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SYRIA : The Point of No Return

When power starts to shift in the Middle East, its people have long known what to expect. Challenges to authority have rarely been met with a promise of consensus or inclusion. Strong-arm suppression has been the default reaction to dissent. The price has usually been brutal.

Syrians who wanted an end to regime dominance knew the rules when they started demanding changes in the region’s most uncompromising police state in March 2011. Now, 18 months and more than 23,000 bodies later, and with no end in sight to the chaos ravaging the country, their worst fears are being realised on a scale that continues both to horrify and numb.

With all of Syria’s cities now under siege, its capital Damascus and commercial hub Aleppo engulfed in violence, Syria seems well past that proverbial point.

The Assad family’s rule over Syria began 42 years ago when Bashar’s father, Hafez el Assad took power in the so-called Corrective Revolution of 1970 which he launched when the rift between rival wings of the Baath Party deepened. Hafez el Assad came from the Alawite minority, which represents about 12 percent of Syria’s 22.5 million majority Sunny population. Members of that formerly disadvantaged Shiite sect have benefited greatly from the Assad regime’s hold on power, occupying crucial positions in Syria’s army economy and politics. The Syrian Air Force is an especially strong, traditional Alawite stronghold; Hafez el-Assad was its commander before the 1970 coup.

Assad Family

In 1973, the Syrian constitution was amended to give the Baath Party unique status as the leader of the state and society, ushering it into all areas of public life. Its main role was to issue directives from the central government to regional representatives, mobilise the masses for political activities, and gauge the « mood » of the general population.

Children were indoctrinated with the party’s ideology at school, Baathists controlled trade unions, and the Military Committee monitored the armed forces. Many posts in the public sector, the military and government were generally reserved for Baathists, which helped boost party membership. The only other legal parties were from the National Progressive Front (NPF) – an alliance of nationalist and left-wing supporters of the government who accepted the Baath Party’s « leading role ».

Assad Family

syria chemical weapons

Hafez Assad

Hafez Assad always showed an ability to seize the moment or change course when needed.

One such opportunity came in 1976 when at Lebanon’s request, he sent troops to Beirut to try and keep the peace in fighting that had erupted between religious factions. But the Syrian presence became a military occupation of the country from 1982 onwards. During this period, Syria not only maintained between 14,000 and 40,000 troops in Lebanon, but also imposed a keen grip on the country’s politics and economy.

Such influence is what led to the resignation in October 2004 of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a popular businessman and politician credited with rebuilding much of Beirut after the war. Hariri, along with members of Lebanon’s opposition parties, objected to Syria’s hold on the government and called for the withdrawal of troops. In an example of their dominance, Syrian leaders lobbied the Lebanese parliament to extend the term of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud.

Mr and Mrs Hariri

In February 2005, Hariri was assassinated in a car bomb explosion that killed him and 15 others. Opposition leaders and Hariri’s family accused the Lebanese and Syrian governments of having a hand in the killing and demanded an international investigation into his death. The United Nations launched an investigation soon after. A final report is pending.

Hariri’s death, and the protests that followed, proved to be the most difficult test of Syria’s Lebanon policy since the withdrawal of Israeli troops. Under the glare of the international spotlight, Syrian leaders agreed to withdraw their troops from Lebanon after nearly 30 years.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, Baathist officials were targeted during an armed insurrection by Sunni Islamist groups including the Muslim Brotherhood, which culminated in a rebellion in Hama in February 1982. The revolt was brutally crushed, leaving between 10,000 and 25,000 people dead.

Over the next two decades, real power was increasingly collected in the hands of President Assad, his brother Refaat who was commander of elite armoured divisions, family members, close advisers, and security services.

Hafez Assad had brought the Baath Party and the armed forces under his complete control, purging them of his opponents and thus assuring himself of their absolute loyalty. Despite this, in the eyes of many Syrians the party embodied the corruption, nepotism and stagnation that became so widespread.

When Hafez Assad died in 2000, his son Bashar was only 34 and according to the Syrian constitution, too young to succeed his father as president. But the family supporters in the ruling Baath Party quickly changed the law.

Bashar Al Assad

Like his father, Bashar el Assad had an entrenched system of vested interests behind him, especially in the intelligence and security forces. Under the Assads, the country, the Baath Party and the ruling elite had long been controlled by a sect of Shia muslims…the Alawites. Because of their minority position, they had to use an iron fist to keep the Sunni majority from power.

