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What is Happening in Syria

What is Happening in Syria

Syria Crisis

Syria descended into chaos following the 2011 anti-government protests which escalated into civil war. The war, which has been raging for more than six years, has claimed millions of lives. The war is being fought between various factions. These include the government of Syria and its allies, the Syrian Opposition, the Islamic State and the majority Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. The US and its allies are also carrying out air strikes against the ISIS rebels. Russia, too, has launched air strikes in the region against terrorist groups. Many people have also been forced to move out their homes in search of safer places thereby leading to one of the largest refugee movements in recent history. It has been estimated that more than 11 million Syrians have fled.

Refugee crisis in Syria came under spotlight when searing images of the body of toddler Aylan washed ashore after the raft carrying his family capsized off the Turkish coast, galvanizing passionate debate worldwide. International response to the internal situation in Syria started unfolding with this. Terrorism, ISIS activity and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad were at the forefront of the on-going UN General Assembly debate. So far avoiding plunging headlong into the Syrian crisis, Russia has begun pounding the hideouts of rebels in the West Asian country. This is the first ever instance of Moscow resorting to military action in the region. Given all this, we have decided to present in question and answer format a detail over the Syrian crisis and its political, economic, security and environmental impact across West Asia and the world.

Latest updates on Syria – US Attacks Syria

Deadly attack rocks Syria: Six dead
In the latest series of attacks, at least six people were killed on Monday when a car bomb exploded on the outskirts of the Sayeda Zeinab district in Damascus. The attack took place at a Syrian army checkpoint. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which revealed the information, said it is the third bombing attack in the area in 2016. The monitoring group said a number of people have received serious injuries which may lead to a rise in the death toll. In February, multiple explosions rocked the Sayeda Zeinab area leading to scores of deaths. A month earlier, around 70 people were killed in a suicide attack claimed by the ISIS.

Has the ceasefire been able to bring peace to Syria?
Some areas of Syria, which has been ravaged by years of war, are at the moment enjoying a period of relative peace. The ceasefire in Syria, which was agreed upon by Russia and the United States in February, has taken an effect on the territory of Syria, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry was quoted as saying by the media. Only limited sporadic violence and shelling have been observed during this period. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said that around 135 people were killed in the first week in areas that were covered by the cessation of hostilities. In comparison, 552 people were killed in the areas that are currently under the ISIS and Al Nusra Front and have not come under the ceasefire.

What is the world doing to alleviate the sufferings of Syrian refugees?
To lessen the problems being faced by those fleeing the war in Syria, world leaders would try to raise funds. On Thursday, leaders from around the world would meet in London and would attempt to raise around $9bn which would be used for education and jobs for Syrian refugees. The meeting is supposed to be attended by around 70 leaders from different countries, which also includes the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron. The conference has been co-hosted by Britain, Germany, Norway, Kuwait and the United Nations. The United Nations is appealing for a fund of $7.7 billion which would aid operations for around 13.5 million refugees who have been displaced by the war that is going on in Syria.

What is the situation in Madaya?
Madaya is a small mountainous town in Syria, located about 40 kilometers northwest of Damascus and comprising a population of 40,000 to 42,000. The town has been under siege since July 2015 by a combination of Syrian forces that are loyal to Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria, and their allies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement. The situation has taken a toll on the people in Madaya with the United Nations saying that it has received credible information that people are thoroughly malnourished and are dying of starvation in the town. Doctors have estimated that about 300 to 400 people are severely malnourished.

To help the starving people, in January, lorries carrying aid from the International Committee of Red Cross, the UN, and Syrian Red Crescent, were dispatched to the besieged town. The lorries carried 250 tonnes of food, which included rice, wheat flour, canned foods, sugar, oil, salt, vegetable oils, beans and lentils. In addition, 7.8 tonnes of medical supplies were also sent through these lorries. Earlier, in October 2015, the United Nations had delivered a month of food supply for 20,000 people in the town.

Aid agency, Medecins Sans Frontieres has said that since December 1, 28 people have died of starvation in Madaya. This includes six children who are less than one year old.

What does International Organization for Migration’s have to say about the condition of migrants?
The sheer number of migrants crossing into Europe clearly depicts the dangerous conditions in which people are living in Syria and are desperately trying to escape to safer places in Europe to start life afresh. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than a million migrants have entered Europe by land or sea during 2015 – a fourfold rise on the total last year. Apart from Syria, migrants are also trickling into Europe from other strife-torn regions such as Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Syrians outnumber the rest as they form nearly half the number of migrants entering Europe. But traveling by sea is the preferred choice for migrants. The organization says that around 800,000 have traveled by this medium from Turkey to Greece. But not all are fortunate enough to make it to the other side. IOM says that 3,695 migrants have either drowned on the way or are missing.

