Under the shadow of Gaza



Syria faces a new whirlwind of conflicts

The scale and ferocity of the conflict in Gaza and the unspeakable suffering of its civilians have rightly provoked the world's outrage. But in Syria, a sharp escalation of violence has forced tens of thousands of people to flee, in what continues to be the world's biggest displacement crisis, is occurring largely unnoticed outside the region.

Syria also desperately needs an end to the violence. But instead, the war that has lasted more than 12 years becomes more intense, now on five fronts, in a kaleidoscope of conflicts.

Syrian government and Russian forces are fighting armed opposition groups in the northwest; ISIS is intensifying its attacks across the country; Turkey is attacking Kurdish-led forces in the northeast; Kurdish-led forces are fighting local tribes; and the United States and Israel are fighting back against Iranian-linked forces.

With the region in turmoil, a dedicated international effort to contain the fighting on Syrian soil is imperative. More than a decade of bloodshed needs a diplomatic end. A lasting truce in Gaza would also considerably calm the situation in Syria, reducing tensions between foreign powers – including the United States, Israel and Iran through their proxies – that operate militarily in the country.

In Homs, in western Syria, a attack drone strike by unknown assailants killed and injured several cadets, family members and others at a military academy graduation ceremony on October 5. The Syrian army and Russian forces, which have supported President Bashar al-Assad, retaliated by attacking at least 2.300 locations in the opposition-controlled northwest, including schools, hospitals, markets and camps for Syrians forced to leave their homes. Around 120.000 people – many of whom had already been displaced several times, including by last February's massive earthquake – were forced to flee, and at least 500 civilians were injured or killed in just the incidents our commission has tracked since October.

The weapons included internationally banned cluster munitions – continuing the devastating patterns our commission has documented since the start of Syria's civil war in 2011. In the past, these revelations have produced widespread outrage. The difference now? The world's attention is elsewhere.

ISIS is also intensifying its deadly activity inside Syria, attacking civilian and military targets, continuing to demonstrate its operational capabilities and extremist ideology.

Meanwhile, in the northeast of the country, Turkish forces accelerated their operations against the Syrian Democratic Forces, an opposition group that Turkey says has links to terrorist activities on its territory. This opposition group has also been fighting local tribes in Deir al-Zour, the largest city in eastern Syria, in a conflict fueled by long-standing complaints that the Kurdish-led local administration is failing to provide essential services or guarantee basic rights. . The civilian deaths that followed have not yet been counted.

Most alarmingly, the rise in regional tensions resulting from the attack on Gaza has led to an increase in attacks on Syrian soil by Israel and Iranian militias. US bases in Syria have been attacked more than 50 times by militias since October. Well before the Jan. 28 attack in Jordan that killed three U.S. service members, the U.S. carried out retaliatory attacks in facilities allegedly used by groups linked to Iran, and the deaths in Jordan led to a new wave of American retaliatory attacks in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, raising fears of a wider conflict. Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes, ostensibly targeting Iranian-linked assets, put repeatedly Syria's civilian airports, urgently needed to deliver humanitarian aid, are out of operation.

Amidst all this, Syrians face increasing and intolerable hardships. About 17 million of them need humanitarian aid, such as food, water and medical assistance. However, the provision of aid is hanging by a thread, dependent on the arbitrariness of the Syrian government and hampered by sanctions. Meanwhile, a severe shortage of donor funds has forced the UN World Food Program to suspend regular food aid in Syria, putting millions of people into starvation.

One of the most brutal civil wars of this century has claimed more than 300.000 civilian lives in Syria over the past twelve years. It is no surprise that the number of Syrians seeking asylum in Europe in October reached the highest level in seven years.

To date, almost all of the war crimes and crimes against humanity covered by the International Criminal Court have been committed in Syria: deliberately targeting hospitals and healthcare workers, direct and indiscriminate attacks against civilians (some involving chemical weapons) under the pretext of combat “terrorists”, summary executions, torture and disappearance forced upon tens of thousands of people. Add to this the largely unreported genocide of the Yazidis during the period of ISIS rule in parts of Syria.

The long-standing lack of respect for fundamental international human rights and humanitarian law in Syria not only allows the death and maiming of victims on all sides of the conflict, but also erodes the very essence of the international protection system. We are witnessing this disregard for international law in a growing list of conflicts – including Ukraine, Sudan and now Gaza.

Member States must act urgently to stop this alarming trend. In November, the International Court of Justice ordered for Syria to stop torture. In recent years, diligent prosecutors in Europe have convicted more than 50 perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria. These efforts must be continued, supported, and expanded to atrocities committed not just in Syria, but everywhere.

In the meantime, the most egregious violations could end if the fighting stops. We implore the international community not to lose sight of the Syrian crisis. More than ever, Syria needs courageous diplomats, bold donors and determined prosecutors. And more than anything else, after nearly 13 years of conflict, it needs a nationwide ceasefire now.

*Paulo Sergio Pinheiro is the chairman of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria. Hanny Megally e Lynn Welchman are members of the commission.

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves

Originally published in the newspaper The New York Times.

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