Adib Shishakli is one of the co-founders of the Syrian National Council in exile. He comes from a prominent political-military family. His grand-father Adib Bin Hassan Shishakli was Syrian president in 1953.

Adib SHISHAKLI Co-Founder, Syrian National Council

“When Hafez Assad seized power, he tried to buy off the poor people from the minorities. He recruited them into the army. Therefore Alawites and Druze elements comprise the majority in the Syrian armed forces.”

Major General Al-Haj Ali was the head of the National Defense College in Syria. He defected to Jordan in July 2012 and was subsequently named Commander-in-Chief of the Syrian Free Army.

Major General Mohammad Hussein Al-Haj Ali

“In order to protect itself, the regime relied on the Alawi sect. The fate of the Alawites was closely linked to that of the regime itself.

This caused confrontation between the regime and the rest of the Syrian people. Alawite elements, especially soldiers committed crimes and were involved in massacres. Hence they became known as the regime’s criminals. They were afraid that if the regime fell, they would be punished for their crimes.”

Under the leadership of Hafez al-Assad , Syria  had closed itself to the world. Even before the 1970 coup that brought him to power, the Baath party he would soon head had enacted an emergency law in1963, that suspended basic constitutional rights such as freedom of speech and assembly. Article 8 of Syria’s 1973 Constitution, developed by the Assad regime, assigned all government posts to Baath Party members.

Ahmad Riyad GHANAM  Former Member, Damascus Chamber of Industry

“The majority of the people are downtrodden. They can’t secure a livelihood…not even their food. Those with influence live a life of luxury and are financially protected because corruption takes place in a small circle of beneficiaries.”

By the beginning of the 1980s, the desire for financial benefit and political advantage had supplanted ideology as the main reason for Syrians to join the ruling Baath Party. Other than the all-powerful Assad family, the Shalishes and the Makhloufs who are related to them, along with some ten other families, emerged as the new Syrian business elite.

Mohammad AL-HIMSI    Former Member, Syrian Parliament

“The Assads left nothing for the people. They own everything… universities…media…even banks. There’s always a share for Rami Makhlouf. Some are Islamic banks, some Lebanese, others Jordanian. In fact from all over the Arab world. Anyone coming to Syria knows that the country’s economy is in their hands…that foreign businessmen go immediately from the airport to see Rami Makhlouf. They know that right from the beginning of the dictator’s reign, all contracts must go through Rami Makhlouf.”

Many Syrians and Western diplomats greeted his son Bashar’s accession with optimism. And there was reason for hope: they noted that Bashar was Western-educated and might be more reform-minded and less inclined to continue his father’s rejectionist path.

Ahmad Riyad GHANAM  Former Member, Damascus Chamber of Industry

Bashar Assad came on a different platform. He wanted to develop the economy, contrary to his father who had closed the country, especially towards the end of his rule. Under Bashar, the plan was to increasingly open up the country. It was thought that this would make the people welcome him as a hero. But in reality, the economy improved only very slightly.”

Twelve years into Bashar al-Assad’s rule, the police state he inherited from his father continued to obstruct any kind of reform whether in the political or economic spheres. Discontent was rife.

The Arab World had been under intense pressure

The Syrian uprising has its roots in protests that erupted in March 2011 in the southern city of Deraa after the arrest and torture of some teenagers who painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall. After security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing several, more took to the streets. That unrest triggered nationwide protests demanding Bashar el Assad’s resignation. For over a year autocratic regimes across the Arab World had been under intense pressure. As revolutions brought down governments in Tunisia, Egypt and then, more violently, Libya, it looked for a while as though the political map of the entire region would be redrawn.

Bashar al-Assad and Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayyoub, Chief of General Staff

With the after shocks of the Arab Spring reverberating around the region, Syria’s turn came a month later on March 18, 2011 with the most widespread demand for regime change in decades. But in a typically off-hand manner, President Assad brushed aside any suggestion of a revolutionary movement taking hold.

Bashar AL-ASSAD

“Syria today is facing a major conspiracy, originating not only from within but also from neighbouring countries. Judging by its timing, this conspiracy is linked to events in other Arab countries. Today, there is a new trend that they call revolutions. But we don’t call it that and it’s not about that. It’s just a general popular movement.”