What is the number of foreign fighters in Syria?
A report by an intelligence consultancy has said that the number of foreign fighters in Iraq has more than doubled. The figures which have been compiled by The Soufan Group say that between 27,000 to 31,000 foreign fighters from 86 countries around the world are in Iraq and Syria. The group had published a similar report in 2014, which pegged the number of foreign fighters in Syria at 12,000. Of the foreign fighters, some 5,000 have traveled from Europe, while 4,700 have come from the former Soviet republics. The group has said that in order to limit the appeal of the ISIS, countries from around the world have tried to stem the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq; however, it has had little impact.

What will be the impact of Turkish-Russian tensions?
The ongoing crisis in Syria has further escalated with Turkey shooting down a Russian warplane. Turkey has levied charges on Russia that it is violating its airspace and is also targeting civilians. Turkey believes that many of the civilians being targeted include Turkmens, a Syrian minority. Turkmens are based in Syria’s Latakia province and feel a close kinship with Turkey. They share the same ethnicity and language with Turkey. Apart from this, the Syrian President Bashar al Assad is viewed as an enemy by both Turkey and Turkmens, who took up arms against Assad after the start of the uprising in 2011. Turkey has been supporting armed Turkmen groups - known as the Syrian Turkmen Brigades against Assad, while Russia is supporting the Syrian President. In an attempt to counter those who are trying to dislodge Assad, Russia began air strikes in the country in late September. Turkmen are valuable for Turkey as it wants to use them as a buffer for any Kurdish autonomous region. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what lies ahead for Turkmen.

What is the impact of Paris attacks on Syria?
The Paris attack came as a surprise to many who did not expect the impact of events in Syria to reach France, since there were other nations in the region that faced a greater threat from ISIS-led conflict.

The attack reflects two ground realities. The first confirms that there are homegrown Muslim youth within the western world that are disenchanted by global events in what they perceive as being anti-Islam. The conflict in Syria and the consequent mass civilian migration has only increased the angst that many Muslims across the world feel, resulting in some turning to radical Islam. Most of those who were involved in the Paris attacks were born and brought up in Belgium and France but they took the violent path as a result of events that were taking place in distant Syria.

The second has been a hardening of position on immigration by most countries within the European Union. France and Germany have consistently maintained migrant friendly positions but now face greater opposition within their respective countries to review the open door policy. The Schengen visa which allows free travel within 26 signatory states in Europe is also under review, and that itself threatens the very foundation on which EU stands.

The refugees from Syria who have been fleeing the country in large numbers were already facing hostile reception on arrival from several European countries. Post the Paris attack, they now face even greater hostility. Countries are now beginning to fence their borders and that again hits at the core of a borderless Europe. Any future attacks in Europe will only result in further hardening of positions on immigrants and refugees from conflict zones.

Which countries have closed their borders for migrants and why?
While countries have not completely closed their borders to refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, most have introduced stricter border controls. However, many European countries are now differentiating between refugees fleeing conflict zones such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and economic migrants from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Congo, Algeria, Sudan, Morocco, Liberia, and Sri Lanka, many of whom are simply seeking a better life.

Several countries like Greece are closing their borders with Macedonia to stop migrants entering from there. Serbia too has tightened its borders with Macedonia and is letting in only refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and turning away economic migrants.

Croatia has tightened its borders with Serbia, allowing refugees from Palestine, in addition to three countries mentioned above. Same with Slovenia, which is allowing only refugees to transit through their country and turning away economic migrants.

The decision taken by most countries to restrict entry has led to people collecting at closed borders and is causing further stress on respective countries. With the attack in Paris, the situation now is getting more tense and stressful for officials in affected countries, whose resources are stretched in dealing with the constant flow of refugees.

Will the Russian aggression in Syria lead to the start of a new era of cold war between the U.S. and Russia?
Cold War, as we understand from the earlier days between the USA and erstwhile USSR, is unlikely to re-emerge today. In those days, Cold War was a fight between two political and economic ideologies; capitalism versus communism.

Russia today, is no more communist and therefore, a confrontation with the U.S. on earlier lines is unlikely. During the Cold War, the world was divided into two major blocs that had military strength to enforce each side’s geo-political interests. Today, Russia does not have the military, economic or diplomatic influence, as it commanded in the earlier days. However, Russia today, is keen to re-assert itself more aggressively in the diplomatic space with an eye on economic benefits.

