ISIL growing stronger in Syria, as war enters its thirteenth year

A displaced family in Syria escaping fighting near Idlib (August 2023)
© UNOCHA/Ali Haj Suleiman
A displaced family in Syria escaping fighting near Idlib (August 2023)
  • UN News

This was a reminder of the ongoing impact of a conflict which has now dragged on for more than 12 years and rarely makes headlines, even though it continues to have a devastating effect on the civilian population.

In early March, the United Nations Syria Commission of Inquiry released a report which detailed an escalation of fighting, attacks on civilians and infrastructure that could amount to war crimes, and a humanitarian crisis. Ninety per cent of the population is living in poverty.

Hanny Megally is the Deputy Director and Senior Fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and he’s been a member of the Commission since 2017. He told UN News that, although it has been five years since ISIL last held territory in Syria, the group continues to gain strength.

Hanny Megally The country is crumbling, after 13 years of conflict, and some groups that we thought were defeated are coming back. And, in the meantime, none of the root causes of the conflict have been dealt with. ISIL has been growing in strength in Syria and, this year alone, there have already been more than 35 attacks.

UN News Gaza has dominated the headlines ever since the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October 2023, but just two days before that, on 5 October there was a very significant attack in the Syrian city of Homs, which triggered the current escalation of violence.

Hanny Megally It was an attack on a ceremony at the military academy, attended by some senior representatives of the state. Recently graduated cadets were there with their families. Around 63 were killed and hundreds injured. The response from the Syrian state, with the help of the Russian airforce, was to hit over 2,300 targets within days, killing hundreds, mostly civilians, and displacing around 150,000 people.

UN News The scale of activity by foreign powers detailed in your report is striking.

Hanny Megally You have Russia and Iran supporting the government; the United States and coalition partners essentially shoring up the autonomous Kurdish authority in the northeast; Turkey in the northwest supporting armed opposition groups; Israel targeting what they perceive to be pro-Iranian forces on the ground; and Jordan going after drug smugglers in the south.

UN News Has Syria has become the location for a series of overlapping proxy wars?

Hanny Megally I think it has. The sad thing is that the involvement of these states has prolonged the conflict. In essence, Syria has become a place where they can test out weapons, use old weapons that they no longer need to keep, and hit each other in way that would be much more serious if they were attacking each other directly.

UN News You also say that the events in Gaza [the 7 October 2023 Hamas attacks on Israel, and Israel’s subsequent assault on the Palestinian occupied territory] have elevated the risks of the conflict spreading further.

Five consecutive days of shelling and airstrikes caused damage in north-west Syria's Idleb area and the western Aleppo countryside. (Oct 2023)
Five consecutive days of shelling and airstrikes caused damage in north-west Syria's Idleb area and the western Aleppo countryside. (Oct 2023)

Hanny Megally We have seen a big escalation over the last six months. Turkey is going after Kurdish PKK fighters, and they’re hitting infrastructure like power stations and water plants that are essential for the survival of the civilian population. In one attack more than a million people were without water for several days. There are also skirmishes between groups, whether in the Kurdish controlled areas with Arab tribes, or in the north, where groups supported by Turkey are beginning to fight amongst themselves.

UN News 13 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes. How would you describe the effect the conflict has had on the civilian population?

Hanny Megally Consider 13 years of barrel bomb bombardments and fighting on the ground, and the destruction of much of the infrastructure, which is not being rebuilt because sanctions imposed by a number of states are preventing necessary materials from coming into the country.

Half of the hospitals have been destroyed and there’s been an exodus of medical staff. The economy is plummeting and people are voting with their feet and leaving the country.

Reception centre for displaced families in northern Idlib, Syria.
© UNOCHA/Bilal Al-Hammoud
Reception centre for displaced families in northern Idlib, Syria.

UN News According to media reports, ISIL actually controls aspects of life in camps for displaced people in Syria [Al Hawl and Al Rawj], and there seems to be no distinction between people who are ISIL sympathizers and people who have been victims of ISIL.

Hanny Megally After the military defeat of ISIL, the Syrian Democratic Forces took around 9,000 men who were considered to be fighters, or to have had connections with ISIL, into detention, along with their families. At one point the numbers in the camps rose to over 70,000 and now it’s around 47,000.

Those who have been there say the conditions are the worst they’ve ever seen. These are not refugee camps, they’re more like prisons, but they are guarded from the outside, which has allowed extremist elements to take control.

At the moment, around 30,000 children are living in these camps, and they’re in legal limbo. When they reach puberty, they are considered to be have reached fighting age or be a risk to others, and they are removed from the camps.

Imagine what this is like: you’re in your teens and you’re removed from your mother. You’re put in a rehabilitation centre and you have no idea what happens next. When you reach 18, they may move you to a prison with adults that are considered fighters or supporters of ISIL. It’s not a solution, and it’s creating a problem which will come back to haunt us, in terms of being a breeding ground for terrorism.

UN News You’ve been cataloguing the suffering of Syrians for many years. Given everything you've seen, is there any hope for Syria?

Hanny Megally Part of the problem is the involvement of the foreign armies in Syria. The outside interference is not bringing solutions. It’s prolonging the situation, creating a stalemate and a never-ending cycle of violence. If everybody left, the Syrians would likely sort the problems out themselves.

UN News What's the next step for the commission?

Hanny Megally We’re asking the world not to forget about Syria, because it risks being left behind at a point where violence is back on the increase. We’re seeing ISIL back on the rise, a weakened state that's essentially losing control, even if it controls more territory, delegating power to non-state actors. Syria needs help now and, above all, a ceasefire.

© UN News (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: UN News