By Dylan Collins
15 March 2017
Six years to the day since protesters
poured into the streets of Daraa, Damascus and Aleppo in a "day of
rage" against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, Syria's uprising
turned global war is far from over.
Six years of violence have killed close to
half a million people, according to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research,
displaced half of the country's pre-war population, allowed the Islamic State
in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) to seize huge swaths of
territory, and created the worst humanitarian crisis in recent memory.
International diplomatic efforts have
repeatedly failed to bring the protracted conflict closer to an end and the
growing role of outside actors has changed the nature and trajectory of the
The UN estimates the war has pushed close
to five million people to flee the country, many of whom have risked their
lives seeking sanctuary in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of others exist
precariously in tents and tin shelters in Syria's neighbouring countries.
An entire generation of Syrian children has
either been pushed out of school or forced to cope with interrupted
curriculums, makeshift classrooms, or unqualified teachers. According to
UNICEF, 2016 was the worst year yet for Syrian children. Nearly three million
children - the UN estimated amount of Syrians born since the crisis began -
know nothing but war.
The country's healthcare system,
particularly in places like Aleppo, is decimated. More than four-fifths of the
country lives in poverty.
Basic infrastructure, such as the
electricity grid, water lines and roads, is in shambles. As of 2015, 83 percent
of Syria's electric grid was out of service, according to a coalition of 130
On Monday, in an address to the UN Human
Rights Council, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein described the war
in Syria as "the worst man-made disaster since World War II".
Zeid added that his office had been refused
access to the country and that no international human rights observers had been
admitted to places where "very probably tens of thousands of people are
currently held. They are places of torture".
Any form of solution is basically out of
the hands of Syrians.
"Indeed, the entire conflict, this
immense tidal wave of bloodshed and atrocity, began with torture," he
said, citing as an example the torture of a group of children by security
officials over anti-government graffiti in the southern city of Daraa six years
ago. "Today, in a sense, the entire country has become a torture chamber,
a place of savage horror and absolute injustice," he said.
UN investigators have accused the
government of "extermination" in its jails and detention centers.
Global watchdog Amnesty International said
in a report last August that an estimated 17,700 people had died from torture
or harsh conditions while in government custody since the beginning of the
conflict. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) put the number at
Many others have been executed, and far
more have simply disappeared. Thousands more have died in prisons run by rebel
groups and hardliners like ISIL and groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Intervention by regional and global players
into what started as an uprising of the people against a repressive government
has transformed the conflict into a proxy war as international efforts
Russia's October 2015 military intervention
helped prop-up a gutted Syrian army and, with the assistance of thousands of
Iranian-backed fighters, has helped put Damascus firmly back in control on the
The Russian-backed push on the battlefield
culminated in the government takeover of rebel-held east Aleppo late last year,
dealing the opposition its biggest defeat of the conflict.
As pro-government forces steadily captured
rebel territory over the past year, a series of "local truces" in
areas crippled by years of government siege saw the transfer of thousands of
fighters and civilians to Idlib, the last opposition-held province in the
north. The UN has said the deals amount to forced displacement and are thus war
Earlier this week, increased bombing in the
government-besieged district of al-Waer in Homs, the city's last rebel-held
bastion, pushed rebels and their families to sign on to a similar evacuation
Recently renewed diplomatic efforts to
bring an end to war have all but stalled, as a nationwide ceasefire agreed upon
by Russia and Turkey at the end of last year falls apart.
Since the start of the year, aid deliveries
have slowed to a trickle for hundreds of thousands living under siege,
according to a recent report by Physicians for Human Rights. Heavy fighting has
increased in recent weeks in strategic areas near Damascus, as government
forces push to slice off territories from the last rebel-held stronghold close
to the capital.
Rebels boycotted a third round of
Russian-led talks in Kazakh capital of Astana, ostensibly aimed at
consolidating the shaky truce, over continued violence. And although Astana
talks succeeded in paving the way for a fifth round of UN-led intra-Syrian
talks late last year, little was agreed upon other than a basic format for
The internationalisation of the war in
Syria has left it beholden to outside interests, according to associate
professor of international studies at Arcadia University Samer Abboud.
"Any form of solution is basically out of the hands of Syrians," he
told Al Jazeera.
"Ultimately, what's on offer is some
kind of containment of the violence, but no effort to really eliminate
it," he said. "But talk about a revolution or a political transition
… it’s beyond that now."
Key rebel backers like Turkey and the
United States have narrowed their agendas in Syria over the past year, as
government gains on the battlefield erase the prospect of regime change and
domestic priorities take precedent.
Ankara, whose troops now occupy a large
section of territory in Syria's northeast, has given up on removing Assad in
favour of preventing an armed Kurdish autonomous region on its border.
The US, who, along with Turkey and the Gulf
states, was central to facilitating the armament of what started as a peaceful
uprising, has remained a political voyeur since Donald Trump's administration
came to power.
Instead, it has remained hyper-focused on
making shortsighted, tactical gains against ISIL.
Just last week, the Pentagon deployed
another 500 marines to Syria and spoke of the possibility of a long-term US
presence in the country.
Infighting and a lack of international
support have left rebel forces increasingly dependent on groups with hardline
religious agendas. And as the government, Turkey and the US, along with their
respective allied forces, race to push ISIL out of its self-declared capital in
Raqqa, the international agenda in Syria is shifting the narrative of the
"Syria is headed towards some sort of
perverted version of what has been happening in Iraq or Afghanistan… where
reconstruction efforts will be forced to exist alongside low levels of
violence," said Abboud.
"The war economy is entrenched … and
outside players are reserving their right to do exactly what they want in Syria
under the appearance of international consensus."
Dylan Collins is a Deputy Editor at Al Jazeera English. He has reported
from across the Middle East.