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The Syrian government has been accused by opposition activists of launching a deadly chlorine gas attack in the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta. The pro-opposition Orient News claimed a child had been killed in the reported attack by a regime aircraft on the town of al Shifuniyah. Yaqub, a doctor who treated those affected in hospital, said he suspected “chemical weapons, probably a chlorine gas attack“.
A US medical organisation said 16 patients in the hospital had symptoms indicating they were exposed to chemical compounds.
The Syrian American Medical Society said among those being treated with oxygen masks were six children and four women.
The Syrian regime, which has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons, has been accused of several chlorine gas attacks in recent weeks, including two in January in eastern Ghouta, on the edge of the capital Damascus.
Moscow, a staunch ally of President Bashar al Assad’s regime, accused his opponents of using “toxic substances” to make it appear that they had been deployed by regime forces.
It comes as fresh regime airstrikes and heavy clashes shook the rebel-held enclave despite a UN demand for a ceasefire.
On Saturday, the Security Council adopted a resolution calling for a 30-day truce in Syria “without delay” to allow for aid deliveries and medical evacuations.
At least 14 civilians, including three children, were killed in strikes on Sunday, said the Observatory, bringing the total number of dead in the week to at least 530, among them over 130 children.
There are multiple stake holders in the Syrian conflict with varied interests and at the receiving end are innocent civilians who are caught up in this power struggle of ‘the devil and the deep blue sea’.
Let us briefly understand the complete issue that has converted Syria into a living hell, where debris of ghost towns tell unimaginable stories of gross human rights violations.
The unrest in Syria began as a part of the popular movement referred to as the ‘Arab Spring’ that started from Tunisia in 2010 and then swept across the Middle East and North African countries like Egypt and Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and several other countries.
The demand of the protestors was to end the many decades’ long autocratic and undemocratic regimes of the likes of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, etc.
The power vacuum that was so created after the removal of the authoritarian rulers of these countries; lend itself to political instability that provided a safe haven to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda that found an opportunity to acquire greater strength by:
Firstly, absorbing the elements of terrorist syndicate that had fled from Afghanistan-Pakistan region to escape the American led coalition forces.
Secondly, after US attack on Iraq and subsequent change of regime from Sunni ruler Saddam Hussein to a Shiites government, which started committing atrocities against the Sunni population, resulted in large number of Sunni’s to join the militant cadres of Al Qaeda.
In March 2011, scarcely a month after Mubarak was deposed; anti-government demonstrators in many cities across Syria started protesting against the authoritarian rule of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.
Contours of Syrian Conflict
Syria became an independent republic in 1946 and has had a history of military coups, with short spurts of democratic rule after a popular uprising from 1958 to 1961. Thereafter, the Parliamentary system was replaced with a highly centralized Presidential regime.
General Hafez al-Asad, the Minister of Defence seized power and declared himself President in March 1971. His rule lasted till his death in 2000 and was automatically succeeded by his son, the present President, Bashar al-Assad.
Sunni Muslims constitute three fourth of the population of Syria. The ruling Assad family comes from a minority Alawite religious group that is an offshoot of the Shiite Muslim faction. This 12% strong community has had a tight control over the Syrian military services and constitutes the ruling elite.
Discontentment against the government progressively grew owing to inequality in the distribution of resources, rampant corruption, curbing/ violation of human rights, poverty and widespread deprivation. The strongest protest came from Syria’s poor areas, predominantly among conservative Sunnis.
The first protests started on 15 March 2011, when protesters marched in the Syrian capital of Damascus demanding democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners.
The Syrian security forces retaliated with disproportionate force causing a huge collateral damage thus further instigating the rebellion.
The consequent unprecedented civilian casualties drew a lot of flak for the Asad regime worldwide.
On 29 July 2011, seven defecting Syrian officers formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces officers and soldiers, aiming “to bring this regime (the Assad government) down” with united opposition forces.
The rebel forces grew in strength over the years and were covertly supplied with sophisticated weaponry from US by Saudi Arabia, the closest US ally in the region and the biggest Sunni country of Middle East that wants to see the ouster of the Shiite regime of Assad.
In the meanwhile the most dreaded militant organisation that has designs to form an Islamic Caliphate in the region, The Islamic State saw an opportunity to garner support by getting into the fray.
As Islamic State started gaining territory in North and Eastern Syria, the conflict in Syria became more than just a battle between those, for or against President Assad.
In September 2014, US, UK and some other countries joined forces to air attack ground forces of IS.
Russia has had strong traditional ties with President Assad’s Syrian government and has helped Syria in the past by supplying weapons. However, Russia physically joined into the fight by end of 2015 and launched air strikes against the rebels with devastating effects.
Events Leading up to the Present Chaos
The ‘Arab Spring’ protests descended into a civil war in Syria in 2011. Aleppo, an ancient city of 2.3 million people, which was once Syria’s main industrial and financial centre, assumed great significance as it was a key base for a number of different rebel factions opposed to the Assad regime.
