Syria in 2015: another year of agony

We're reaching the end of 2015 with no end in sight over Syria. The carnage and agony continue. So do the detentions, the torture, the deaths in custody, the "disappearances" and state gangsterism. The Syrian government's barrel bombings also continue and the ever-widening internationalisation of the conflict appears to mean that any eventual resolution is harder still to envisage.

But what, if anything, have we learnt about the Syria crisis during 2015? Here are a few thoughts.

One clear lesson is that the world "cares" about Syria less than one would hope. A year ago the UN launched an appeal for £5.6bn to provide help to 18 million Syrians after only securing half the funding it had asked for in 2014. A year on, the pattern has been repeated: again only half the funding has been met. Meanwhile, the UN estimates that four in every five Syrians are living in poverty, many in absolutely abject conditions.

Another clear lesson of 2015 is one that's been true each year during the Syria crisis: that Syrian government forces - as well as its proxies and official allies - are doing most of the unlawful killing. While the Islamic State armed group has - quite intentionally - stolen the headlines, Damascus-directed attacks have continued with a vengeance. Bashar al-Assad's forces may now only control a small portion of the territory of Syria (about a sixth, with their territory continuing to shrink), but they are doing so with characteristic ruthlessness. Barrel bombing has become the signature military tactic, with hundreds of these attacks in 2015. The death toll has been horrendous, including: at least 65 people killed in Al-Hasakah on 20 January, at least 40 people at a bakery in Majib on 15 May, at least 84 in Aleppo on 30 May, and at least another 100 killed in Aleppo on 2 October.

In a BBC interview in February, President Assad denied that his forces even used barrel bomb munitions ("It is like talking about cooking pots. We don't have cooking pots") but there's a mass of evidence to the contrary. In a report published in May, Amnesty documented the devastation wrought by these crude, unguided weapons. One factory worker described the aftermath of barrel bombing in the al-Fardous district of Aleppo: "I saw children without heads, body parts everywhere. It was how I imagine hell to be."

Meanwhile, with the multi-sided fighting still locked in bloody stalemate as the year ends, the political chatter - at least in Western circles - has increasingly been about "moderate" forces and their supposed ability to combat Islamic State as well as the Syrian government. Yet one thing we've learnt during 2015 is that this is hardly a fail-safe approach. On the one hand much-vaunted Kurdish forces have committed numerous human rights violations in areas under their own control, while a US training programme for hand-picked "moderates" has been abandoned as unworkable.

And as Western nations have obsessed - partly for domestic political reasons - over "ground forces", the Syrian skies have become markedly more dangerous for Syria's already beleaguered civilian population. Since Russian air forces started bombing raids in September, there have been numerous reports of large-scale civilian casualties, including at several hospitals which have been struck. It remains to be seen whether UK bombing in Syria will also lead to civilian deaths, but can anyone really rule that out?

But in 2015 the big Syria story has been the truly monumental number of refugees the conflict and ongoing repression have generated. The UNHCR has now registered a staggering 4,288,672 people as refugees from Syria, with the four million mark reached halfway through 2015. The numbers just keep going up. Almost every part of Syria has added to the flows. When in January Islamic State fighters were finally driven out of the border city of Kobane following a gruelling four-month battle, it was only after thousands of people had fled the devastation. One of these Kobane refugees was of course three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who drowned off the Turkish coast near Bodrum in September along with his older brother and mother. Europe-wide "Refugees Welcome" campaigns were one result of outrage at the photograph of Kurdi's drowned body. Another was a reluctant commitment by the UK government to resettle 20,000 Syrians by 2020.

But the Paris attacks last month have apparently erased the fragile international political consensus that - fleetingly - seemed to exist over assisting Syrian refugees during 2015. Indeed, Marine Le Pen's anti-immigrant rhetoric and Donald Trump's deeply unpleasant "bar all Muslims" grandstanding are only the more obviously distasteful elements of a much wider security-first agenda which has swept through the world in recent weeks. It's an undoubted victory for Islamic State. As Adam Shatz notes, François Hollande's hardline reaction to 13 November is almost certainly what the IS fanatics will have desired: drawing France into the conflict in Syria while unnerving its large Muslim population who are apparently now being viewed with widespread suspicion by the French authorities.

Back in January I myself was less sanguine than most about the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the supposed "liberalism" of France and the prospects for wider European politics and human rights. Terrorism is all about the reaction it achieves. If countries like France - or the UK, or the USA - shut down free speech, close borders, allow intrusive surveillance and curtail the rights of people to seek refuge, then the hyper-bigots of Islamic State will quite rightly think they're winning.

This is surely the "macro-challenge" of Syria. In a gloomy assessment of the Syrian situation for the New Statesman in September, John Bew reflected on how already shaky notions of a "world order" are under severe strain because of Syria. Nations in Europe and elsewhere have squabbled endlessly over Syrian refugees, while repeated outrages against Syrian civilians have led to no discernible consequences. Meanwhile, various countries have despatched thousands of fighters and "special forces" and funnelled in massive funds and weaponry - all with complete impunity. While Syria has burnt halfway to the ground the rest of the world - for all its laws and norms - has been rendered virtually impotent. According to Bew:

"Syria has exploded anything that remained of the post-Srebrenica norms ... In Assad's treatment of his own citizens, every taboo of the post-cold-war era has been violated. At the same time, the killing rage of IS has outstripped anything the most seasoned jihadis managed during the war in Afghanistan or the Iraqi insurgency."

Leaving aside the problematic nature of the so-called "world order", if the point is about trying to hold fast to the basics of international law and human rights despite the seeming hopelessness of Syria - then that's surely right.

Almost exactly five years ago young people in Tunisia began demonstrations calling for political reform and employment, a call that reverberated through large parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Now, in war-ravaged Syria, that looks a world away. Al Jazeera, which did so much to report the 2011 protests, recently quoted a resident of the al-Waer district of the city of Homs, once the epicentre of Syria's democracy protests and where a fragile truce has just been agreed. They said: "Al-Waer has suffered enough. We just want food and aid to reach us. Al-Waer is starving and winter is here. We just want peace regardless of how we get it."

Peace on any terms. The desperation is understandable, but we mustn't let truth, justice and human rights get swept away by the ravages of war and those with guns. And that goes for France and the UK as much as Syria.

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