Seven years of war: Reporting from Syria's conflict zones
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This week marks seven years since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, which has left at least 350,000 dead, displaced millions and exacerbated regional tensions. FRANCE 24 correspondents have been there to cover the unfolding tragedy.
It began with a small act of rebellion that elsewhere might have been considered mundane. Naief Abazid, 14, and some classmates took some spray paint and scrawled on the wall of their school in Daraa, "Your turn, Doctor" – a clandestine reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and an insinuation that his regime would be the next to fall.
But in February 2011 – against the backdrop of Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt – even this small act would not be tolerated. The government response was swift and merciless: Abazid and almost two dozen other boys were arrested and tortured; at least one was killed.
The government's treatment of the boys ignited outrage in Daraa and beyond. Anti-government demonstrations soon spread to the city of Homs and eventually the capital, Damascus. Activists called for a “Day of Rage” across Syria on March 15, 2011. Over the next few days, several protesters were killed after troops opened fire on the crowds.
Since then, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, one of the only NGOs consistently present in Syria throughout the conflict, says that more than 350,000 deaths have been confirmed but that the real toll may be as high as 500,000.
The Free Syrian Army was founded in 2011 by military defectors with the goal of overthrowing Assad. But while Syria's rebel groups were at first focused on ousting the regime, by August 2012 an increasingly influential faction of jihadists began advocating for the establishment of a caliphate, even attracting some members of the FSA.
In the years that followed, the Islamic State group – a Sunni jihadist group that had already overrun cities in neighbouring Iraq – began making inroads into Syria. In June 2014 it declared the Syrian city of Raqqa to be the capital of the group's "caliphate", which ostensibly spanned parts of both Syria and Iraq. The city later became a focal point of the battle against the jihadists.
FRANCE 24 correspondents James André and Mayssa Awad joined Kurdish and Arab fighters as they fought their way into Raqqa in July of last year. They were among the first TV crews to film the street-by-street battle to liberate the city.
“The Islamic State group had four years to dig itself in,” André said. “They were very well prepared.”
Faced with a broad counteroffensive, the jihadists have managed to hold on to only two narrow slivers of rural territory near the border with Iraq. The Islamic State group’s so-called caliphate does not exist anymore, André observed.
“The caliphate is dead,” he said. “But what is not dead is the ideal of the Islamic State … [and] the aspirations of Sunni Arabs in Syria. This is going to be a very, very big challenge.”
The Islamic State group was propelled to power by the “desire of the [Sunni] population to have more freedom, to have more say in the political system”, André said.
Syria’s Sunni majority had long lived under the control of Assad, an Alawite, and his fellow Shiites. And the political status quo today remains much what it was in 2011.
“The difference is now, the cities have all been destroyed and most people have lost half their families,” said André.
The true test for Syria will be what changes it introduces politically in the years ahead. If the demands of the Sunni majority are not acknowledged, a new group much like the Islamic State may rise once again to capitalise on the discontent.
But there have been few signs so far that Syria will find a political solution that could lead to longterm stability.
“The Sunnis continue to be sidelined politically,” André said.
“This may lead them to revolt again. And next time it will be worse.”