At present, Russia has been making aggressive overtures in its region including Ukraine, Crimea and other former states of the USSR. Post-Cold War, Russia had drastically reduced its military, economic and diplomatic presence in Syria, however, it has now decided to take a more direct involvement to try and resolve the conflict through military and diplomatic engagement.

How it engages with the U.S. in coming times in Syria and in other conflict areas, remains to be seen.

Will the Syria campaign encourage Russia to undertake similar military campaigns in other war-torn countries?
President Vladimir Putin is keen to see Russia to be more assertive diplomatically and is in the process of modernizing its armed forces to support that initiative. The period after the Cold War saw the USSR break-up and Russia as we know it today, lose its military superpower status.

In order to project its power overseas, Russia needs greater number of aircraft carriers that form the core of a Carrier Battle Group (CBG). Presently, Russia does not have the capacity to engage and sustain a prolonged military engagement overseas, therefore, it has limited options for direct military engagement. Besides, it lacks the diplomatic influence internationally that is required to back any military intervention.

In the current world order, a rapidly growing economy in China has created substantial wealth that has triggered increased military spending and more active diplomatic engagement overseas. It now nurses ambitions to challenge the dominant position that the U.S. has held for over a century in economic, financial, military and diplomatic spheres.

With fresh geo-political alignment emerging, Russia is growing closer to China, while the U.S. is seeking to retain its dominance on the back of its earlier allies. Western allies like UK, France, Germany and Italy, are all facing economic challenges and their military spending is likely to continue to see a decline. India, on the other hand, is a rising power in the economic, diplomatic and military space, especially in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region.

How Russia creates its space in the new world order will depend on its economy and capacity to assert itself, without which, it will find it hard to sustain any direct overseas military engagement.

How is the situation in Syria different from that of Libya or Egypt?
Both Syria and Egypt have elected governments in place though the political problems in each country are different. Syria is one of the only longstanding authoritarian states that have faced civil conflict that has led to a military standoff between the government and opposition rebel groups. The country is torn apart due to conflict within and there is absence of government authority and control in most parts of Syria. All civil services are dysfunctional and people have to fend for themselves to survive the conflict.

Egypt, in comparison, is relatively more stable with the government exercising its authority in most parts though opposition groups do raise protests from time to time.

Libya has just freed itself through people’s revolt from a long authoritarian regime under former President (late) Muammar al-Gaddafi. Post his death, Libya is controlled by various militia groups holding territory in different parts and trying to exercise some semblance of control in their respective territories. The country held elections in June 2014 but was not recognized by the Supreme Court.

What else needs to be done to contain the Syrian crisis?
The only long-term solution can be by bringing all the warring groups to the negotiating table under UN supervision and backed by the Arab League. The process also must have the approval of Saudi Arabia and Qatar which have been funding and arming the rebels forces opposed to the Assad regime. Bashar al-Assad has the support of Russia and Iran, which have been providing military and personnel support.

The crisis is entering a new phase with direct Russian intervention in the conflict in support of the Assad regime. At this point, the conflict is only escalating to what may be a decisive stage against the rebel groups, unless the U.S. steps in on their behalf, which will take the conflict into yet another level.

President Bashar al-Assad has no plans to relinquish his authority, and therefore, it is for Russia along with Iran, to prevail upon him to take the initiative and call an immediate ceasefire and then invite all groups to come forward to try and find a resolution through dialogue. This is the only way forward.

Are the ordinary citizens supporting President Bashar al-Assad?
Syria is divided amongst various ethnic groups that comprise the majority Arab Muslims, Arab Alawite, Kurd Sunni, Orthodox Christians, Armenian Christians, Arab Druze, Arab Ismaeli, Turkmen, Circassian, Jewish, Greeks, amongst others.

President Bashar al-Assad belongs to the minority Alawite community which is a sect of Shia Islam. It was his father Hafez al-Assad who managed to bring the Alawite community into power by inducting people from his community into the military and intelligence services and ruled with an iron hand, crushing any political opposition either to his power or to the party. He, however, did manage to get support from certain sections of the majority Sunni people by offering them various opportunities within the government and in business. But majority Sunnis have been strongly opposed to the al-Assad family and Alawite rule, in general.

The minority groups mostly support President Bashar al-Assad as they see him as their protector against the aggressive Sunnis who want Syria to follow fundamentalist Islam. However, Syria remains deeply divided between those supporting President Assad and those wanting his removal.

