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Time to Call the Syrian War What It Is

As the cumulative number of Syrian internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees are reaching over seven million—one third of the country’s total population—we have to stop thinking about ‘Syrian civil war’ and start thinking about ‘Syrian genocide.’ With each spur of violence, more people joined the ranks of IDPs or refugees, with little to no hope of humanitarian living conditions, education, or future. Unless the international community can treat this crisis as genocide and ponder long and hard about its long-term effects, it is highly unlikely that they will realize the need for ceasing violence and restoring some kind of order.

Unfortunately, Assad and armed opposition groups have more influence on people’s lives compared to the non-violent resistance that is taking shape in Syria. This has dire consequences due to one simple fact: violence begets displacement. In a recent interview, the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent stated that the numbers of IDPs are on the rise and now it exceeded 5 million. According to the latest UNHCR numbers, surrounding countries are hosting more than 2 million refugees. What is worse, a recent report highlights the fact that most of the refugees in refugee camps are not registered and thus are not counted within UNHCR’s numbers.

What is worse, the same report suggests that refugee camps are not unlike prisons. Not only there is a decline in children’s education matched with a rise in child labor, but also the refugees in the camps are under strict surveillance. Perhaps, the worst of all, they do not help people with a sense of fulfillment: “you receive your daily portion of food and water and are asked to wait, hopelessly, passively.” It is not a surprise, then, to read that some Syrians are leaving the relative security of the refugee camps and going back into the warzone.

Every spur of violence creates more and more IDPs and refugees—and numbers will only increase over time as violence continues. While the international community made a rare intelligent decision of not bombing Syria, so far they have not helped ceasing violence. In fact, an unintended consequence of the deal between Russia and the US about Syrian chemical weapons have been the increase of violence between Assad and opposition groups, as well as between the opposition groups themselves. While the Assad regime hailed the deal as a victory (and celebrated with air/shell strikes around Damascus), armed opposition groups perceived the deal as a legitimation of the Assad regime. This disappointment coincides with new violence between previously aligned Sunni armed opposition groups, and between Sunni and Kurdish resistance.

The international community supports this violence. As a recent article in the Time magazine puts it: Syria’s Rebels Turn on One Another, and that is not a Bad Thing. The article treats the increasing violence among armed opposition groups as an “opportunity” to shed off affiliations with al-Qaeda, organize, unite and fight back. In addition to a pseudo-colonial imposition of legitimization of violence unto other, the article also does not note the real consequences of violence. According to a report published by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, while not at the level of the Assad’s forces, armed opposition groups also engage in war crimes, senseless murder, rape and other horrors of war; and they “continue to endanger the civilian population by positioning military objectives in civilian areas.”

Moreover, supporting armed opposition, hoping one of them will defeat Assad, is not different than supporting an international military intervention. Both cases increase violence, displacement, and gain almost no ground towards a solution. While the international military intervention was shot down in almost every country, supporting the resistance achieves the same goal without the bad reputation. Supporting armed opposition groups ensures the continuity of violence, without the ‘west’ doing the dirty work—appearing clear in conscience to their public.

Instead of supporting armed groups, the international community should lend their support and give voice to non-violent resistance and call for cease-fire across all the groups—the only way to stop further increase in the number of IDPs and refugees—matched with an increased help in dealing with the refugee crisis. Violence among armed groups, opposition or not, only ensures that generations of Syrians grow up with no education, trauma, poverty and other terrors of war. And that is a systematic way to eradicate people based on who they are. That is genocide.

Ali E. Erol, Ph.D. is a lecturer in the School of International Service at The American University.

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