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Understanding the Syrian Civil War is a bit like navigating a multi-generational blended family on Thanksgiving.
We’ve strayed so far from where we started, and anytime you throw Russia into the mix, it’s impossible to be sure who’s friend or foe.
But here’s what we do know for sure: The current crisis all started with the Arab Spring in 2011.
What was a peaceful uprising against the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, escalated into an all-out war.
The government responded to the protests with inhumane tactics, which incited political opposition groups. The U.S. and Europe aligned themselves with the opposition groups, urging the Syrian government to allow the people of its country to determine its future, while Russia stood by Bashar al-Assad. (Russia is one of Syria’s biggest arms suppliers, and what’s 300,000 civilian deaths to Putin anyway?)
The situation goes from really sh*tty to really, really, really sh*tty when al-Qaeda gets involved, and Syrian rebels join more extremist groups. In 2013, about two years after everything began, ISIS seized territory in Syria. UN-brokered peace talks to bring an end to the fighting and plot a political transition in Syria were ongoing but led nowhere. (With so many allies and enemies vying for a seat at the table, it was practically impossible to agree on who would actually attend the talks. The U.S. wouldn’t attend if Iran was there, so Iran was disinvited, which opened the door to the Syrian opposition party along with the U.S.).
But it all came to a head when ISIS began murdering American journalists and aid workers; the U.S. responded by bombing ISIS targets in Syria.
Russia, meanwhile, launched airstrikes against the Syrian rebels. (Which — newsflash Mr. President — is a pretty clear indication that the U.S. and Russia aren’t on the same page.)
Are your heads spinning yet?
RUNNING FOR YOUR LIFE
In the nearly 10 years since the crisis in Syria began, it’s estimated that more than 300,000 people have died, and more than 11 million Syrians (nearly half of the population) have been forced to flee their homes in search of safe haven.
The country is literally in ruins.
Refugee camps that have been set up within Syria’s borders offer inhumane living conditions, with little to no medical care or access to water and food, so it’s no wonder that Syrians are risking everything to escape.
While many countries around the world were opening their doors to Syrian refugees, it wasn’t until the heartbreaking story of three-year-old Alan Kurdi made headlines (his body was found on a beach in Turkey after he, his brother and his mother drowned trying to reach Europe) that the world truly woke up to the crisis.
WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOUR?
As the world watched the Syrian crisis unfold, and images from the refugee camps were brought to light, it became searingly clear that help was needed. Countries around the world responded with aid and open doors.
Of the estimated five million Syrian refugees who’ve managed to flee their war-torn country (six million refugees are still displaced within Syria), the majority have fled to Turkey. Turkey, however, is buckling under the strain of such a sudden increase, and many of these refugees are living in camps.
Lebanon’s population saw a 25% spike from taking in 1.1 million Syrian refugees, and Jordan, Iraq and Egypt have also provided shelter to refugees during this crisis. European countries and North America have also opened their borders, but the numbers are much smaller in comparison to countries in the Middle East.
One area of the world that’s been noticeably absent as a destination for refugees? The Persian Gulf states. Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, called their inaction “shameful” but the truth is, no one should have expected them to step up. The Persian Gulf states don’t recognize refugees: In the 1950s, they bailed on a United Nations convention over obligations towards refugees, and they refuse to acknowledge the status of migrants or refugees politically. It is totally shameful, but it’s also context. (Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.)
From October 2015 to February 2018, Canada sponsored more than 50,000 Syrian refugees, and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in settlement services — but the crisis is nowhere near over, and help is still needed.
International organizations like the Canadian Red Cross and UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), which are sanctioned by the Canadian government, provide relief oversees, while donations to the Canadian Council for Refugees and United Way provide assistance to refugees as they re-settle in Canada.Short of donating funds, community groups all over the country have sprung up to welcome refugees into their neighbourhoods, so it’s easy to find volunteer opportunities close to home. (It’s truly the Canadian way.)
WHERE THINGS STAND NOW
Trump made headlines in December when he announced the U.S. would be pulling out of Syria after declaring a victory over ISIS (which isn’t quite a victory just yet, but that’s just a teeny, tiny, insignificant detail).
It came as a shock to everyone (including the U.S. special envoy for Syria, Joel Rayburn) and put a strain on America’s relationship with Turkey. (Quick background: Turkey had no issue with Syria until the Arab Spring, at which point it joined in with the U.S. and demanded Bashar al-Assad’s resignation. It got real bad when Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jet, which caused border clashes and Turkey’s eventual military intervention in 2016, with support from the U.S.)
With America out of the picture, Turkey’s left to contend with Russia (now the dominant player as Syria’s main ally) and is appealing to Putin to find a resolution (because nothing goes together like Putin and peace talks…). It’s almost like Trump did this on purpose…at Putin’s behest…but that would be crazy, right?
On the heels of Trump’s announcement, critics couldn’t help but recall Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq, only to redeploy a couple years later to continue fighting ISIS.
Now, just two months after the president’s announcement, the White House has reported that 200 U.S. troops will remain in Syria as part of a peacekeeping strategy. (Clearly, a very well-thought-out, premeditated strategy.)