How has the Syrian crisis affected the lives of ordinary people, especially children?
As in any conflict, the biggest victims of war are children. They face horrendous consequences of the physical side of war including injury or end up losing their lives. For those that survive, it’s a lifelong suffering which includes Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PSTD) and other psychological effects. In Syria, the children have had to deal with exposure to aerial bombings, ground attacks and chemical warfare, all leading to severe injuries or death. Another terrible consequence of conflict is sexual exploitation of children.

Due to lack of adequate food or water, they have also been suffering from waterborne and airborne diseases that go untreated on account of lack of medical infrastructure or medicines.

The other severe consequence has been a complete generation missing out on education that could have given them an opportunity of a better life. Syria has witnessed thousands of children who have grown up with minimal or no education. If and when the current conflict ends, these children will find it very difficult to earn a living in the absence of any skill or training.

What is the Syrian crisis and how it started?
Syria crisis background: In March 2011, anti-government protests started in Damascus, the national capital of Syria. Syrians were unhappy with the Bashar al-Assad regime’s failure to address socio-economic inequality, poverty and rising unemployment rate among youth. Complaints of discriminations in jobs and other government facilities were also increasing. A long spell of drought from 2007 to 2010 further added to the miseries of common people as prices of food items went beyond their reach, while mass migration of people to urban centers also started. In the same period, Syria had received around 1.5 million refugees from Iraq. Above all, there was a huge discontent among people over Bashar Al-Assad refusal to address the demand for democratization of Syrian institutions. Human rights situation was in woeful condition. Rights of free expression, association and assembly were strictly controlled; women and ethnic minorities faced discrimination in the public sector; thousands of Kurds were denied citizenship; clashes between Kurds and security forces were usual developments; security forces were given sweeping powers to arrest and detain anyone. Thus when in nearby Tunisia, public revolt against the corrupt and inept regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in December 2010 resulted in its fall, disgruntled Syrians encouraged by Tunisians successes, started protests against the Bashar Al-Assad regime. But soon it turned into a full blown crisis after the government opted to violent crackdown against protestors.

What is Arab Spring and what role did it play in the Syrian crisis?
Arab Spring refers to a revolutionary wave of protests, civil wars and riots that caught one after another Arab country in its grip in 2011. The movement first originated in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly spread to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan with common demand for regime change. By mid-2012, while in some countries wave of revolutions and protest petered away, it turned into a major crisis in Syria with no immediate resolution in sight. In fact, wave of Arab uprisings reached Syria in mid-March 2011, when residents of small town of Dara took to streets protesting against torture of students who had put up anti-government graffiti. The unrest spread to other parts of the country with ouster of President Bashar al-Assad becoming key public demand. In April 2011, in its bid to suppress protests, the Bashar Al-Assad regime launched a series of violent crackdowns. Tanks and snipers were used to quell demonstrations in Damascus and other parts of the country, resulting in widespread rebellion against the government.

What is Syrian Civil War?
Syrian Civil War refers to on-going armed conflict in Syria. While on the one side of the war are troops loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad and Hezbollah, on the other is armed rebels consisting of the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria(ISIS).

Who are Bashar Al-Assad friends in the international community?
Assad is not at all friendless; Russia, China and Iran are three countries which are supporting him.

What is the connection/relation between Bashar Al-Assad and ISIS?
Although, it has not been confirmed, but Western powers, including the U.S. say that there is a tacit understanding between Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the ISIS. Allegations are made that while the Syrian armed forces target rebels and their camps, they have hardly attacked ISIS controlled areas. Bashar Al-Assad critics say the Syrian dictator’s fighter jets act as “an air force for ISIS.” According to media reports, ISIS generates more than $1 million per day by selling crude oil, pumped by the terrorist group in the East region of Syria with tacit approval from the Bashar Al-Assad regime.

What are the major conflict zones of Syria where bombing and war is taking place?
There are over a dozen areas in Syria which are in the grip of conflict. These areas are Mosul Dam Area, Homs, Irbil, Samara, Kirkuk, Falluja, Kobane, Aleppo, Raqqah, Qaim, Mount Sinjar, Deir al-Zour and Hassakeh.

Which cities in Syria are under ISIS control?
Syrian areas like Raqqah, Dier al-Zour, Kobane, Aleppo, Haditha, Qaim, Mount Sinjar, Kirkuk, Mosul Dam Area-are under ISIS control.

From where is Syria getting its supply of arms & ammunition and other support?
(A) Russia is the main supplier of arms and ammunition to Syria.