But against this, the elite 4th Mechanical Division of the Syrian army laid siege to the population of several rebellious towns, starting with Deraa. The protests provoked an uncompromising response from the security forces.

Father of dead child

“Yesterday, I buried another martyr. We were at home sleeping when we were hit by a shell from Assads criminals. I’ve never carried a weapon in my life. But now I shall take one and fight them until they leave.”

The protests intensified, as did the crackdown. Helicopters, tanks and snipers were used to contain anyone bold enough to go out onto the streets. July 2011 saw the formation of the Free Syrian Army. It was a turning point for both sides in the fight for Syria. Soldiers and officers had been defecting in disgust, but now their desertion had been given a purpose. That of protecting the demonstrators and responding to the Syrian army’s onslaught.

Riyad Al-Asaad, a former colonel in the Syrian air force who defected in July 2011 and now the nominal leader of the FSA put this message on the internet :

Colonel Riyad AL-ASAAD

“Our Free Army was formed to liberate the country from Assad’s criminal gangs… to protect our helpless people, their personal belongings and public property. This is our only means of overthrowing Assad’s criminal regime and to put an end to the bloodshed.”

Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, mapping exactly what is happening inside Syria has been very difficult. Few international journalists are present and conditions are difficult and dangerous.  The surest way to get the news is to be there, but gaining access to what can be described as a war zone is not easy. There are only two options: get a visa or enter Syria illegally.

Those who enter the country without a visa often rely on the rebels to transport them to where the action is taking place. But this not only restricts a journalist’s freedom of movement, but also leaves him or her exposed to attack on the rebels by regime forces. While large swathes of northern Syria are in rebel hands, just getting around is a major obstacle. Many individual towns or checkpoints in the region are controlled by the military or by pro-regime « shabiha » militiamen.

Along with the refugees, those who slip across the border face fuel and electricity shortage, along with Internet and mobile phone cuts. Satellite communications can be tracked and thus alert regime forces to a reporter’s position, with potentially deadly consequences.

The FSA military command claims to have as many as 40,000 men in its ranks and that soldiers are defecting every day. However, analysts believe there may be no more than 15,000. Nonetheless, armed opposition has become bolder and now attacks major government targets. Lately they sent rockets into the feared air force intelligence HQ. And now there is evidence that their numbers have swelled by civilian recruits, who will need a fair bit of training in operational tactics.

Colonel Malik Al-Kurdi, the deputy Commander-in-Chief of the FSA was a high-ranking officer in the Syrian Navy. He decided to defect to the rebels after government forces bombed his native village.

Colonel Malik AL-KURDI   Deputy Commander-in-Chief, FSA

The military strategy of the FSA is constantly changing. As you know, in the beginning we said that we were going to protect the protestors. We then moved in stages to defending our own members and cities under siege. We then adopted the strategy of attack in order to defend. In all cases, our method is that of guerilla warfare. This strategy depends on light weapons, appropriate tactics which can include large operations such as the one involving the attack on the National Security Headquarters.”

The FSA operates throughout Syria, both in urban areas and in the countryside. But the largest concentration of these forces appear to be in the central region of Homs, Hama and surrounding areas, with nine or more battalions active there.

The FSA military command claims to have as many as 40,000 men in its ranks and that soldiers are defecting every day and being assigned tasks by the FSA. However, analysts believe there may be no more than 15,000. They are also still poorly armed, and many have only basic military training.  Nevertheless, a growing number of defections, partly caused by sectarian division, is weakening the military which is estimated to have 200.000 soldiers, strengthening the FSA and increasing the violence.

The FSA has repeatedly asked the international community to supply it with weapons to alleviate the organization’s supply issues but many nations have been hesitant to provide Syria with arms out of fears of escalating the conflict.

Colonel Malik AL-KURDI   Deputy Commander-in-Chief, FSA

“Right now, military aircraft are bombing houses, killing innocent civilians, including children. They are destroying schools and burning forests. There are also tanks, heavy artillery and rocket launchers that are being used. In order to counter these offensives, we need anti-tank weapons as well as artillery.

