Bente Scheller is Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Middle East office in Beirut. She is the author of The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game: Foreign Policy under the Assads.
There are many ways to die in Syria. Silently, through malnutrition as a result of starvation campaigns, or as a result of the devastation of the country’s deliberately targeted health system. Visibly, because the victims die at the hands of ISIS which wants to convey the message of its ruthlessness and absolute brutality. And incredibly loud but mostly unnoticed through the continued airstrikes the regime’s air force is carrying out on daily basis.
Nobody knows exactly how many airstrikes the regime is carrying out every day. It sometimes concentrates on a specific city or area and leaves other areas in peace. On other occasions, the planes are flying but not bombarding. After three years of experience with their lethal freight, even the sound of the planes is spreading fear and panic. Yet it is beyond doubt that airstrikes are the main reason for people in Syria to die, and particularly for civilians.
The most devastating airstrikes are those with barrel bombs. Even though early last year the United Nations Security Council members—including China and Russia—approved of UN Resolution 2139, which among other things demanded an end to the use of barrel bombs, more than 2,000 deadly barrels have since been dropped. The overwhelming majority of the victims are civilians because barrel bombs are not used as a tactical military weapon. It is not possible to target anything specific with them because they are an improvised and thereby imprecise weapon, used with the intention to maximise destruction. The majority of barrel bombs have therefore been used in residential areas.
Whole quarters have been erased by barrel bombs. Barrel bombs have been the means of choice to guarantee that for many refugees and IDPs there is nothing to return to. There is plenty of evidence of use of barrel bombs—from citizens, eye witnesses, collected by each and every human rights organisation, Syrian or international, that has set foot to Syria. There are the videos from inside the helicopters, showing cheering soldiers dropping them.
In February 2015, Bashar al-Assad being interviewed by the BBC said there were no barrel bombs in Syria, a claim that is so absurd that no one took it seriously—yet the deafening silence on UN resolution 2139 reminds of the fairy tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, where nobody dares to expose an evident lie—not out of respect for the dictator but out of fear that anything else would require taking action.
“It is Assad who defines what is acceptable—not humanitarian law, international norms and conventions.”
The developments since 2011 resemble a mutual training exercise. The dictator is conditioning the world to accept any level of atrocities he is committing. The world, in exchange, is assuring Assad—and any other aspiring dictator—that it is willing to let them get away with anything if only he doesn’t directly threaten them. This procedure of mutual assurances comes at the expense of the Syrian citizens. The regime has gone a long way from shooting a handful of protesters every day in the peaceful protests of 2011 it has escalated step by step—first the tanks inside the cities, then the helicopters, the planes and even Scud missiles on Syrian towns. From bombs it came to barrel bombs, and when being signalled that the worlds’ reaction would restrict itself to harsh wording, Assad’s air force switched to incendiary bombs, cluster bombs and finally chemical warfare. It is Assad who defines what is acceptable—not humanitarian law, international norms and conventions.
On March 6, 2015, the UN Security Council approved another resolution for Syria, this time explicitly defining the use of chlorine gas as a chemical weapon and warning Syria of military intervention under Chapter VII if it doesn’t abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention that it urgently became part of in Autumn of 2013. While it has been mentioned in several media outlets and by human rights groups inside Syria that helicopters are still dropping barrels that include chlorine containers, on the political level there is a deafening silence around this resolution. The Western world has left Syria at the mercy of a dictator who is neither interested in the country nor its citizens.
The longer the conflict lasts, the more dire the prospects for its solution have become. The West keeps looking for the “perfect” opposition—peaceful, moderate, democratic—and tends to forget that many of these have ended up on graveyards and in prisons. It doesn’t want to intervene without guarantees that the future Syria will be democratic, stable and better than Assad’s Syria. There are no guarantees, and there never were. Yet there was always a guarantee that things would get worse the longer Assad would remain in Damascus, given a free hand to do whatever he pleased.
Assad’s air force has devastated the country. Apart from the death toll and the destruction of infrastructure, an often ignored and yet utmost important point is that the unceasing airstrikes have prevented the creation of alternative administration and governance in the northern part of Syria that has long been outside the control of the regime. Not so in the Kurdish areas, where state building is much more advanced; not exclusively but also because of the absence of the daily terror from the skies.
Assad was claiming to fight terrorism when there was not even radicalism or extremism. Over all the years of his alleged struggle against terrorists, they have for the first time ever in Syria gained a foothold. Instead of asking whether Assad could be a partner in fighting ISIS, the correct questions would be why he has rather done everything in his power to hatch it, and why he still is picking a fight with ISIS only when the latter is taking the initiative. On top of that, on a number of occasions it is documented how Assad’s air force attacked other rebel groups while they were fighting ISIS. ISIS has, as the German journalist Christoph Reuter puts it, “had an airforce for rent”—it didn’t need to own one because it could rely on Assad’s forces to attack other rebel groups and thereby even help the malign forces of the so-called Islamic State.
So even though a political solution will require much more of an effort and time: to at least mitigate the human suffering, the death of hundreds of civilians in vain every week, a major step would be to stop Assad’s air raids. Nothing else would have a similarly positive effect on large parts of the country. Nothing else would have a similarly positive impact on daily life of men, women and children. A no-fly zone will not be the solution for the conflict in Syria, but it will be an essential and important step towards it.