Damascus in Syria has a strong claim to be the oldest city in the world. And eight years ago, it bustled with the life you’d expect. But under the surface, tensions were growing in both the city and across the country. Many pro-democracy groups felt increasingly discontent with Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic regime. The Arab Spring in 2011 provided the spark which catalyzed protests and ultimately conflict.
After seven years of civil war (which has now developed far beyond an internal fight between the regime and the rebels) the country’s landscape is very different. The conflict has inevitably caused mass civilian displacement and suffering, and many of the cultural monuments and centuries of progress have been destroyed.
So what’s next? One thing is for sure – there is no answer for Syria as a whole while the situation remains so volatile. However, it is possible for us to help in the areas which need it most.
The below breakdown reflects the current situation on the ground in these areas. It is not easy reading, but we can help with donations to humanitarian charities – like Syria Relief who have teams of volunteers in various key parts of Syria.
The rebel enclave in Daraa was besieged by the regime in the early part of the conflict, and forces loyal to Assad recently restarted their bombardment, in an attempt to recapture the area from FSA control.
The offensive has already displaced around 45,000, mostly around the Jordanian border, and UN estimates that around three quarters of a million lives may be at risk from an ensuing humanitarian crisis.
Daraa has shown astonishing resilience throughout the course of the conflict. Although the city was spared ISIS occupation, it was infiltrated by al-Qaeda sympathisers, and in 2017, it was reported that the majority of the town has been destroyed by regime airstrikes.
Citizens and aid workers responded to this trauma with the creation of the Sanabel Organisation, providing psychological support to the city’s children and young people affected by war.
But as long as the region remains a battle ground between remaining rebels and Assad’s army, the need for support services such as Sanabel will only serve to intensify – especially in light of recent reports of the regime’s refusal to allow civilians seeking shelter to enter into areas under its control.
The UN’s World Food Programme has been at the forefront of responding to the needs of IDP’s, but more help – and a renewed de-escalation deal – is needed in order to prevent further upheaval and crisis in Daraa.
The city of Raqqa is currently observing its first ‘free’ Ramadan, following three years of brutal oppression. The city, which was initially seized by the rebels, fell to Daesh in 2014, after the group swept up the Euphrates, extending its so-called ‘caliphate.’ It was eventually liberated in by the Syrian Democratic Forces, who remain in control of the city alongside the Raqqa Civil Council (though the regime has made its own views on ownership clear).
While the future remains unclear, reconstruction efforts are on-going, supported by a group of engineers who are overseeing and managing efforts. Roads are being repaired and an employment centre has opened – showing the extraordinary resilience of the population in face of a monumental challenge to rebuild the once great city.
While the regime has retained overall control of Damascus throughout the civil war, some suburbs of the capital were under rebel (and later Daesh) control throughout the conflict. This included Yarmouk, an area containing a displaced Palestinian community, who became exposed to yet more conflict and hunger.
The most recent battle in Damascus ended last month with a ruthless regime assault against Daesh, who were stationed in a former refugee camp in Yarmouk (the rebels and civilians largely fled before the assault), and on other towns of Yalda, Babila, and Beit Saham. Only rubble remains, alongside a much dwindled and traumatized population.
While the regime has re-established control here, its attention is focused on other rebel-occupied parts of the country – meaning any reconstruction efforts are likely to remain unsupported for some time.
Similarly to Daara, this area was the ‘cradle of the revolution’ – which is perhaps why the regime singled it out for the harshest of responses. Besieged at an early stage of the conflict, the population of Eastern Ghouta suffered from air strikes, starvation, and even the internationally-condemned use of chemical weapons against them.
In 2017, with the humanitarian crisis intensifying, a deal between Russia, Iran and Turkey was struck, classifying Eastern Ghouta as a “de-escalation zone”. It was agreed that Syrian and Russian fighter jets would not fly above the area. Both sides claimed a breach of terms, however, and the Regime launched a campaign resulting in the death of hundreds of people in a matter of days.
In February, the Russian-backed Syrian army then launched a successful ground offensive designed to recapture the area. Again, rebel fighters and some civilians fled the area, heading for either Idlib or the al-Bel camp for the internally displaced, where aid is being directed to.
Idlib remains the last major urban centre under opposition control and is a destination for many rebels and civilians displaced from other areas such as Eastern Ghouta.
The opposition in charge of Idlib are not ‘rebels’ per se – but an increasingly unpopular coalition group called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, containing individuals and groups sympathetic to AQ and salafi-jihadism. Locals continue to oppose and protest the group’s presence in the area, whereas the regime will inevitably look to take back the city in the near future (using similar tactics to those witnessed in Ghouta).
In advance of this, safe passage and refuge for the large number of displaced persons will be a priority for humanitarian agencies and workers on the ground.
As described above, the current situation is volatile, and there is still a very serious risk to civilians. Seven years on, NGOs, humanitarian charities and war correspondents are still operating in the area, trying to minimise the impact of this on-going crisis and raise awareness of it.
The work of these organisations truly is transformative, but it can only be continued with our sustained consciousness, advocacy and support. In the UK, there are three things we can do to help:
For more information, visit our ‘how to help’ page.