Colonel Malik AL-KURDI

We are not asking for much…portable anti-aircraft defenses, anti-tank weapons, RPGs and missiles that will enable us to confront those tanks in certain situations.”

Other than former Syrian National army personnel, the FSA is made up of large numbers of civilian volunteers as well as Jihadist combatants and Sunni militants of various obediences. There are even some members who still serve in the Syrian National Army and who provide logistical support and intelligence to the FSA.

Despite numerous reports regarding the participation of foreign combatants including Lybians, Tunisians, Saudis and even Croat and Bosnian mercenaries  among its ranks, FSA leaders vigorously deny this information as propaganda spread by the regime and what’s more, insist that there are neither Salafists nor Muslim Brotherhood members within their ranks. The whole subject is extremely sensitive and one that few FSA members are prepared to discuss on camera.

Sheikh ABU ADNAN   Sharia Judge, Amro Ibn Al-As Brigade

“The pains of Arab nations are the same and the reason for the revolutions in the Arab world are the similar. Yes…we have people from Lybia and Tunisia…especially those who experienced revolutions in their countries. Since we have common goals, they wanted to comfort us. They defeated their leaders and came to help us do the same. As for other nationalities and Europeans, they may be some in other batallions, but not in ours.”

However, the active participation of Jihadist combatants and other Sunni militants is an established fact. Some sections operate under the command of personnel who issue orders in line with religious beliefs, independently of other branches of the FSA.

AHMAD, Amro Ibn Al-As Brigade

 

AHMAD   Leader, Amro Ibn Al-As Brigade

“In the Al-As Division, we have all types of combatants. Army personnel and Jihadis. We all come from different areas. There are people who went to demonstrations on leaving the mosques after their prayers…call them what you like ! They’re with us. But we have an advisory council and we decide to which authority we’re answerable to. Nobody can  counter our decisions because we fight for Allah ! Nobody can say they’re behind us. »

ABU IBRAHIM   Field Commander, Ahrar Al-Sham Brigade

Abu Ibrahim

“Our training is very fast…we have no time to waste. We give instructions to the youth for ten to fifteen days and then we send them to a training camp for fifteen to twenty days. We instruct them in Islamic justice and Jihad and also explain to them why they are fighting and whether they will go to heaven or hell if they are martyred. We don’t fight against Alawites, Shiites, Sunnis, Iranians or Russians…No…We fight against one enemy: whoever is unjust…Bashar’s defiled and evil army ! »

In a conflict in which momentum swings wildly and progress is difficult to ascertain, the rebels have yet to land a knockout blow. Attacks and counterattacks are ongoing in at least half a dozen Syrian cities and towns, including  in Damascus, the capital. Rebels have managed to hit low-flying Syrian Army helicopters and have also used tanks they have seized, while the Syrian military has begun firing from jets in Aleppo, the country’s largest city and commercial center.

The rebels advance and retreat, gain territory, give it up, hide among the population, and then return again for another fight. Government forces, using artillery, tanks and aircraft, have a major firepower advantage. It is the civilian population that bears the brunt of a bloody conflict that no-one seems capable of stopping.

Dr Hassan JOLAQ

“The nature of the injuries went through many phases since the beginning of the revolution. It started with injuries due to tear gas, then to bullets and explosives. Next came the bombs, burns and the shrapnel. Later still, heavy weapons such as field artillery and tank cannon fire. There were weapons we hadn’t witnessed before…barrels of TNT. This is like pouring lava on peoples’ heads ! They just burnt ! Later, they used rockets fired from MiG aircraft. In one incident they hit a market in Kafr Nabl…there were only civilians…no armed people.”

The fate of rebels and soldiers taken prisoner by both sides in the conflict must be a very frightening one. The international community has accused Bashar Al Assad’s forces of torture, rape and abuse of prisoners, but there are concerns that opposition fighters may be capable of brutality that matches that of the regime they are seeking to topple…a charge that could badly damage the rebellion’s ability to claim the moral high ground in the Syrian conflict.

As rebels gain more territory, and a variety of militias, Jihadists and Muslim militants join the fight against Assad, reports of serious human rights abuses committed by armed opposition elements are surfacing. These Syrian soldiers and civilian militias have been detained by FSA members.

