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Syria faces new Islamist threat as civil war enters fifth year

Syria marks four years of civil war on Sunday with more than 200,000 people killed and half the population displaced, while President Bashar al-Assad appears no closer to resigning and new threats arise from the Islamic State group.


Syria's conflict enters its fifth year on Sunday with the Assad regime emboldened by a shift in international attention exacerbated by the rise of the Islamic State group.

More than 210,000 people have been killed and half of the country's population displaced, prompting 21 rights groups on Thursday to denounce the international community for failing to implement UN resolutions and end the conflict.

"This is a betrayal of our ideals," said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council group.

Two rounds of UN-sponsored talks in Switzerland have failed to achieve any progress while a proposal for a localised ceasefire in Aleppo has faltered. Russia, which backs Assad, will hold its own peace talks in Moscow in April, but it remains unclear if the internationally recognised opposition will attend negotiations hosted by a key Assad ally.

Meanwhile, the country has been carved up by government forces, jihadist groups, Kurdish fighters and non-extremist opposition rebels, who continue to lose influence as Islamist groups gain ground.

The conflict began as an anti-government uprising, with protesters taking to the streets on March 15, 2011, inspired by similar "Arab Spring" revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.

But a bloody government crackdown on the demonstrators prompted them to militarise, and the country began its descent into civil war. The conflict has since further degenerated into a power struggle with multiple fronts and adversaries, many of them backed by competing regional powers and interests.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, says Syria is now "the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era".

Around 4 million people have fled abroad and more than a million have taken refuge in neighbouring Lebanon. Inside Syria, more than 7 million people have been displaced, and the UN says around 60 percent of the population now lives in poverty.The country's infrastructure has been decimated, its currency is in free-fall and economists say the economy has been set back by some 30 years.

Rise of jihadism boosts Assad

The UN has accused both the Islamic State group and the Assad regime of committing "crimes against humanity" during the conflict.

Rights groups have documented horrific violations, with the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting this week that 13,000 people have been tortured to death in government detention centres since the uprising began.

Tens of thousands more remain in regime jails and detention facilities, with many effectively disappearing after being arrested.

But Assad has remained in power despite Western calls for him to step down and allegations that the regime used chemical weapons against its own people in August 2013.

His forces have consolidated their grip on the capital Damascus and are moving to encircle rebels in the second city of Aleppo to the north, aided by their increasing reliance on crude explosives-packed barrel bombs, which Assad denies using despite extensive documentation.

His government is also newly emboldened by a shift in the geopolitical framework, with calls for his resignation becoming notably more muted amid the rising regional threat posed by the Islamic State militant group.

Faced with the jihadists, diplomats describe a new willingness to consider a role for Assad in Syria's future. Even key Assad opponents like Paris and Washington have softened their rhetoric.

The French government's position has long been that it will not cooperate with Assad, even in the battle against the Islamists. But this policy is increasingly being questioned by MPs, even those from the ruling Socialist party.

CIA director John Brennan said Friday that Washington was concerned that the "collapse" of Syria's government could open the way to an Islamist takeover.

And US Secretary of State John Kerry has said Washington's top priority in Syria is defeating the Islamic State group, not seeing the departure of Assad.

Turkey, however, has remained vocal in calling for Assad's ouster.

The United States assembled a coalition of nations to fight the Islamists in both Iraq and Syria last year. The jihadists calling themselves the Islamic State now rule a stretch of territory between the two nations that they have declared a "caliphate".

Air strikes coupled with the efforts of Kurdish fighters on the ground have rolled back some Islamist gains, but the jihadists continue to hold fast to vast areas of territory.

The Islamic State group has grabbed international headlines with gruesome propaganda videos depicting the beheadings of journalists, aid workers and other civilians.

It has also attracted thousands of foreign fighters, prompting concern about the prospect of attacks launched in the West by returning jihadists.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)


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