Since the civil war in Syria started on March 15, 2011, why does it always take a little boy to make the world weep and see the horrors of this prolonged war? At first, on September 02, 2015, it was 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi's face-down dead body lying on a Turkish sea beach that galvanised world opinion about Europe's refugee situation. Aylan had drowned in the Mediterranean.
On August 17, 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh in Aleppo, Syria, was rescued from under the wreckage of a bombed apartment building in the dark of the night. He was carried to an ambulance by a civil defence worker. The next day, the haunting video of Omran sitting on an orange seat inside the ambulance looking dazed was posted by the Aleppo Media Centre. It was given to them by the Syrian journalists. He seemed unresponsive as he sat in the back of the ambulance, unaware of what had happened to him. Omran was the sudden victim of a savage attack in the rebel-held Qaterchi when Russian strikes targeted the city's southern part. The video is heartbreaking and provoked outrage; the world is aghast after seeing the video of Omran's cartoon character T shirt, hair, left side of his face, arms and legs covered in blood and dust. After leaving him there, the rescue workers went to help others in his family in that building with flashlights. Alone, sitting quietly, he put his hand on his head, surprised to see his own blood and tried to wipe it on the seat cushion.
The unforgettable images of these two little boys, Aylan and Omran, within two years have become symbols and vivid reminder of the horrors of the Syrian war.
Miraculously, Omran's parents and siblings survived the airstrike except his older brother Ali, aged 10, who succumbed to his injuries this past weekend.
We know about Omran because of the live cast. What about thousands of other children whose injuries and deaths have gone unreported? UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has estimated in April, 2016 that at least 400,000 people have been killed in Syria in this 5-year-long war and has uprooted nearly half of its population. The children have become casualties of this dreadful war and are caught in the crossfire of adult conflict. Forty thousand children had been killed so far. Every day the rescue workers attend to similar massacres as the regime planes, backed by the Russians, circle the rebel-occupied areas. They often kill the rescue workers. Since July, 165 civilians and 49 children were killed by the opposition fire in Aleppo.
After the August 17 airstrike, the necessary humanitarian aid like food and medicine to the people who are trapped in Aleppo was stopped. Without a temporary ceasefire, the food trucks are not going in. Russia's defence ministry this past Friday has announced that it was "ready to implement the first 48-hour 'humanitarian pause' to deliver aid to the people of Aleppo," sometime this week. According to De Mistura, "a truce can save lots of lives and is a breath of fresh air for people being besieged."
Earlier, there were also talks to create a safe passage for the people in Aleppo if they want to leave for another place. Or, they can choose to become refugees in some other country. That is on hold for now.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, against all odds about 1.5 to 2.0 million people remain across Aleppo, once considered the second largest metropolis in Syria. Now Aleppo, divided between the rebel-occupied and government-held areas, has become a focal point of this war and is subject to constant bombing with all kinds of weapons. In retaliation, the rebel forces use light anti-tank weapons and missiles to shoot down enemy planes.
The situation on the ground is extremely complicated. The US, Russians, Iranians and the Saudis are all trying to influence the outcome in Syria, each for its own interest. The Turks and the Iraqi regimes also have their own turf to protect, the former because an independent Kurdistan in Iraq and neighbouring Syria may foment the Kurdish rebellion within Turkey (and adjoining Iran.) Iran, directly and through its proxy in Iraq and Syria, is backing the Assad regime to the hilt, and will not hear of a solution that excludes the dictator in Damascus. The Saudis are diametrically opposed to the Iranian wishes, of course, and are backing the forces that are trying to topple Assad. Some of the gulf nations are backing the Saudis, while the pro-Iranian factions in Bahrain are suffering the cruel backlash from the gulf rulers.
The Russians, of course, are backing Assad with all it has got, and its planes (even taking off from an Iranian air base recently) are helping those of the Assad regime bomb the smithereens out of rebel-held cities such as East Aleppo/ Qaterchi, where little Omran was found. The rebels, on the other hand, are being influenced by extremist elements, thus helping the Russians and the Iranians claim that they are fighting 'terrorists,' which is pure propaganda.
There have been numerous cease-fires arranged by the UN that have come into effect, only to be broken. There are simply too many players who are competing; a journalist has likened it to a three-dimensional chess game played by nine players. The most recent one, arranged in May, is already in tatters. Bombing by Assad's planes have resumed with full fury, with retaliation from the ground by rebels in the form of missiles. ISIS (Daesh), recently defeated in Ramadi, Fallujah and Manbij in neighbouring Iraq, would very much like to gain a foothold in Syria to establish its 'Caliphate,' hence its frantic attempt at influencing rebel groups to turn to extremism which is meeting some success. The methods to gain control, and spread its ideology are so primitive, and often bizarre that ordinary Syrians, given the choice, will have none of it.
The Assad regime competes rather well with the Daesh in the brutality regime. According to the UN envoy, more than 17,000 Syrians have lost their lives in Assad's prisons due to torture that is often barbaric. With Russia and Iran backing it against all odds, and locked in a struggle of Alawites' survival against the Salafists, the regime in Damascus is unwilling, or unable to relinquish its grip on power for the fear that this will mean the end of Alawite dominance in Syria, and that of Shi'a influence in the region for an indefinite period.
Where does that leave the US? President Obama has been in favour of a rapprochement with the Assad regime in favour of the latter taking its battle to the Salafists, to crush the ambition of the 'Caliphate' once and for all. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Soviet Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have been speaking to each other in Geneva for a number of months. However, Assad's brutality to his own people has evaporated any goodwill that the US was able to muster to Damascus. Reports of civilian death through torture has been confirmed by the UN Special Envoy many times, making it hard for Secretary Kerry to continue to look favourably at a negotiated settlement that includes the safe passage of the Assad family, and other prominent Alawites into a country willing to take them. A settlement would have given the US peace on the Damascus front, so it could focus on eliminating Daesh from its stronghold in Syria and Iraq for the near future.
Alas, that is yet to be. The battle rages on, with a surge in casualties every day. Ultimately, Aleppo will decide who wins the war. We most probably will see many more baffled children like Omran who do not understand why their world is so chaotic and why others are trying to kill them. As it is, they are already robbed of a "normal" childhood.
The 5-year mark has been passed since the beginning of the conflict. It took 15 years for the Lebanese civil war to die down in a ceasefire/stalemate of sorts. There are signs that it may take as many years, if not longer, for the Syrian civil war to wind down. Only time will tell.