Syria: Where Civilians Became a Commodity for Settling Accounts

Over the first six months of 2018, the situation in Syria has steadily deteriorated for the civilians caught amidst warring powers who appear to view them as assets rather than people and victims who must be protected. The April strikes by U.S. and European allies on Syrian military facilities in response to the Assad regime’s alleged chemical attack in Douma city, the March bombings by Syrian-Russian forces in Eastern Ghouta, together with the Turkish-led military operation in Afrin (backed by Syrian opposition forces) in January, all opened new fronts in Syria’s long and complicated war, and created new tensions among Syrian Arabs, Kurds (who were disappointed by the operation in Afrin), and the international community. As long as military operations are seen as a solution to the problem in Syria, there can be no hope for parties to come together to establish peace in Syria.

Meanwhile, the civilians who are vital to any peace process are stuck in the middle and used for strategic gain by the powers enmeshed in the war. The Syrian government has, for example, used civilians as bargaining tools in their prisoner exchange negotiations with armed militias. Meanwhile, as civilians continue to die, permanent U.N. Security Council members — such as the United States and the United Kingdom on one side, and Russia on the other — have been at  odds over how to put an end to hostilities and meaningfully investigate accountability for war crimes by all sides in the conflict.

All of this belies a lack of genuine commitment to ending civilian suffering and reaching a lasting peace in Syria.

Rather than treat civilians as mere tools to be used as bargaining leverage, the powers involved in the Syria crisis must pursue an inclusive peace strategy that does not rely on violence or fuel divisions. A lack of such a process means that impunity, conflict, and a lack of accountability will persist.

Attacks in Eastern Ghouta.

A prime example of the cynical approach to civilian deaths in Syria are the April airstrikes by the U.S. and supported by European allies on Assad’s alleged chemical weapons facility that took place after years of Western silence and indifference to other acts of violence against Syrian civilians. Yet there are countless other examples that go unseen. Take, for instance, the story of Osama al-Toukhi, a boy less than five years old who has suffered from the blockade of Ghouta. The eastern portion of that city, a few kilometers away from Damascus, has been under siege and aerial bombardment by Syrian and Russian government forces and affiliated militias since 2013. The attacks have crippled the flow of medical supplies and food in Ghouta, leaving many at risk of hunger or death. Osama fell ill with a minor viral infection, according to medical staff who examined him in Ghouta. Despite the relative simplicity of the disease Osama suffered from, doctors were unable to provide him with medication because such medicine is unavailable in Ghouta. Osama’s name was registered on the “evacuation lists” of hundreds of critically-ill civilians in urgent need of evacuation to the nearest medical center in Damascus that were created by an agreement negotiated by the Russian government and the Jaysh al-Islam rebel group.

Despite his father’s contact with the Syrian Red Crescent branch in Damascus, Osama died on September 23, 2017, about a week after he fell ill, amidst the Syrian government’s siege on Ghouta that prevented his evacuation.

The Russian-Jaysh al-Islam “evacuation idea” in Ghouta is just one dozens of other initiatives that have taken place over the years in the Syrian conflict — where the government and rebel fighters in the conflict have used the civilians are used as bargaining tools to negotiate for pro-Syrian detainee releases in the war.

Osama’s case is sadly one of many thousands of Syrian men, women, and children at risk of death who have been trapped and ignored in an ongoing war between armed opposition groups, the Syrian regime, and international forces like the Russia, Turkey, and the United States.

The post- ISIS strategy and the need to protect civilians.

Civilians in other parts of Syria have also suffered as a result of U.S. and international intervention. For instance, the major battle by the U.S.-coalition against ISIS in Raqqa and Deir ez Zur resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths and the displacement of countless more. The end of the battle opened the door to new challenges, confronting which is as important as combating ISIS itself. These include safeguarding the return of internally displaced people and refugees, eliminating the tens of thousands of ISIS-manufactured mines and booby traps, and establishing sound Syrian institutions capable of preventing ISIS from reemerging due to a vacuum caused by their departure.

These challenges cannot be met if the U.S. moves forward with plans to withdraw troops from Syria in six months. Syrians greatly fear the prospect of renewed fighting and instability that would result if the Americans were to withdraw without any strategic plan in place. As others have noted, the U.S. needs to collaborate with key local, regional, and international actors to establish sound Syrian institutions that are capable of preventing ISIS from reemerging due to a vacuum caused by their departure.

Failed International Efforts to Protect Syrian Civilians.

But what does genuine international coordination mean?  Syrians seem to have given up on a solution from the United Nations Security Council, which throughout the conflict has used the language of protecting civilians while failing to make firm decisions ensuring civilians are protected from hostile operations. Though the Council recently agreed on a ceasefire resolution in Syria to stop bombing and allow humanitarian access, attacks by Syrian government forces continued against rebel-held areas such as Ghouta. Similarly, before the end of 2017, Russia and China passed international Resolution No. (2393) to allow humanitarian access to needy people in Syria; but nothing came of it. Resolutions remain just words if not followed up with any real action. The same Council that failed to find a solution for the inhabitants of the besieged areas in Syria, like Ghouta, failed to take action after the Joint Investigative Mechanism on Chemical Weapons Use in Syria (JIM) found that the Syrian government was behind the horrific chemical attack that killed almost a hundred Syrians in Khan Shaykhun, Idlib province in April 2017.

The actions of international relief organizations on the ground are no better. There is a lack of genuine coordination between international organizations and the local Syrian organizations working in the humanitarian and human rights field. Instead, dozens of international and local organizations replicate efforts of their predecessors without trying to build on lessons learned from the previous experiences of others. This has led to fragmented efforts and advocacy campaigns on everything from general issues such as the protection of civilians, to the treatment of detainees, missing persons, or sieges.

Failures seem most evident in cases of detainees and missing persons in Syria. Hundreds of meetings, workshops, and statements, could not make significant progress to address the issue of detainees and missing persons in Syria. The inability of advocacy groups to coordinate has encouraged the emergence of the “black market,” where thousands of deals have taken place between brokers from various parties and parents of detainees and missing persons. In many cases, families are forced to pay middlemen or brokers bribes just to hear any news about their children. A large number of detainees and other missing persons depend more on these black market operations than on any solution from the United Nations or international humanitarian aid organizations.

Looking ahead, recommendations for the international community

The international community should shift its focus from military solutions towards ensuring a real political transition in Syria which gives all Syrians, regardless of their gender, religion, ethnicity, and political background the full right to rebuild their country and implement a transitional justice process.. The countries responsible for the loss of lives,  destruction of homes, and the displacement of Syrians, owe it to the people of Syria to develop a strategy that strives to build institutions with and by the people of Syria.

It is no secret to anyone that solving the Syrian issue is not up to Syrians anymore. It is also well known that Syria has become a geographical area divided among different spheres of influence: Russia and Iran, Turkey, the United States, and others. The second half of 2018 presents an opportunity for these countries to work with the United Nations to lead a genuine political transition in Syria, one where all Syrians, groups are represented in the peace-building process, including Arabs, Kurds, men, and importantly women – who have so far been excluded from the peace process. This can only be done if there is a genuine pursuit of peace talks rather than a resort to guns.

Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images 

About the Author(s)

Bassam al Ahmad

Co-founder & Executive Director at Syrians for Truth & Justice. Follow him on Twitter: @BassamAlahmed