Sheikh ABU ADNAN   Sharia Judge, Amro Ibn Al-As Brigade

“The prisoners we have in detention are captured on the battlefield. They were armed…so they killed and injured many of our combatants. Their crime is obvious. We investigate them through their friends who were captured with them. Once the evidence is clear and they are found guilty and then confess, we kill them ! In accordance with the heavenly law, a killer must be killed. So, we shoot them ! However, when we capture military personnel who were only involved in logistics or food supply, we send them back to their families. But those found guilty are shot.”

Sheikh Abu Adnan

Human Rights organizations have repeatedly voiced concern over allegations that the FSA has summarily executed numerous prisoners whom it claims are government soldiers, informers and shabiha militias. Allegations regarding the treatment of prisoners by the Syrian army are also legion…But there may yet be a glimmer of hope…

Brigadier General TURKI QNEIFDI   Former Police Chief & FSA Commander

“Our goal is to establish a civil society based on justice. We don’t believe in killing anyone before a proper trial has taken place. If there is overwhelming evidence, then he shall be condemned. Others may proceed differently, but it’s not our method. We have suffered from injustice ourselves, so we cannot do this to anyone. We don’t kill Alawites, Sunnis or Christians. We protest against the lack of justice in our institutions. »

The use of Chemical Weapons by the Syrian Army

History suggests that regimes in the Middle East very rarely hand power back to the people. The world should be concerned that as the Assad regime feels more cornered and if the revolutionaries on the ground feel abandoned by the outside world, the fight will become even more bitter. The tragic news from Syria managed to become even more shocking when the regime issued an unprecedented threat to use chemical and biological weapons. The warning, which came couched in deceptively reassuring language, makes it clearer than ever that the world cannot afford to act merely as an interested spectator as Syria unravels in a tangle of shrapnel and blood.

It is here that the case of Iraq, another Baathist regime tragically comes to mind. Amidst the infamous Anfal Campaign in which Saddam Hussein violently suppressed Kurdish revolts during the Iran-Iraq war, nearly all the population of the small town of Halabja was wiped out in 1988 when Saddam Hussein ordered the use of deadly chemical agents. 5000 people were killed in horrifying circumstances.

What is worse than a power-hungry dictator with chemical weapons is one who feels cornered and may be about to lose them. This is the situation the world may be forced to face as the Assad regime begins to crack. It is a potential nightmare that ultimately might lead to the use and proliferation of WMDs across the region.

Another cause for serious concern is the fact that these weapons may  ultimately end up in the hands of radical Islamist groups and Hezbollah. Syria had always denied owning any chemical or biological weapons. But the denial ended in July 2012 when the Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman issued his peculiarly veiled threat.

Jihad MAQDISI   Spokesman, Syrian Foreign Ministry

Jihad MAQDISI

“No chemical or biological weapon will ever be used. I repeat…will never be used during the crisis in Syria, irrespective of developments. Those weapons are stored and secured by the Syrian armed forces, and are under its direct control. They will not be used unless Syria is threatened by foreign aggression.”

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad has long described the uprising against his rule as a terrorist revolt and a foreign conspiracy.Maqdisi himself promptly described the opposition as the work of foreign extremists, conceivably synonymous with the « external aggression » that would qualify for chemical attack under these new rules of engagement.

This is the situation the world may soon be forced to face in Syria if the Assad regime begins to crack.  It is a potential nightmare that ultimately might lead to the use and proliferation of WMDs across the region. It has been reported that in August 2012, the Syrian military has restarted chemical weapons testing at a base on the outskirts of Aleppo.  Chemical weapons have become a major point of discussion among the Syrian regime and world leaders, with military intervention being considered by the West as a potential consequence of the use of such weapons.

Major General Al-Haj Ali

“They had used these weapons in limited areas against the FSA. The wind was blowing in a westerly-easterly direction, but then suddenly changed to a southerly direction. Instead of being blown towards the Free Army, the gases hit them instead. They had to use gas masks. They had deployed weapons that would not affect too large an area.

I don’t know…only a criminal regime would do that. I can’t say they will not use it again, and I can’t say the opposite either…no sensible human can predict the behavior of madmen.”

Maj Gen Al- Haj Ali

Syria is probably Iran’s closest ally despite the Arab Nationalist ideology of its ruling Baath Party.Iran and Syria have had a strategic alliance ever since the Iran-Iraq war due to their common animosity towards Saddam Hussein and coordination against the United States and Israel. Ever since the Iranian revolution of 1979, they have cooperated closely on military training and arms deliveries to the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon that was set up by Iran. Hezbollah is also active against opposition forces in the Syrian conflict.