Which are the neighboring countries of Syria?
A West Asian country, Syria is bordered by Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea in the West, Turkey in the North, Iraq in the East, Jordan in the South and Israel in the Southwest.

Are Syrian diplomatic missions in other countries functional?
In more than 50 countries, including India, Pakistan, China and Russia, Syrian diplomatic missions are still functional.

Are embassies in Syria functional?
From the U.S. to Germany and Saudi Arabia, there are 33 countries which have either closed down their missions or withdrawn their ambassadors from Syria in the aftermath of the civil war there.

Are the schools and offices working in Syria?
Life is in danger in Syria. Despite this, schools and offices are functional. In Damascus, which is under the government’s control, both schools and offices are functional. In other parts of the country, especially in its northern part, some 59 schools with help from the UN and NGOs are open and are imparting education to thousands of children of the war-ravaged country.

Why is Russia supporting Syria and what is its motive?
Russia, since the days of the former USSR, has been a strong supporter and ally of Syria and in particular, the family of former President Hafez-al-Assad, father of the present President Bashar-al-Assad. It was because of Russia’s strong support that the Bashar Al-Assad family has been able to rule Syria with complete authority, when the entire West Asian region had been through different periods of geo-political turmoil. While the West, led by United States, has been traditionally hostile to al-Assad-led Syria, it has been trying its best to remove the regime for many years but failed. The present crisis, however, is part of the broader problem that the region is facing. Many nations of the Arab League have been facing a people uprising against traditional family dominated authoritarian regimes, commonly referred to as ‘Arab Spring’ that first started as a people rebellion in Tunisia in December 2010 and then spread to other Arab countries in the region.

After the fall of the former USSR, Russia has seen its influence wane amongst all Arab nations, as almost all its supporting leaders have been overthrown through people’s movement. Syria is the last of them and Russia sees its support for the Bashar-al-Assad government as its chance to regain some of its lost relevance. It also wants to protect its only overseas Naval station at Tartus in Syria to continue a presence and have access to the Mediterranean Sea.

Where is Russia planning to bomb or has bombed in Syria?
Russia has been providing lethal and non-lethal military equipment to the Syrian government in its ongoing crisis. However, on September 30, 2015, it joined the Syrian conflict with a series of air strikes that were carried by its jet fighters and armed military helicopters. In the first series of bombings, the Russian air strikes were mainly concentrated in Homs and the foothills of Hama that are mostly controlled by rebel groups fighting the Syrian government led by Bashar-al-Assad. Air strikes hit al-Mukarama, Talbiseh and Reef Homs al-shamali. Other areas included parts of Jisr al-Shoughour, Maarat al-Noaman and Idlib. All areas are mostly controlled by the U.S.-backed rebel groups including Free Syrian Army, which is the largest of them all. Officially though, Russia claimed to have targeted ISIS positions. Air strikes are continuing and will most probably expand to ISIS controlled areas as well.

Why did Bashar Al-Assad request Russia for air strikes in Syria?
Bashar al-Assad has been under pressure fighting various rebel groups, many of whom are backed with training and weapons supply from the U.S. and other western countries. To add to the crisis has been the rise and influence of ISIS that has been rapidly expanding its footprint in the region. With ISIS, along with other rebel groups, now controlling large parts of north and west Syria, Bashar al-Assad had no choice but to seek help from Russia.

The U.S. has been actively training and arming the rebel groups, while ISIS has access to vast resources to fund its campaign. The Syrian Army has had to face the collective onslaught by the opposition, which has left the Syrian Army considerably weakened and severely depleted on weapons, ammunition and manpower. The air force has been rendered mostly ineffective due to lack of spares and ammunition. All of these forced Bashar Al-Assad to seek Russian help and direct intervention.

Did the U.S. underestimate the Syrian Problem?
Yes. The U.S. assumed that the people rebellion against the Bashar Al-Assad regime will follow a similar pattern as in other Arab countries that saw their long entrenched leaders overthrown and where the local people try and work out their own political solution. But that hasn’t happened in Syria. Bashar al-Assad has hung in there with support from Iran and Russia.

The situation has got complicated with the brutal intervention of ISIS into the conflict. What was earlier thought to be a conflict between various rebel groups and the Syrian regime has now become a three cornered fight for power, with ISIS joining in. A political solution is nowhere in sight since the rebels are by no means united, while some smaller factions are supported by Al-Qaida.

The U.S. did not foresee the problem of refugees that is now threatening the very foundation of the European Union. The ongoing crisis has taken a severe toll on civilian life, with large numbers fleeing the country through any means, in a desperate bid to reach Europe and seek shelter as refugees. Since Europe is in the frontline of receiving these refugees, many countries in the EU are now reviewing their earlier positions on the Syrian crisis.

