China has pledged to assist in the reconstruction of war-torn Syria, with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad forming a strategic alliance. The declaration came on Friday, as the two had official discussions in Hangzhou, China’s southernmost city.
“In the face of an unstable and uncertain international environment, China is willing to continue working with Syria in the interests of friendly cooperation and safeguarding international fairness and justice,” Xi said to his Syrian counterpart, according to Chinese official media.
“China backs Syria’s rejection to international intervention and unilateral bullying… It will contribute to Syria’s restoration,” he added.
Xi announced a variety of programmes aimed at improving infrastructure along the ancient Silk Road and boosting China’s approach to global security.
“China is willing to deepen cooperation with Syria through the Belt and Road Initiative… to contribute positively to regional and global peace and development,” Xi added.
Syrian state television described al-Assad as thanking China for its support “during the crisis and suffering” in Syria.
The Arab leader’s unusual visit is an attempt to overcome more than a decade of diplomatic isolation due to Western sanctions, as well as to strengthen trade ties with the world’s second-largest economy.
Since a civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, the United States has imposed sanctions. It has killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Al-Assad’s regime now controls the majority of Syria’s territory and has recently re-established connections with Arab neighbours who earlier supported Syrian rebels.
Meanwhile, China has increased its diplomatic engagement in the Middle East in an effort to broaden its global influence and create an alternative to the US-led world system.
In March, Beijing assisted in bridging a seven-year diplomatic schism between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
How they War in Syria Started
A peaceful revolt against Syria’s ruler 12 years ago devolved into a full-fledged civil war. The battle has killed 500,000 people, destroyed cities, and drawn in other countries.
Many Syrians were already grumbling about high unemployment, corruption, and a lack of political freedom under President Bashar al-Assad, who took over after his father, Hafez, died in 2000.
Pro-democracy rallies occurred in the southern city of Deraa in March 2011, inspired by upheavals against harsh authorities in surrounding countries.
When the Syrian government employed lethal force to repress dissent, widespread rallies seeking the president’s resignation erupted.
The uproar spread, and the response became more severe. Opposition supporters picked up arms, first to defend themselves and then to cleanse their neighbourhoods of security troops. Mr. Assad promised to destroy “foreign-backed terrorism.”
The violence quickly became out of control, and the country slid into civil war. Hundreds of rebel groups sprang created, and it didn’t take long for the conflict to escalate beyond a battle between Syrians supporting or opposing Mr. Assad.
Foreign countries began to take sides, supplying money, weapons, and warriors, and as the instability deepened, hardline jihadist groups with their own agendas, like as the Islamic State (IS) organisation and al-Qaeda, were engaged. This heightened worry among the world community, who considered them as a huge threat.
Syria’s Kurds, who want self-government but have not battled Mr. Assad’s forces, have brought another layer of complexity to the conflict.
The conflict killed 306,887 people
The United Nations Human Rights Office estimated last year that the conflict killed 306,887 people, or 1.5% of the total pre-war population, between March 2011 and March 2021.
According to the report, 143,350 civilian deaths were personally documented by multiple sources with specific information, and an additional 163,537 deaths were calculated using statistical approaches. At least 27,126 of the estimated victims were children.
Michelle Bachelet, the then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, emphasised that the deaths were the “direct result of war operations,” adding, “This does not include the many, many more civilians who died due to a lack of access to healthcare, food, clean water, and other essential human rights.”
By March 2023, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based monitoring group with a network of on-the-ground sources, had documented the deaths of 503,064 people. It claimed that at least 162,390 civilians had been killed, with the Syrian government and its allies to blame for 139,609 of them.
According to the group, the true death toll from the conflict was more than 613,400, with a further 55,000 civilians thought to have died as a result of torture in government-run jails.
Russia and Iran in Syria
As of March 2023, another monitoring organisation, the Violations Documentation Centre, which depends on information from activists around the country, had identified 240,215 battle-related deaths, including 145,765 civilians.
Russia and Iran have been important backers of the regime, while Turkey, Western countries, and numerous Gulf Arab states have backed the opposition to varied degrees during the conflict.
Russia, which had military bases in Syria prior to the war, initiated an air campaign in support of Mr. Assad in 2015, which was critical in shifting the tide of the battle in the government’s favour.
The Russian military claims that its strikes only target “terrorists,” but activists claim that they also murder mainstream rebels and civilians on a daily basis.
Iran is reported to have sent hundreds of troops and spent billions of dollars to assist Mr. Assad.
Thousands of Shia Muslim fighters armed, trained, and paid by Iran have fought alongside the Syrian army, largely from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, but also from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
The United States, the United Kingdom, and France originally armed “moderate” rebel forces. However, since jihadists became the main force in the armed opposition, they have favoured non-lethal support.
Since 2014, a US-led global coalition has also carried out air attacks and deployed special forces in Syria to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, in capturing area once controlled by IS militants in the north-east and preventing the jihadist organisation from rebuilding.
Turkish military and allied rebels
Turkey is a significant backer of the opposition, but it has focused on utilising rebel groupings to limit the Kurdish YPG militia, which dominates the SDF, accusing it of being an offshoot of a banned Kurdish rebel group in Turkey.