Bashar El Assad’s visit to Tehran resulted also in the massive sale to Syria of Iranian military hardware, some of which was supplied to Iran previously by Russia.

Major General AL-HAJ ALI

“From my own experience in all levels, I can say that there are Iranian and Russian experts. There is a very extensive security and intelligence cooperation program between Syria and Iran, as well as between Syria and Russia. This is a fact…no one can deny it. There are also deliveries of sophisticated weapons from Iran and Russia, especially in the field of electronics. These are used for spying and hacking personal accounts on the internet such as Facebook and for intercepting communications between units on the battlefield. There are also shipments of ammunition.”

Mohammad Barmo was the youngest deputy elected to the Syrian People’s Assembly. He defected to Jordan in July 2012 and is currently chairman of the political bureau of the National development Party in exile.

Mohammad BARMO Former Deputy, Syrian Parliament

“The US government, the Russian government or the Chinese government don’t care for the Syrian people. Preserving Syrian blood is not on their priority list. It ’a game of interests…it’s about cutting a cake and sharing it. Their problem is how to cut it and how to share it. Even Iran, in taking sides with Syria is supporting its own interests. Iran is a Persian, nation with its own interests to preserve. That’s why any event in the Arab world interests it. This was the case in Iraq, in the Gulf and today in Syria. It only considers its interests as a Persian nation.”

Mohammad Barmo

The conflict witnessed a major turning point in August 2012 when Assad’s forces began widely using air power for the first time to try to put down the revolt. Large cities such as Aleppo suffered major damage and countless casualties among the civilian population. This is a calculated move to not only flush out the rebels but also force civilian populations harboring and aiding FSA sympathizers to flee and disperse. The death toll has been horrific.

Adib SHISHAKLI

“We didn’t expect the regime to use such weapons in this way. Rather, helicopters to control the evolution of events. This is what happened, but again, we didn’t expect it to use aircraft such as the MiG23 or MiG25 to repress the Syrian people. But again, it did.  I believe that the regime will not stop in its repression of the people, even if it has to use chemical weapons. It has no problem with that !”

Children peppered with shrapnel and screaming in pain

The movement of foreign media and independent human rights organizations is severely curtailed within the country, making the verification of casualty figures almost impossible. However, overall estimates of deaths in the conflict vary between 28.000 and 36.000 along with hundreds of thousands of injuries of varying degrees. As usual, it is the children and the elderly who are most at risk.

The wounded arrive at field hospitals and make-shift facilities in the back of pick-up trucks, taxis and private cars. Sometimes they are battle-hardened rebels with gaping wounds.

Sometimes they are children peppered with shrapnel and screaming in pain. Syrian doctors work frantically to treat them as best they can with all the limited means at their disposal…At another medical facility, the surgeon on duty makes an emotional appeal to his fellow countrymen.

Doctor in Field Hospital

“I’d like to send a message to all honorable Syrians. Don’t leave this land. If you leave, then the Assad gangsters will stay. Syrians abroad should come back… The work is here…it’s here that we serve the patients…It’s here that we help other human beings and our country. If we have more staff, we will be able to do more. Doctors…Sympathizers..Please return to Syria with all your support !”

As aerial bombardments on towns and cities have increased, so have the numbers of badly injured civilians. Among these, there have been some cases where the wounds treated by doctors bear the feared tell-tale signs of chemicals whose exact nature remains a mystery.

Dr Ahmad Hassan SA’ED,  Medical Director, Al Esteshfa’ Medical Centre

“I’ve witnessed many injuries. But there was one case that touched me enormously. It was a nine year old child with a burn. First he’d gone to Reyhannia Hospital, but they discharged him. He had a third degree burn covering his body. Here, we cleaned his wounds. The burn was definitely not due to heat. There were several doctors who’d come to visit from France and the United States.  They said that it was much more than just a burn…all the skin layers and the muscles were eaten away. Anyone seeing the wound would realize it’s not due to heat. We all agreed it was a chemical burn…some sort of unknown substance.”