How many monuments they have destroyed as of now in Syria?
Since the civil strife began in Syria, several world heritage sites and places of historical and cultural importance have been partially or completely destroyed. Several historically priceless artifacts and treasures have been looted. All factions involved in the war have been responsible for the permanent loss of Syrian heritage. The most recent amongst the Heritage sites to be destroyed by the ISIS is Palmyra. Some of the other sites to have been partially damaged or completely destroyed include:
  • Krak des Chevaliers, a UNESCO World Heritage site
  • Bosra, World Heritage site
  • Archeological Villages of Northern Syria, World Heritage site
  • Old city of Damascus, World Heritage site
  • Souk Al-Madina in Aleppo
  • Al Omari Mosque
  • Apamea
  • Tell Rifa’at
  • The Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, UNESCO World Heritage site
  • Assyrian temple at Tell Sheikh Hamad
  • Citadel of Salah al-Din
  • Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi Monastery
  • Mosque of al-Tekkiyeh Ariha
  • Mosque al-Heraq
  • Monastery of Saint James the Mutilated (Qara)
  • Mosque of Idlib Sermin
The list is by no means complete and more heritage sites and historical buildings are getting damaged as the civil strife wages on.

What is the stand of the U.S. on Syrian problem?
The U.S.’ stand is that the Syrian government’s massive and indiscriminate use of violence is the single most factor of the on-going crisis in the West Asian country. As such America’s Barack Obama administration maintained that unless Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stepped down, the West Asian country’s problem could not be resolved. But following the humanitarian crisis in Syria further worsening, the U.S. has changed its stand on the West Asian country. Now the Barack Obama administration says that it is willing to work with Russia and Iran, but will accept a return to pre-war condition in Syria; that the fight against ISIS will continue; there must be “managed transition” of power in Damascus and that Assad could be part of that transition—an apparent dilution of the U.S.’ earlier stand that stressed on “Assad must go.”

Are the airlines flying to or from Syria? If yes, which airlines are operational and to which places?
Yes, airlines are operating to and from Syria. Syrian Arab Airlines, the government operated airlines, have wide route-network from the Middle-East to South Asia, Russia, China, Africa, and Latin America. But the Airlines are banned in Europe, the U.S. and Canada. Russia is also operating a flight between Moscow and Damascus. But there is no direct flight of Indian Airlines or any of private airlines of India to Damascus because of risk factor involved with the Iraq-Syria airlines route.

Where have the refugee camps been established? How many camps have been established till now?
Camps meant for Syrian refugees are spread in Turkey, Jordon, Lebanon, Iraq’s Kurdish region, and numerous European countries. There are 1.4 million Syrian refugees living in Jordon’s Azraq refugee camp, Mrajeeb Al Fhood refugee camp and Zaatari refugee camp; Turkey is hosting 2.17 million Syrian refugees spread in 22 camps; Iraq’s Kurdish region has eight refugee camps; Lebanon has two, while little known Macedonia, an East European country, has two refugee camps. There is no estimate of refugee camps operating in European countries.

What is happening to people caught in war? How are people making their living in Syria?
Over four years have passed since a full-blown war has unfolded in Syria. More than three million people, half of whom are believed to be civilians, have died in this war. Bombings are destroying crowded cities and terrible human rights violations are taking place. There is a shortage of basic necessities such as medical care and food. According to the UNHCR, 6.5 million people are internally displaced in Syria. Such is the crisis in the country that more than half of its population of 23 million is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

Explain the Damascus Spring?
Following the death of President Hafiz al-Assad in June 2000, numerous forums and groups of like-minded people, intellectuals, filmmakers and politicians from the Syrian Communist Party and Ba’th Party started debates and discussions on political reforms in the country. These groups called for withdrawal of state of emergency, abolition of martial law and special courts, release of all political prisoners, return without fear of prosecution of those living in exiles, right to form political parties and civil organization. They also called for removal of Article 8 of the Syrian Constitution which envisaged that “the Arab Socialist Ba’th Party leads the state and society.” It was called Damascus Spring and the government-led by Bashar al-Assad responded with the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the closer of Damascus-based Mezzeh prison in November 2000. However, by August 2001, it returned to repressive measures with a number of imprisonments and forced closer of intellectual forums and groups, thereby bringing the Damascus Spring to an abrupt end.

