Aylan Kurdi and Omran Daqneesh are not household names in the West, but photographs of the two have gone around the world and touched millions of hearts. The pictures provide a shocking glimpse into the horrors of the civil war in Syria, where carnage has been going from bad to worse. No end is in sight.
To match the names with the pictures: Aylan was the toddler in the red T-shirt and blue shorts whose lifeless body, face down in the surf of a Turkish beach, was found on September 2, 2015. Omran was the dust-covered boy, his face bloodied, sitting in an ambulance after being pulled out of the rubble of a house wrecked by an air strike on the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo. The picture was taken on August 18, 2016.
In the 11 months since Aylan drowned when an overloaded boat carrying Syrian refugees capsized, thousands more died on the perilous journey to Europe across the Mediterranean. In the weeks since Omran survived, the eastern half of Aleppo, a stronghold of anti-government rebels, became target of one of the worst bombardments in five years of war.
The shocked reaction of many of those who saw the close-up and personal pictures of the two boys brought to mind a cynical observation attributed to Joseph Stalin, the late Soviet dictator familiar with mass murder: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
Statistics on the Syrian civil war are grim: More than 450,000 people killed, almost five million refugees, another 6.5 million displaced within Syria, so many schools destroyed that an estimated four million children are missing out on formal schooling. When the war began, a child born in Syria could expect to live to 76. Life expectancy now is 55.4 years, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, a Beirut-based think tank.
Syria had 22 million people when the war began. To put the death toll in perspective: relative to the size of the populations (U.S.: 320 million), the equivalent would be 6,400,000 American dead.
How did a conflict that began with peaceful demonstrations for democracy and against the authoritarian rule of President Bashar al-Assad turn into a multi-sided war so complex that Syria experts have taken to calling it “the problem from hell?” One reason is the country’s strategic location: it has borders with Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan.
The conflict is taking place against the background of long-simmering tension between the two main branches of Islam – Shia and Sunni – and a struggle for regional dominance between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Sectarian friction and geopolitics make for a toxic mix.
Directly or indirectly (through financial support and arms supplies), the war now involves not only the Assad government and an array of diverse groups fighting it, including ISIS, but also the United States, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Britain, France and Kurdish fighters. Last but not least: Russia, which deployed combat aircraft last September to back the Assad government and assert its presence in the Middle East where U.S. sway was once undisputed.
Pessimism tends to be the default state of mind of analysts watching the Middle East. But not even the gloomiest could have foreseen that anti-government graffiti sprayed on a school wall by teenagers in the southern city of Deraa in February 2011 would lead to one of the bloodiest wars in recent history, the worst humanitarian and refugee crisis since World War II, and the emergence of ISIS extremists as a global threat.
The boys’ arrest and harsh treatment in detention – beatings, fingernails pulled — sparked demonstrations, initially by hundreds, later by thousands who were inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled authoritarian rulers in Tunisia and Egypt. Government forces put down demonstrations with exceptional brutality. Within weeks, anti-Assad Syrians took up arms and started shooting back.
Armed groups proliferated. By early 2014, anti-government fighters were split between 1,600 groups, America’s spy chief, James Clapper, told a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee amid mounting concern that Syria could turn into a launching pad for attacks on the United States and its allies.
Such fears figure in the heated debate between the candidates for the U.S. presidential elections. Donald Trump argues for banning the entry of refugees from Syria, despite the fact that they are the most thoroughly vetted immigrants. Hillary Clinton wants to establish “no fly zones” where Syrian civilians are safe from air strikes. This is easier said than done, military experts say. Neither candidate has come up with fresh ideas nor answered the question “what next?” if anti-Assad forces win.
America’s role in the war is a story of misjudgments, flawed assumptions and a dose of wishful thinking that began early in the crisis. Hillary Clinton, then President Obama’s Secretary of State, called Assad a “reformer” on March 27, 2011, just four days after Assad’s forces began firing live ammunition into crowds of unarmed demonstrators.
After five months of violent crackdowns, Clinton’s “reformer” designation was replaced by a statement from President Barack Obama that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” There were no game-changing deeds to match the words, and as Obama prepares to leave the White House, Assad is still in power, backed by Russia and Iran. They support the Syrian dictator for different reasons.
The Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, hates the idea of U.S.-backed regime change and wants to safeguard Russia’s only naval base in the Middle East, the Syrian port of Tartus. Iran sides with Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, to counter the influence of Sunni Saudi Arabia. Alawites account for around 12 percent of Syria’s population but have ruled over the Sunni majority for decades, fueling discontent long before it flared into the mass protests of 2011.
The Obama administration’s mantra for much of the conflict has been “there can be no military solution,” but a long series of diplomatic efforts have failed to produce a political solution to end the fighting. While diplomats talked, the supply of weapons and money continued unabated. Ban Ki-Moon, the outgoing Secretary General of the United Nations, vented his frustration with the lack of progress in his farewell speech to the General Assembly in September.
Powerful patrons were feeding the war machine and therefore had blood on their hands, he said. “Present in this hall today are representatives of governments that have ignored, facilitated, funded, participated in or even planned and carried out atrocities inflicted by all sides of the Syrian conflict against Syrian civilians.”
How long the war will last is anyone’s guess. If history can be a guide, Syrians still face long years of suffering. In neighboring Lebanon, warring factions backed by outside powers fought for 15 years. According to Barbara Walter, a political science professor at the University of California San Diego, the average length of civil wars since 1945 has been about 10 years.
Looking at past conflicts, she found that “the greater the number of factions, the longer a civil war tends to last.” For the number of factions, see above.
Bernd Debusmann shares a first-hand experience from his time as a journalist in the Middle East in "Memento from Syria: A Bullet in the Back."