A GRIM reminder that the war in Syria is still continuing has come in the form of a UN statement that air strikes by the Syrian state and its foreign allies have killed more than 100 civilians in the past 10 days. While violence is down from the levels of 2014 and 2015, hostilities between Bashar al-Assad’s government and an assortment of rebel groups have not stopped. The aforementioned figures cited by UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet refer to Idlib and other areas in the north of Syria where opponents of the Damascus regime continue to hold out against the state. “These are civilian objects, and it seems highly unlikely ... that they are all being hit by accident,” said the UN official while condemning the attacks. Syria and Russia, Mr Assad’s primary foreign backer, have denied hitting civilians and claim they are fighting jihadi militants in the areas concerned.
Whatever justification Damascus may offer, the deaths of such a large number of non-combatants is unacceptable, and the Syrian government must explain why so many civilians have been targeted. Since the start of the conflict in 2011, both the Syrian regime and its jihadi opponents have indulged in atrocities. In fact, at one point terrorist groups including the self-styled Islamic State group and Al Nusra were dominating the fight against the regime, eclipsing the moderate opposition. However, as the Syrian government — with the help of its Russian and Iranian backers — has gained the upper hand and reclaimed territory, only a few areas, such as Idlib and its surroundings, remain in rebel control. While other Middle East crises, such as the US stand-off with Iran and the brutal Yemen war, may have been grabbing world headlines, the Syrian conflict cannot be forgotten. The aim for all inside Syria as well as regional countries and world powers should be a negotiated settlement to the conflict, and a workable plan for a representative government in Damascus. The militant groups are on the back foot, therefore the Assad regime must open up communication channels and come to terms with the moderate opposition; external players need to facilitate this process, rather than inflaming matters inside Syria. In the immediate term, all hostilities targeting civilians should end, and humanitarian activities must be allowed to resume unimpeded if the goal is to rehabilitate the Syrian people. Instead of pursuing the path of violence, Damascus should agree to reconciliation and dialogue.
Published in Dawn, July 28th, 2019