What was Damascus uprising and how it started?
Perhaps, it was distinctly a unique kind of protest which later translated into an uprising against the Assad regime. In March 2011, while other parts of Syria were burning, reports of clashes between government forces and people were coming in from different corners of the country, youth of Damascus without filling the city’s streets with huge protests against the government, took to creativity to vent their anger against the repressive regime. They colored waters of the city’s seven major fountains with red, symbolizing the blood of thousands of people killed by security forces across the country to suppress anti-regime movement. Another time, they used laser light, brought from a party supplies store and beamed it from one hill top to another where Presidential palace is located. It is said that armed guards of palace frantically fired into the air, confused about the source or the nature of the laser. Aim behind laser beaming activity was to convey a message that there was no love lost between President Assad and the Syrian people. Yet on another occasion, youth surprised the security forces when they stuffed cassette players and speakers in black garbage bags and threw them into trash bins in crowded streets, schools and universities. Minutes later, a well-known anti-Assad song would blare from these trash bins. It was not all. Youth went from one street to another, affixing stickers bearing names of people killed by security forces. Releasing freedom balloons into sky, spraying walls with anti-government graffiti and calling on residents to switch off their lights at a certain hour-were types of protests resorted by youth to ventilate their dissent against the regime. But these non-violent methods of campaign could not last long in the face of security forces’ brutal actions. The government thought that its actions would send shock down the spine of youth and residents of Damascus. In turn, they resulted in mass uprising against Assad in Damascus. Though it too was brutally crushed, other parts of this West Asian country are still singing with violence and bloodbath.

Will Damascus collapse after what is happening?
The Assad regime has so far resisted rebels’ campaign against it. But due to continued fight against anti-government forces and imposition of economic sanctions, it has become weak. And no one is sure how long Damascus would stand intact in the face of barrage of rebels’ attack even as Russia and Iran are helping it with funds and arms and ammunition. Nonetheless, if Damascus falls, it would prove catastrophic for the West Asian region. Given the situation in Iraq and Libya, it is feared that any anticipated fall of Damascus would let loose terrorism with its disastrous consequences around the world.

What are the reasons for the Syrian Crisis?
The genesis of the present crisis goes back to various opposition groups, including the hardline Muslim Brotherhood, that have been opposed to the al-Assad family-led Ba’ath Party, which has ruled Syria with an iron hand since 1970. At various times, opposition groups have taken up violent struggle against the ruling regime only to be brutally crushed. The trigger for the latest crisis was the shooting dead of activists in Deraa in early 2011 when they were demanding the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad and the release of all political prisoners. What was initially restricted to Deraa soon expanded into a nationwide protest and finally graduated into an armed insurgency. The situation has become more complex with the fundamentalist Sunni militant group ISIS entering the conflict.

The rebels, which includes the Free Syrian Army, that loosely form the opposition, are divided amongst themselves and now the ISIS has entered Syria with its own disruptive ideology of creating a larger Caliphate, as it once existed in the Middle ages. Bashar al-Assad has no plans of stepping down and is willing to fight both the opposition rebels and the ISIS, with help from Iran and Russia.

What is the situation in Syria now?
The situation in Syria is precarious with the civilian population caught up in the conflict. There is complete breakdown in administration with food, water and medical supplies running scarce. The conflict has led to a major exodus of people who are fleeing the country and seeking refuge in Europe.

At the military and political level, the situation is very tenuous. On one side, Bashar al-Assad is digging in with military and financial support from Iran and Russia, on the other hand, the rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, are being financed and equipped by various Arab countries, the U.S. and some Western nations. The ISIS is on a separate agenda. It has access to vast financial resources which it is raising from its operations in Iraq and some other countries and is fighting both the rebel groups as well as the Syrian Government forces. Till now, Russia provided financial and military support to the Bashar al-Assad-led regime but now it has directly joined the conflict and has been bombing both rebel groups as well as ISIS.

As of now, there is no political solution in sight as there is no clear leadership within the rebel groups, but both the rebels and the Syrian government agree that the immediate threat is ISIS which must be destroyed before it takes over the nation.

What is the death toll in Syria till now?
There are no accurate reports of casualties in Syria as information is difficult to access and verify, given the nature and complexity of the conflict. The United Nations was tracking the casualties till 2013 but stopped in July that year as it was increasingly difficult to verify casualty figures. However, organizations like The Syrian Observatory have been trying to track the figures and have put up some estimates since the conflict first began in March 2011. In a recent report published by the New York Times on September 14, 2015, the total number of deaths since 2011 is estimated to have crossed 200,000.

