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All Sides in the Syria War Have at Least One Thing in Common: Slaughtering Civilians

Posted on Feb 11, 2016

By Sonali Kolhatkar

  A December 2015 aerial image of what Russian officials say was an airstrike on a truck column transporting oil products in Aleppo province, Syria. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service / AP)

Nearly five years after Syria’s Arab Spring revolt escalated into a civil war, the conflict has morphed into a wider regional war with no end in sight. Millions of Syrians have fled, and a quarter of a million have died. Now, a devastating new United Nations report reveals that government forces are torturing and “disappearing” tens of thousands of civilians in what amounts to “extermination” and “crimes against humanity.” The U.N. is warning the Syrian army that if it goes ahead with a planned assault on the rebel stronghold of Aleppo, hundreds of thousands of Syrians could be cut off from food and face starvation. The international body has also issued a strong statement about residents of another Syrian town, Madaya, who are starving to death as government forces lay siege.

“We haven’t seen a catastrophe like this since World War II, and it’s unfolding before our eyes,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said last week. While those are strong words, the United States has yet to implement a coherent policy regarding Syria.

What is unfolding is a deadlier stage of a war that is drawing in so many actors that it is nearly impossible to keep track of who is fighting whom. And the American mainstream media seem disinterested in digging into the details, focusing instead on breathless coverage of our horse-race primary election season.


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Chief among the internal forces in Syria is the regime of Bashar Assad, whose hands are dripping with the blood of innocent civilians. Assad’s main external backer, Russia, has raised the stakes by adding the heavy weight of its ground forces and airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians.

Iran is another external player whose interests are aligned with Assad. Assad, along with his Russian and Iranian allies, is ostensibly fighting several internal forces, chief among them Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, whose macabre tactics have eclipsed those of other rebel groups. Islamic State is vying with Assad for generating the greatest civilian death toll. But it has been backed, at least in the past, by another external actor, Saudi Arabia.

Now the Saudis and their allies in the Yemen war—the Emiratis—are hoping to get in on the action, by announcing a potential entry of ground troops in Syria. Saudi Arabia is claiming it will fight the very group its money has illicitly spawned: Islamic State. If that sounds implausible, Russia agrees. The Russians suspect that Saudi Arabia will simply support Islamic State against Assad (and Saudi rival Iran) in hopes of gaining regional influence in a post-Assad Syria.

To complicate matters even more, another external actor, Turkey, which shares a border with Syria, might enter into the fray to fight alongside anti-Assad groups. Some are accusing Russia of drawing Turkey into a war against its nemesis, the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Turkey is facing a massive refugee crisis, and the U.N. has urged it to open its borders to Syrian civilians fleeing Assad’s killings, Islamic State’s brutality and Russian and U.S. bombings.

The complexity of the war doesn’t stop there. President Obama, who has been reluctant to send in ground troops, has joined the air war on Syria, but he hasn’t been clear about exactly whom the U.S. is fighting. On the one hand, Islamic State is a clear-cut “enemy,” but Assad is too murderous to call a friend.

Like Russia, the U.S. has Syrian blood on its hands. Airstrikes have killed untold numbers of civilians. The U.S. military boasts that it has killed 20,000 Islamic State fighters and only 21 civilians, which is hardly believable. Some contend the number of civilians killed by U.S. bombs is as high as a thousand.

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