Syria’s religious groups are largely composed of a Sunni majority, with smaller groups of Christian, Druze, and Yezidi religious communities. President al-Assad belongs to another religious group, that of the Shia heterodox sect known as the Alawites, who are the focus of many of Mr. Assad’s most beneficial economic policies. Though religion has not been the driving force behind this conflict, its role and connection to Assad cannot be denied.
Since March 2011 the Syrian government has been violently suppressing a popular pro-democratic uprising initiated by its own people. The beginning of pro-democracy protests and marches saw the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers who painted anti-regime slogans on their school’s walls in the southern Syrian city of Deraa. At a march showing their disapproval of the mishandling of the group of teenagers, security forces opened fire on the crowd, resulting in the death of four innocent civilians. Following this event, a funeral was held for those who were killed at the march, where authorities again opened fire at civilians, killing another person. As the conflict between anti-regime peoples and current government has dragged on, violence has increased drastically. As of March 2011 there have been approximately 10,000 to 13,000 casualties, the exact number being difficult to verify independently.
Since the beginning of the conflict, massive human rights abuses have been occurring across Syria, sparing no one. For example, Syrian governmental soldiers have been indiscriminately shooting at men, women and children fleeing from Syria. In mid-June, Syrian refugees crossing the border in the company of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were subjected to machine gun and sniper fire, wounding eleven and killing three civilians. Although this is an isolated example, it appears to be a reoccurrence on most borders. There have also been cases of people being subjected to violence perpetuated by the Syrian army while fleeing to Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. A Syrian army defector told Human Rights Watch that soldiers were ordered to shoot at anybody attempting to leave or enter Syria, without passing through an official border post.
However, crossing unofficial borders has become a necessity, as many refugees are being turned away at the Syrian borders for no official reason. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Syria has promised to uphold as a signatory, states that any person is entitled to exit their country if need be.
Another severe human rights violation perpetrated by Assad’s regime is the targeting of children. A recently released UN report lists fifty-two countries whose government forces and armed groups recruit, kill or sexually abuse children in armed conflicts. Syria is now included on this list, with the report stating that children as young as nine years old have been the victims of numerous malicious acts, such as killing and maiming.
The report quotes multiple members of the Syrian armed forces who say they have either been witness to, or participated in, events that have resulted in several children getting killed or severely wounded. For example, in the province of Idlib, which has been very heavily affected by the conflict, there were reportedly several dozen boys and girls between the ages of eight and thirteen who were taken from their homes and used as human shields. This has warranted severe criticisms from the international community and has bolstered national support for rebels such as the FSA.
United Nations monitors have also observed Syrian helicopters firing on rebels north of Homs, where many ordinary civilians still live. The regime has turned to using helicopters with artillery and mortar shells after its ground troops suffered major losses in previous conflicts. The Syrian regime has taken few, if any, procedures to prevent needless casualties.
These actions by the Syrian government have resulted in international condemnation. Since the conflict, Syria has been heavily sanctioned by the Arab League, the US and the EU, affecting Syria’s two major sources of revenue: tourism and oil exportation. Syria’s economy has decreased by two percent since 2011, and unemployment is high. Additionally, basic services have been interrupted in conflict-affected areas. Russia and China have vetoed the Security Council’s resolutions that threatened sanctions against Syria, and Russia refused to support moves that would allow for foreign intervention.
Syria’s most recent condemnation has come from one of its neighbours and strongest allies. On June 26th, Turkey warned Syria to distance itself from its shared border or risk an armed response. This is a strong reaction to the Turkish military plane that was attacked and taken down a week ago by the Damascus regime.
Although NATO supports Turkey’s condemnation of the Syrian regime, the organization has stopped short of offering military support. Turkey has repeatedly called for Assad to step down, and their once strong political relationship has been dissolving steadily since the beginning of the uprising.
A declaration of civil war appears to be on the horizon, with neither the rebels nor the government conceding to demands of the international community or each other. With the increasing violent nature of the conflict, many more casualties and human rights violations are sure to occur. Attempts by many notable mediators, such as Kofi Annan, have resulted only in slowing down the conflict, but not fully halting it. The international community has been trying their best to prevent Syria from plunging into civil war, but their efforts might be for nothing, as neither side has complied with the peace plan negotiated by the UN and the Arab League envoy. The future of Syria appears to be in decline, and the end of serious human rights violations, at the moment, appears to be nowhere in sight.