Around 28,277 civilians have died due to shootings and mass killings. 27,006 civilians lost their lives to mortar, artillery and rocket attacks. 18,866 civilians have died as a result of air strikes by the Syrian government. 8,871 civilians have died from kidnapping, being detained, or torture. 984 civilians have lost their lives due to exposure to chemical attacks. 654 medical staff has been killed due to attack on hospitals. 565 civilians have died due to dehydration or lack of medical care. 181 civilians have died due to U.S.-led air attacks on ISIS. Since the crisis began, over 4 million have fled the country seeking refuge in other countries and the number is growing by the day.

Who is Wael Nader al-Halqi?
Wael Nader al-Halqi is the Prime Minister of Syria since August 9, 2012. Born in Jasim, Syria, in 1964, he went on to earn a M.D. in Medicine from Damascus University in 1987. He later completed Masters in Gynaecology and Obstetrics from the same university in 1991. He served as Director of Primary Health Care in Jasim from 1997-2000.

He was soon drawn into politics and joined the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party and served as Secretary of the Daraa Branch of the party from 2000-2004. In 2010, he was appointed as Director of Health Services in Daraa and by April 2011, he was appointed as the Minister for Health. On August 9, 2012, Wael Nader al-Halqi became the Prime Minister of Syria, a position he holds till date.

In April 2013, there was an assassination attempt on him when a car bomb exploded near his convoy in the posh neighborhood of Mezze in Central Damascus. Several were reportedly killed and others injured but Prime Minister al-Halqi survived unhurt.

What weapons is the U.S. supplying to rebel groups in Syria?
The U.S. has been supplying lethal and non-lethal aid to various rebel groups inside Syria since the middle of 2013. Lethal weapons and ammunition have included handguns, semi-automatic carbines, light machine guns, hand grenades, grenade launchers, various caliber ammunition, BGM-71 TOW anti-tank rocket systems, and shoulder fired MANPADS.

The non-lethal equipment has included body armor suits, communication equipment, night vision equipment, military food packets, and medical emergency kits.

Recently, the U.S. has airdropped 50 tons of ammunition and related equipment, packed in 112 pallets, to friendly rebel groups. The air drop operations were carried out by the U.S. Air Force’s C-17 cargo planes.

Is Syria becoming the latest test-bed for military hardware?
Battle zones in any conflict have always been used to test out new military equipment. This was seen in World War II, Korean war, Vietnam, Gulf War 1 & 2, Afghanistan, and now Syria is the new testing ground.

Both the U.S. and Russia have used these zones to test out their latest equipment. In the Syrian conflict, the Russians have recently introduced their latest mobile electronic warfare system – Krasukha-4. This is a multifunctional jamming system that can neutralize low orbit satellites, airborne radars and sensors etc.

The U.S. is trying out its own range of the latest Electronic Counter Counter Measure (ECCM) equipment and other hardware.

 What assistance is being provided to Syrian refugees in various camps in Europe?
The largest support comes from the UNHCR that has been providing consistent aid in the form of temporary shelter, food, medical aid and food supplies to the Syrian refugees in various locations under its purview within Syria.

Different countries in Europe have been receiving refugees in large numbers. In 2015, between January and September, Germany received 656,190 refugees, France - 303,230, Sweden - 279,520, Turkey - 254,517, Italy - 187,130, Hungary - 156,195, United Kingdom - 153,655, Serbia and Kosovo - 131,873, Switzerland - 119,265, Belgium - 108,890, Netherlands - 74,885, Norway - 57,555, Austria - 52,810, Poland - 43,485, Denmark - 42,010, Greece - 39,815, Bulgaria - 29,670, Spain - 24,220, Finland - 11,970, Cyprus - 9,610, Montenegro - 8,901, Romania - 7,740, Macedonia - 5,699, Czech Republic - 3,515, Lithuania - 2,140, Latvia - 1,320, and Bosnia & Herzegovina – 240.

The first and immediate assistance offered is food and medical services, followed by temporary accommodation pending permanent arrangement, education for children, skill and language development and lastly processing of their applications for permanent residency.

Are all Syrian refugees living in camps?
Most are living in camps and temporary shelters, while some have been living in shared accommodation with host families and others in rented accommodation.

Turkey alone is hosting around 1.9 million refugees, Lebanon – 1.1 million, Jordan – 630,000. Around 80,000 are living in Za’atari camp located in Jordan’s northern border area with Syria, while 23,700 are living at the Azraq camp. The conditions in most camps are appalling due to lack of finance and resources to handle the overwhelmingly large influx.

 Last Updated on : April 20, 2017