So gory and numbing has the civil war in Syria become that news about people fleeing their homes, hospitals being bombed and innocent civilians dying does not seem to invoke the horror and attention it should. And that perhaps is the reason why the report about two chemical attacks in Syria on Wednesday was treated as ‘routine news’ in many parts of the world.
The first attack was in the city of Saraqeb, in Idlib, in north-western Syria. The attack was reported on social media by the anti-regime group called Idlib Civil Defense. According to the group, which is also called White Helmets, chlorine was the gas that was used and about 30 people were affected by the attack. The Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus, and ally Russia, have denied such an attack. Saraqeb is where, on Monday, a Russian helicopter was downed killing all five onboard.
The second attack was in eastern Aleppo, in the north, where Assad’s forces along with pro-government militias are engaged in an intense battle with opposition groups. The Russian defence ministry accused rebel group Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki for the attack that killed seven and injured more than 20 people.
Both are pointers that the civil war is far from over.
This is not the first time chemical attacks have been reported from Syria. The two attacks have an eerie similarity to the previous attacks. A report by the Syrian-American Medical Society brought out earlier this year estimates that about 1,500 people have died in the past five years because of the use of chemical weapons. There have been more than 20 attacks, small and big, in these years, and investigations have revealed the gases used in these attacks include Sarin.
Damascus has denied responsibility for any of the previous attacks — rather, it has pointed fingers towards Riyadh and Doha for the 2013 attacks that killed more than 700 people.
It is near impossible to verify the allegations made by either Damascus or the rebels about the perpetrators of the recent two attacks. The bloody nature of the civil war and the absence of an independent agency further obscure the picture.
According to the UN, the situation in Aleppo is quickly moving towards a catastrophe. Food, water and medicines are in short supply, and electricity is scarce, making it difficult for the remaining hospitals to function. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that more than 6,000 people have been killed in less than three months in Aleppo.
Signs that the situation in Aleppo will continue and the siege might worsen were seen when in a recent interview to Reuters Hezbollah leader Naim Qassem talked about the plan for Aleppo: “Regaining Aleppo will remain one of the goals of the Syrian State and its allies but we’re not tied to a timeframe.”
The more frightening aspect is that no one — not Assad, not Russia or Iran, not the United States, nor the UN — has a roadmap for Syria. The civil war, which is in its fifth year, has seen more than 10 million people leave their homes — about 6.6 million have been internally displaced and 4 million have become refugees in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Europe. It is estimated that close to 300,000 people have lost their lives in these five years.
The US, which until a few years back put the ouster of Assad as the precondition for any talks, has now come around to accept that in the crisis that Syria is today, perhaps, the President is the best in a host of bad option. Washington’s cooperation with Moscow and even Tehran on targeting extremists’ strongholds — which help Assad’s position — points to this.
However, an important step that Washington and Moscow must agree on is to identify and back the same ‘moderate’ groups. Both countries accuse the other of backing the wrong groups in the war. The Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, blamed by Russia for the attack on eastern Aleppo, is a group that is backed by Washington.
Another aspect of the unrest in Syria is that it is a major reason for trouble in Iraq. As Patrick Cockburn, in The Rise of Islamic State, states: “A blind spot for the US and other Western powers has been their failure to see that by supporting the armed uprising in Syria, they would inevitably destabilize Iraq”.