The recent struggle for control of the Syrian city of Aleppo has brought renewed attention to the ongoing war crimes that have devastated this Middle East nation. Here are nine things you should know about Aleppo and the Syrian crisis:
1. In 2011, during the Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring, protesters in Syria demanded the end of Ba’ath Party rule and the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in the country since 1971. In April 2011, the Syrian Army was sent to quell the protest, and soldiers opened fire on demonstrators. After months of military sieges, the protests evolved into an armed rebellion that has spread across the country. Although the conflict was originally between factions for and against President Assad, the civil war has broadened into a battle between the country’s Sunni majority against the president’s Shia Alawite sect. The conflict has drawn in neighboring countries and world powers and led to the rise of jihadist groups, including Islamic State (ISIS).
2. Aleppo is the largest city in Syria and contains the country’s largest population of Christians. Aleppo is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world behind only Damascus (also in Syria) and Byblos (Lebanon). Prior to the Syrian civil war, Aleppo contained about 10 percent of Syria’s population (roughly 2.3 million people).
3. The battle for Aleppo began in mid-July 2012, when anti-government rebels gained control of several districts within the city. Since then the city has been divided between the government-held west and rebel-held east. Beginning at the end of 2013, the Syrian government began aerial bombing of the eastern sections of the city, a tactic that has caused a humanitarian crisis that has disproportionately affected the city’s children.
4. Syria has a young population (median age is 24.1). While about half of the nearly 5 million refugees who have fled Syria are children, Unicef estimates that about eight million children remain in the country. Save the Children also estimates about 40 percent of the besieged population in eastern Aleppo are children. As Save the Children spokeswoman Carol Anning told the BBC, in war you should expect to see a much higher population of adult males being killed in frontline action. “But what we have seen in Aleppo in the last couple of days is totally indiscriminate bombing from the air,” Anning says. “So children are impacted just as much or more than adults in those situations.”
5. A 2015 report by the UN’s Human Rights Council notes “the conduct of an ever-increasing number of actors is characterized by a complete lack of adherence to the norms of international law.” A prime example is the use of sexual violence against girls and women. The report says, “Women and girls were found to have been raped and sexually assaulted in government detention facilities, in particular in the investigation branches of the Military Intelligence Directorate and prisons administered by the General Security Directorate in Damascus. State officials have perpetrated rape, a crime against humanity.” Rebel groups have also committed similar atrocities, with girls and women kept as slaves and “subject to horrific and repeated sexual violence. Girls and women in ISIS-controlled areas live in fear of forced marriage to the fighters.”
6. Since 2012, the Syrian government has used aerial “barrel bombs” (aka “flying IEDs”)—often dropping them on civilian populations. According to the Weapons Law Encyclopedia, a barrel bomb refers to an improvised container (e.g. an oil drum or gas cylinder) dropped from an aircraft and filled with explosive, incendiary, or other substances and often includes additional materials to increase fragment projection. The UN claims the Assad regime has dropped barrel bombs containing chemical agents, likely chlorine, on “crowded areas, such as bakery lines, transportation hubs, apartment buildings, and markets.” The use of such weapons against civilian populations or containing chemical weapons clearly violates international laws.
7. Throughout the conflict, anti-government forces have relied on a variety of terrorist tactics against civilians. The groups have kidnapped women and children—sometimes holding them hostage for years—to use them for ransom or prisoner exchanges. They have also used suicide and car bombs attacks against civilian and government targets. Rebel groups associated with ISIS have executed civilians who refuse to recognize their self-proclaimed rule, publicly amputated limbs as punishment for theft, and whipped residents for smoking and trading during prayer times.
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