The rebels operated from Aleppo with impunity till the summer of 2015 and Assad was widely understood to be losing ground around the country, and possibly his grip on power.
However, in response to his call for assistance from his international patrons, mainly, Russia and Iran, he was able to mount a consequential offensive against the rebels.
Russia sent warplanes, attack helicopters, artillery pieces, and significant numbers of military advisers. Iran sent in paramilitary operatives and battle-hardened fighters from Hezbollah, its Lebanon-based proxy.
The pro-government troops had made significant advances around the city by end December 2015 and, by February 2016, had nearly surrounded it.
The Assad regime, with significant support from Iran, imposed a blockade on rebel areas, cutting off supplies to some 320,000 people. The rebels briefly broke the siege in late July 2016, but Assad’s forces re-imposed it in September 2016.
It is believed that the pro-government forces launched a campaign to systematically destroy the medical facilities in rebel-held parts of the city, killing or wounding many of its remaining doctors and nurses. The destruction left more than a quarter-million people in eastern Aleppo without hospital care.
Finally, by mid of December 2016, Assad’s forces have taken 90 percent of rebel holdings in eastern Aleppo, reducing the city to rubble with unspeakable devastation and gory tales of disaster etched on its backdrop. SYRIA: A Battle Ground for a Proxy War between US & Russia and Saudi Arabia & Iran
The Syrian war has three separate dimensions:
First: Ouster of President Asad and Change of Regime
The two opposing sides comprise of the following:
The Syrian security forces, with the support of one of the largest Shiite country of the Middle East, i.e. Iran, Lebanese Shiite militant group, Hezbollah and is being physically assisted by Russia and morally by China.
The Syrian rebels, with the tacit support of the largest Sunni country of Middle East, i.e. Saudi Arabia, Sunni militant factions like Al Qaeda and are being supported by US and its European allies.
What needs to be understood here is that while US and Russia stand united on the fight against IS, they are on the opposing sides on the issue of toppling President of Syria, Bashar al-Asad.
The entry of Russia into the Syrian conflict further intensified the proxy war between US and Russia.
United States and its Arab allies, mainly Saudi Arabia are known to have be supplying large numbers of hi-tech weapons like the TOW missiles to the rebels, who are striking at the Russian made vehicles being driven around by the Syrian forces and their Arab allies, like Iran/ Hezbollah.
US has been accusing Russia of targeting Western-backed moderate rebels and not the IS targets alone to prop up the Asad regime. However, Russia has negated US claims and President Putin blames US for not sharing the list of targets with Moscow.
The recent chemical attack by Syrian forces on the rebel held town, followed by the US military intervention against Syrian military, is likely to only escalate and confuse the overall political aims of the participants in that conflict.
Second: Fight against the Islamic State
The Islamic State militant outfit is being countered by the Arab Coalition Forces led by Saudi Arabia, supported by US and its European allies and also Russia.
The reason for US and its allies not sending ground troops to fight IS, is that, it fear that the same may escalate the situation by providing cannon fire to the highly effective Islamic State propaganda machinery.
The anti-West propaganda is likely to unite the Arabs world and it is likely to lead to an all out West vs. Arab conflict. Perhaps this is the broader strategy that Islamic State has been working on, while it is often seen mocking the West, provoking and daring them to attack.
Third: Turf War between Sunnis and the Shiite Muslim Factions
The two heavy weights of the Middle East, i.e. Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shia) are fighting for dominance by aiding their own factions of militant outfits operating in the region.
The Shiite militant groups like Hezbollah of Lebanon and Houthis’ of Yemen are being supported by Iran, while the Sunni militant groups like the Al Qaeda and ISIS is being supported by Saudi Arabia.
ALEPPO, A Synonym for Hell
This unfortunate struggle for dominance by various forces operating in the region has already led to an estimated 300,000 deaths, about 4.8 million refugees and another 6.1 million displaced within Syria (50% of Syrian population).
The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 16 December 2016 referred to Aleppo, as a “synonym for hell.”
Russia, with virtually no losses of its own troops, has helped Assad retake vital ground like Aleppo while pushing his opponents closer toward near-total defeat. However, Assad’s victory has no bearing on the sufferings of the common people in Aleppo.
UN had brokered a peace deal for evacuation of civilians from the besieged territory and nearly 100,000 have fled the violence hit area.
Notwithstanding, the misery of millions of people continues unabated as the bombs rain-in, not sparing anyone, including the ongoing humanitarian efforts.
I feel that the Assad regime on the behest of their trusted ally Russia has made a strategic blunder by using the chemical weapons.
The visuals of distressed civilians and suffocating children have highlighted the sufferings of the common people of Syria caught up in the conflict zone.
The incident has only robbed the pro-Syrian government coalition of the readily available support from US and other European allies who are fighting the Islamic state alongside them. Besides, the US military retaliation against the Syrian military has further confused the overall politico-military aims of the forces participating in the conflict.
Lastly, the incident will further strengthen the resolve of the hard-line Islamists/ ISIS fighters in the garb of rebels and help them to garner greater sympathy and the much needed moral and material support.