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Dhaka Tribune

How violence in Syria is connected to the Israel-Hamas war

  • Syria's civil war is at a stalemate, but this month the country has seen some of the worst violence in years
  • Could Syria's dictator and his Russian ally be using the Gaza crisis as cover to commit war crimes?
Update : 02 Nov 2023, 09:31 AM

By the time, he arrived back at the camp where he lives, everything was gone, Enad Aliwi, the Syrian survivor of a Russian airstrike this month, said.

"I found everything destroyed," Aliwi told DW. "Our cousins, our relatives — the entire camp was about 50 families. I lost my mother, my two nieces and their mother, my sister. My niece was in her bed when she died."

On October 24, aerial bombardment by Russian planes devastated the small tent encampment near the town of Al-Hamamah, northwestern Syria, that had been established as a displaced persons camp. Five civilians were killed altogether. Aliwi and his family, displaced twice during Syria's long running civil war, have been living here for the past seven years.

"The Russian plane aimed directly between the tents," Aliwi recounted. "They were fabric tents. More than 10 of them were just pulverized. The strike was obviously intended to kill as many people as possible," he lamented.

This is not the only recent airstrike on civilian targets in northern Syrian areas controlled by those opposed to the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

During just the first half of October 2023, the volunteer group Syrian Civil Defense workers, also known as the White Helmets, say they responded to 194 attacks in northwestern Syria. So far, 62 people have been killed and 230 civilians have been injured, the White Helmets said, with around 67,000 people displaced again as they've tried to flee to safety near the Turkish border.

"We have had the most significant escalation in hostilities since 2019," David Carden, the United Nations (UN) deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said after visiting civilians in the city of Idlib who had been impacted by the bombing earlier in October. "We have heard reports of infrastructure being damaged, including the homes of civilians. We've heard that 13 health facilities were damaged and that one hospital was hit. My message is that, no matter what circumstance, it's very important to ensure that civilians and civilian structures are protected."

The head of the UN's Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, confirmed this last week, telling the UN General Assemblythat the country was "witnessing the largest escalation of hostilities in Syria in four years."

Syrian activists also said Russia and Syria had again been using weapons banned under international law, including incendiary weapons like napalm or white phosphorus and cluster munitions. The UN is investigating this, Pinheiro has said.

And, as one Idlib local who lost a friend in the bombing told DW, previously the Russian air force had mostly bombed more suburban and agricultural areas in Idlib, but this time bombs were also dropped in central Idlib city, into more densely populated areas.

When did violence escalate in Syria?

The current spike in violence in Syria seems to have started on October 5, with an attack on a graduation ceremony at a military academy in the city of Homs, central districts of which are still controlled by Assad. Drones laden with explosives attacked a courtyard where families had gathered for the ceremony. Up to 120 were killed, with many more injured.

The drones had likely come from nearby opposition-held areas and the attack was considered notable because of the way the drones had been used, and because it was the first major breach of Syrian government security in several years.

The Syrian government responded with increased aerial bombardments of opposition-held territories in the northwest. These have continued throughout the month.

At the same time, the Turkish military has also been bombing opposition-held areas in the northeast of Syria. This week, Human Rights Watch explained that the Turkish bombing was in response to "an October 2 suicide attack on the entrance to the Interior Ministry in the Turkish capital, Ankara, injuring two policemen."

The suicide attack was claimed by a group affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which is considered a terror organization by the EU and the US, among others. Turkey believes the Kurdish group running northeastern Syria is close to the PKK, which is why it is bombing there.

How is the violence related to the Israel-Gaza conflict?

So, the Russian-Syrian and Turkish aerial bombardment began as a result of events before the Hamas' resistance campaign on Israel and Israel's retaliatory bombing of Gaza. But that doesn't mean that the current spate of violence in Syria is completely unrelated.

"The initial driver … appears to have been the attack on the Homs military academy, which happened before Hamas' attacks [on Israel]," Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW. "This undoubtedly increased the domestic pressure on Assad to take an even harder line. But," he added, "it also seems likely the [Assad] regime is trying to take advantage of the current international focus on Israel and Gaza to intensify its attacks, believing that it will have more space to maneuver."

Along with other Arab leaders, the Syrian government has condemned ongoing Israeli attacks on Gaza. But, Barnes-Dacey suggested, "it may also see an opportunity to better sell its own narrative, that it is responding to terrorism in the same manner as Israel."

Attacks on medical centers and civilians by the Assad government are nothing new, added Radwan al-Atrash, a political activist from the Syrian opposition who lives in Idlib. "It was happening before, during and after Gaza. We've been living with this for years," he said. "But it's also true that this regime will try to take advantage of any event, whether in the Arab region or on the international stage, in order to commit crimes against its own people."

Similarities between the conflicts

There are also other complications that relate to what's happening in Gaza. Most of the around 4.5 million people living in opposition-held areas in northern Syria rely on humanitarian aid, with many living in camps. The UN's Pinheiro said that the presence of the Hezbollah in Syria also had an impact on that. Hezbollah, a Shia political party and militant group, is based in Lebanon but has been fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, which is allied with one of Hezbollah's main backers, Iran. Pinheiro noted that recent Israeli airstrikes that disabled Syrian airports in Aleppo and Damascus also had an impact on the deliveries of humanitarian aid. Israel ostensibly hit the Syrian airports to prevent more fighters or weapons reaching Hezbollah in Syria. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the US, Germany and several Sunni Arab countries, while the EU lists its armed wing as a terrorist group.

Syria's 12-year-long civil war and the resulting humanitarian crisis is also competing for international attention with, firstly, the war in Ukraine and now, the crisis in Gaza. More attention tends to equate to more funding, experts have noted.

There are so many "competing crises," the UN's Carden pointed out while in Idlib, and less than a third of the UN's 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria has been funded. "That is going to be a major constraint on our ability to meet all the needs of those who might be affected," he said.

During his speech to the UN, Pinheiro also talked about the impact that the Syrian conflict has had on those other crises.

"The longstanding lack of respect for fundamental international humanitarian law norms in Syria not only kills and maims victims on all sides in Syria," he argued, "it has undermined and eroded the very essence of the international protection system — and we are seeing the results today in other ongoing conflicts."

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