Turkish military and allied rebels have taken area along Syria’s northern border and intervened to prevent the government from launching an all-out attack on Idlib, the last opposition stronghold.
Saudi Arabia, eager to offset Iranian influence, first armed and funded the insurgents. It is now debating how to support Syria’s “return to the Arab fold” after refusing to interact with President Assad for more than a decade.
Meanwhile, Israel has been so concerned about Iran’s “military entrenchment” in Syria, as well as shipments of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah and other Shia militias, that it has conducted increasingly frequent air strikes in an attempt to block them.
In addition to the violence, more than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million has had to evacuate their homes. Internally displaced people number 6.8 million, with more than two million living in tented camps with limited access to essential services.
Another 6 million are refugees or asylum seekers in other countries. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, which host 5.3 million of them, have had to cope with one of history’s greatest refugee exoduses.
At the start of 2023, the UN reported that 15.3 million people inside Syria needed humanitarian assistance, an all-time high since the war began, and 12 million did not know where their next meal would come from.
The already severe humanitarian situation in northwestern Syria, the final resistance bastion, was exacerbated by a massive earthquake that struck near the Turkish city of Gaziantep, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the Syrian border, on 6 February 2023.
8.8 million people affected
According to the UN, about 5,900 people were murdered in Syria, while another 8.8 million were affected. Hundreds of thousands of homes and crucial infrastructure were destroyed, leaving many households without food, water, or shelter. Life-saving supplies was also delayed for days due to what a UN panel called “shocking” failings on the side of both the warring parties and the international community.
The calamity occurred at a time when food and fuel costs in Syria were already increasing due to runaway inflation and the collapse of the country’s currency, as well as a worldwide crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.
Syria has also been one of the Middle East countries hardest hit by the Covid-19 epidemic, while the full extent is unknown due to restricted testing, and is currently dealing with a catastrophic cholera outbreak exacerbated by the earthquake.
Because only half of the country’s hospitals are completely operational, access to medical care for the sick and injured is severely limited.
Despite their protected status, Physicians for Human Rights reported 601 attacks on at least 400 different medical facilities as of February 2022, resulting in the deaths of 942 medical staff. The government and Russian military were accused for the vast majority of the attacks.
Across the country, entire neighbourhoods and key infrastructure are in ruins. According to UN satellite data, more than 35,000 structures were damaged or destroyed in Aleppo alone before the city was reclaimed by the government in late 2016.
Syria’s cultural landmarks destroyed
Much of Syria’s rich cultural legacy has been destroyed as well. IS extremists deliberately blew up parts of the historic city of Palmyra, causing major damage to all six of the country’s Unesco World Heritage sites.
According to a United Nations commission of investigation, the warring parties “have cumulatively committed almost every crime against humanity… and nearly every war crime applicable in a non-international armed conflict.”
“Syrians have suffered vast aerial bombardments of densely populated areas; they have endured chemical weapons attacks and modern-day sieges in which perpetrators deliberately starved the population along mediaeval scripts and indefensible and shameful restrictions on humanitarian aid,” according to a February 2021 report.
The government has retaken control of Syria’s major cities, but huge areas of the nation remain under the authority of rebels, jihadists, and the Kurdish-led SDF. For three years, there have been no changes on the front lines.
The last resistance bastion is in the northwestern province of Idlib, as well as sections of northern Hama and western Aleppo.
The region is dominated by the jihadist coalition Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), but there are also mainstream rebel factions supported by Turkey. There are an estimated 2.9 million displaced individuals there, including a million children, many of whom are living in deplorable conditions in camps.
SDF and Turkish-led forces
Russia and Turkey agreed a ceasefire in March 2020 to prevent the government’s attempt to reclaim Idlib. This resulted in an extended period of calm, but there are still periodic confrontations, air strikes, and shelling.
In the country’s north-east, Turkish soldiers and allied Syrian rebels launched an offensive against the SDF in October 2019 to establish a “safe zone” free of Kurdish YPG militia along the Syrian side of the border, and have since controlled a 120km (75 mile) section.
To prevent the onslaught, the SDF reached an agreement with the Syrian government, allowing the Syrian army to return to the Kurdish-controlled zone for the first time in seven years. Despite the arrival of Syrian troops, confrontations between the SDF and Turkish-led forces continue along the front line.
IS sleeper cells continue to launch frequent and lethal assaults. It does not appear to be happening anytime soon, but everyone agrees that a political solution is required.
The UN Security Council has advocated for the execution of the Geneva Communiqué of 2012, which calls for the formation of a transitional governing body “based on mutual consent.”
Nine rounds of UN-mediated peace talks, known as the Geneva II process, have failed to make progress, with President Assad apparently refusing to speak with political opposition groups insisting on his resignation as part of any settlement.
In 2017, Russia, Iran, and Turkey convened parallel political discussions known as the Astana process.
The next year, an agreement was achieved to assemble a 150-member committee to write a new constitution, leading to free and fair elections overseen by the UN. Despite eight rounds of negotiations, little progress has been made.
As the Syrian conflict entered its 13th year, UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen declared that the situation was “untenable” and that “continuing in the same manner defies humanity and logic.”
He did, however, express hope that the tragic earthquake would be a “turning point,” citing “humanitarian steps from all sides that have moved beyond previous positions, even if temporarily.”