutes every day.
So, what has happened since 2011 and what can we do to understand it and help?
It all started in March 2011, when a group of teenagers were arrested in Daraa for spraying a wall with revolutionary graffiti. After the Syrian government forces tortured the boys, protests began, in which some of the protesters were killed. Instead of making people scared, this event only made them stronger and the protests spread throughout the country.
At this point, Syrians were unhappy with the government led by President Bashar al-Assad. There was unemployment, corruption and repression – even free expression was highly controlled by al-Assad’s government.
So by mid-2011, an opposition had been formed, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and they didn’t hesitate to arm themselves to fight and get rid of the Syrian Army.
By 2012, the conflict had reached the key cities of Damascus and Aleppo, and had moved from being a mere pro-al-Assad versus anti-al-Assad fight to a Sunni versys Alawites. The rebel forces saw the creation of extremist Islamic groups like al-Nusra Front and ISIL.
By this point, Kofi Annan, appointed the UN–Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria, tried to establish a ceasefire, but the Houla Massacre put an end to it.
It was a civil war now. And it became an international matter. In 2014, United States started an air offensive against ISIL, but always trying to avoid attacks on the government. UK and France followed suit in 2015.
Also in 2015, Russia placed itself on the opposite side of the conflict, by attacking not only ISIL, but the FSA as well. The FSA then asked Washington for weapons, but they refused in case they ended up in the hands of jihadists. At the same time, Saudi Arabia sent financial and military aid to the rebels. All this international help did nothing but intensify the conflict though.
What happened then? By the beginning of 2016, Russia and USA agreed to settle a ceasefire, so that both parts of the conflict could sit down for the Geneva Syrian peace talks.
These didn’t last long, because in July that year, the government forces launched an attack to cut off the rebel supply in Aleppo. A truce followed in September, but then there was an attack on an aid convoy, and what came afterwards was even worse: the city of Aleppo was left in ruins during the Syrian Army offensive to take down the FSA that remained in the area. Over 500 civilians were killed and the city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was left unrecognisable.
This is but a small part of the whole conflict, which could fill thousands of pages, but one of the worst aspects of this situation, as it happens with civil wars, is the fate of civilians, of those who have remained in Syria and those who have been forced to flee and become refugees.
In Syria, there are over 13 million people who need medical assistance, and humanitarian aid is not allowed in most of the time. 70% of the population lacks potable water, while a third has not enough food and 20% lives in complete poverty.
And then we have five million refugees who have no place to call home right now. The nearest countries like Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan are going through crisis because of all the refugees they have allowed in without having means to support them. Around 10% have been moved to Europe, but most of them are still scattered throughout refugee camps with no idea of what the future will bring or if they’ll ever have a home again.
But how can we help? There are plenty of organisations we can donate money to so that much needed aid can arrive to both people in Syria and refugees who are living in tents. There are even foundations that set up housing in First World countries for refugees who have emigrated there but still have no place to live.
But one of the better coordinated ones would be the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). They raise awareness, and they welcome volunteers to help in every possible way: you can either help from home with just your computer, you can donate money or you can even get up and go to the refugee camps to do anything you can to make their lives a bit better.
Making sure that every refugee gets proper shelter in the midst of this situation, the UNHCR has helped a great deal of them, like Ahmad Ayash and his family. Originally from Daraa, Ahmad fled the city with his wife and children when the conflict started, and they ended up in Jordan. From there, the family was resettled to Lunenburg, in Canada, where Ahmad feels he and his family can start over again with the help of a welcoming town that has made him and his family feel loved.
It is only one of thousands and thousands of cases, and while his is a story with a happy ending, there are still many with an uncertain future caused by all these years of armed conflict, a war that forced them to leave out of fear for their lives.
Hopefully, next time we see something about Syria on the news, we will know that it is our turn to help those who aren’t as lucky as us to have a home.