News that Syria is prepared to halt aerial bombardments of Aleppo for six weeks has brought an unusual glimpse of hope to the millions of Syrians who have been caught up in a relentless war that has brought despicable suffering and loss.
But as I was reading the unexpected news emerging this morning, I could not help but think back over the events taking place exactly a year ago this Sunday. Then, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed resolution 2139 which demanded all parties to the conflict end indiscriminate attacks, direct attacks against civilians, release detainees and allow the delivery of much needed humanitarian aid.
The resolution was a breakthrough following a long Security Council deadlock and it was meant to bring at least some relief to the many Syrians in desperate need.
I was in New York at the time and then, just as today, I felt hopeful. The very fact that the world was ready to officially demand that all parties to the conflict respect civilians was a remarkable step forward.
A year later, however, those strong words have amounted to little. The UN resolution was completely ignored by the Syrian government.
Life in Syria is still the stuff of nightmares. Direct attacks against civilians and indiscriminate attacks remain rampant. I recently spoke to Farah, a woman living in al-Raqqa city, 160 kilometres north of Aleppo, now controlled by the so-called Islamic State.
She told me that for four days at the end of November, Syrian government warplanes carried out 21 strikes on residential areas, killing and injuring at least 87 civilians.
Farah’s voice was trembling over the phone as she described how her severely injured daughter was removed from under the rubble after a Syrian government warplane struck her house on November 28.
“We were all at home when suddenly a missile hit our house at around noon. I was able to take my son and run out before the house fell apart but couldn’t rescue my daughter who was in the bathroom,” she said.
Farah was not aware of the presence of any military targets in the residential neighbourhood she lived in.
On that same day, the Syrian Minister of Information, Omran al-Zoubi, denied that government forces were attacking civilians in al-Raqqa, or that they targeted civilians in general for that matter. Some might say it could be strikes by the US-led coalition against the Islamic States that struck Farah’s house, but after further investigation, I found out that coalition warplanes were not conducting any operations in al-Raqqa on November 28.
Al-Raqqa is not the only city subjected to ruthless aerial attacks.
Mohammad, an activist living in the city of Aleppo, told me that neighbourhoods under opposition control have become ghost towns. The majority of civilians fled from aerial attacks, including barrel bombs, and sought refuge in Turkey.
Barrel bombs are locally made, unguided and highly explosive cylindrical shaped bombs, filled with sharp metal objects and explosives. They are usually dropped from helicopters, which makes hitting a particular target extremely difficult and often leads to civilian casualties. The Violation Documentation Centre, a local monitoring group, published the names of 2,568 civilians killed in aerial attacks since the passage of the United Nations Security Council resolution 2139.
While thousands of civilians suffer these indiscriminate attacks, hundreds of peaceful political activists, human rights defenders, humanitarian aid workers and journalists are targeted in a bid to silence them.
Many are now in detention.
The latest arrest was that of political activist and writer Louay Hussein. His wife told me that he was detained in November close to the Lebanese border.
Louay led the political movement “Building the Syrian State”, an organization tolerated by the Assad government.
However, he was detained based on an article he published on June 24, 2014, in which he wrote that the “Syrian state is falling apart and collapsing”.
Louay is being tried by the criminal court of Damascus on charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “weakening the morale of the nation.” Other peaceful activists from the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, including Mazen Darwich, Hussein Gharir and Hani al-Zitani, have been detained for three years solely on the basis of their human rights activities. They currently face trial before the Anti-Terrorism Court on charges of “publicizing terrorist acts.”
Activists and other civilians have been attacked from all sides.
Unsurprisingly, armed groups have also largely ignored the Security Council’s February resolution as they continue to kidnap peaceful activists, journalists and human right defenders; and indiscriminately attack civilians in government controlled areas with mortars, rockets and car bombs.
In January 2015, President Assad said during an interview with Foreign Affairs that his government would continue the fight against terrorists. Yet, he failed to explain or mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians that have already been killed. In February, he went even further and denied that his government is using barrel bombs – which was clearly prohibited by the UN Security Council resolution last year. And so it came as no surprise that the Syrian government has not demonstrated the will to abide by the demands of the resolution, especially in light of their president’s latest statements.
Today, it is crucial for the UN Security Council to take action after its resolution went unheeded for an entire year. It should impose an arms embargo on the Syrian government and refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.
Likewise, all states should cease all transfer of arms and financial support to the Islamic State and other armed groups responsible for serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. Indiscriminate attacks and direct attacks on civilians, executions, torture and kidnappings must stop.
Finally, the UN Special Envoys to Syria, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and western countries should use their influence and relentlessly exert pressure on the Syrian government and non-state armed groups to implement resolution 2139.
Each and every country who has influence over the Syrian crisis owes it to the millions of Syrians who have been affected by this conflict, to ensure a peaceful future for their country.
Syrians do not need empty words.