Amid the clash and thunder of Syria’s civil war, the suffering of the country’s civilian population continues. As the conflict intensifies, its consequences continue to adversely affect the plight of refugees and the internally displaced civilian populations.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are now some 240.000 registered refugees, concentrated mainly in Turkey and Jordan. Another 1.5 million people have been displaced within the country’s borders, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, meaning that 8 per cent of the entire national population have fled their homes since the fighting began in March 2011.

Ibrahim Salem Al-Abdullah  Refugee

“We’ve been here for ten days…we came from the town of Khan Sheikhon. MiG aircraft and helicopters were dropping sorts of barrels on our town and neighbouring areas, as well as shelling and cannon fire. It was horrifying…We moved here, waiting to get into Turkey, to a camp there.”

Then there are those who are still living in their homes but need humanitarian aid – whether food supplies or health care – because of the breakdown of essential services. That number comes to another 1 million, according to the UN. Combine that total with the number of displaced persons – both within Syria and in neighbouring countries – and 2.7 million people are now dependent on humanitarian aid – or 13 per cent of the national population. The UN expects this number to grow still further.

Adib Shishakli who is one of the co-founders of the Syrian National Council, the political wing of the Syrian opposition has worked tirelessly on the diplomatic front right from the beginning of the crisis.

He has helped fund field hospitals on the Syrian border with Turkey and organizes deliveries of much needed medicines and medical equipment. He has also set up an extensive aid program, to bring food and other vital supplies to the civilians who have either lost their homes in the bombings or have been forced to leave them in order to escape the fighting.

Food is prepared and distributed in school buildings and other places where the displaced gather to find temporary shelter and to spend the night on their onward journey to an as yet uncertain future.

Adib SHISHAKLI

“Ever since the first group of refugees came to Turkey, I went to meet and help them. It’s not only the relief aspect that I take care of, but also the political side of the problem. I keep in touch with diplomatic bodies abroad to find other ways of support also. I shall continue to work on both fronts. It’s a one hundred per cent national goal…we need every individual, every Syrian, Arab, Muslim and even foreign individuals to help support the refugees.”

Adib Shishakli

Beyond the bombardment of Syrian towns and villages, debate on the fate of the Assad regime and the West’s cautious dialogue around intervention, there is a relatively unseen result of the Syrian conflict that promises to have significant long-term implications for the wider region.

As previous conflicts demonstrate, mass displacements have the potential to subtly but radically alter demographics in host countries over time, creating or exacerbating economic tensions and religious divides and increasing the risk of unrest. But as far as ordinary Syrian citizens are concerned the humanitarian crisis brought about by political bigotry has first and foremost tragically shattered their lives.

Reema HAJ Qassem, Girl Refugee

“We came here to visit my dad, but he is taking us to the camp. I told him that I didn’t want to go, but he said we must go there. We escaped from Bashar’s injustice…May Allah abandon him ! May his children die ! I hope you die, Bashar ! God willing, you will ! He turned us into refugees, with nowhere to go. »

Rima Haj Qasem

No one knows Syria’s future with any certainty, but the day after Assad falls will probably be ripe with violence. Ethnic cleansing at the hands of the long-oppressed majority Sunnis against Assad’s Alawite and Christian supporters is a serious threat. Also, terrorist groups al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, which support opposing sides in Syria’s civil war, could take advantage of the inevitable chaos to keep that country unstable.

If Syria is to find some sort of social and economic prosperity, there must first be a plan to quickly stabilize and secure Syria. That will require significant effort especially if the Alawites within the armed forces decide to retreat with their weapons to villages and mountain strongholds to continue the fight. A very difficult issue to resolve may be the combining of the Free Syrian Army and regular military units into a cohesive fighting force for post-war internal security operations.

Syria’s chemical and biological weapons arsenal must be immediately secured and possibly destroyed. Many regional leaders including King Abdullah of Jordan fear terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and Hezbollah could take control of these weapons.  Syria’s neighbours coming together to bolster regional stability and prevent terror groups like Hezbollah from executing their post-Assad plans. Iran’s role in this…

Syria will need help rebuilding its civil society, economy, industrial infrastructure and re-integrating refugees.  That outcome will depend on good leadership and the international community’s long-term commitment and investment in Syria.

Otherwise the past 18 months of violence could become a pretext for a very bad future.

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