The armed conflict in Syria began in March 2011 as a popular uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The uprising evolved into a full-scale civil war against an armed opposition and into a complex conflict involving both state and non-state actors, as well as various allied international powers.
The root causes of the conflict date back decades. The repressive histories of Bashar al-Assad and his father before him created an authoritarian state. Tactics such as torture, political detention, and repression of civil liberties were common, facilitated by the emergency law implemented and enforced for nearly five decades.
In mid-February 2011, tensions in Syria reached a boiling point when 15 young boys were arrested in Dara’a after being accused of spray painting anti-regime slogans on the wall of a school. The scrawled words—"Your turn doctor”—called for the removal of Assad, and referenced the broader movement for democratic change that was sweeping the region in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. The boys were subjected to harsh interrogation techniques that included beatings, burning, the use of stress positions, and electrocution with metal prods. The families and friends of the detained boys took to the streets to demand their release.
Credit © Syrian Institute for Justice
Over time, events and the government’s response escalated and turned violent. On March 18, 2011, the protests intensified. Protesters gathered at the Omari Mosque in Dar’a Al Balad, Dara’a and vowed to remain until their demands were met. The government responded by cutting off the power supply and telephone lines to the area. Security forces then released tear gas and opened fire, ultimately leading to the death of around six civilians. This overt use of deadly force against peaceful protesters seemed to open the floodgates as protests and the violence of the response escalated quickly in the days that followed.
During that first year of the protests, authorities made some attempts to maintain control of the situation. As partial measures of conciliation, the government issued a decree to cut taxes and raise state salaries, and on April 21, 2011, repealed the emergency law that had been in place for 48 years, and also issued new regulations laying out the right to participate in peaceful demonstrations.
At other points throughout the protests, however, authorities escalated the situation. They imposed collective punishments where protests were occurring by sealing off entire areas and conducting mass arrests as an intimidation technique. Among those arrested during a protest on April 29 near Dara’a was Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, a 13-year old boy whose mutilated body was released a month later. When a video of his tortured body was released on Facebook, word of his torture spread and protests around Syria were held in his name.
The Syrian regime, with the support of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation, has been battling a multitude of armed opposition groups and other contending parties, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the al-Nusra Front, ISIS, and the primarily-Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The United States led anti-ISIS coalition, consisting of over a dozen nations including at various times the UK, France, Saudi Arabia, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands, and Jordan, has been engaged primarily in an air campaign against ISIS within Syria, with Turkey deploying ground troops against Islamic State groups.
The numbers and roles of the state and non-state actors who have conducted combat operations in Syria has evolved over the course of the conflict. They include among others, the forces of Syria, Russia, the United States, Hezbollah, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, as well as various pro-government militias, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Syria Islamic Liberation Front, the People’s Protections Units (YPG), Ahrar al-Sham, Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, Martyrs of Islam Brigade, the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades, Islamist State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS; also known as ISIL and Da’esh), and Al-Nusra Front (otherwise known as Jabhat al-Nusra). Seven parties are listed in the annexes of the Secretary-General’s annual reports on children and armed conflict as perpetrators of grave violations against children; government forces, including the National Defense Forces and pro-government militias, and ISIS are specifically named for attacks on schools and hospitals.
It did not take long for violence to reach Syrian schools. In early 2011, the United Nations reported that schools were being used as “military staging grounds, temporary bases, detention centers, sniper posts and centers for torture and the interrogation of adults and children.” It notes that children were killed or injured on school grounds. Several children are reported as killed by sniper fire on schools, including a 15-year-old girl in Al Qusayr. Airstrikes, which eventually come to dominate as a method of attack used by the Syrian government against schools, are reported as starting by the end of 2011. With each new party entering into the conflict, the toll on innocent civilians, including inordinate numbers of children, has only worsened.
According to Save Syrian Schools partner organizations, in 2011, 16 schools were subject to attacks in the governorates of Hama, Daraa, Homs, and Idlib. As the conflict intensified, this number increased, jumping to 329 schools in 2012 and 268 schools in 2013. In 2014, the number decreased to 109 schools and rose again during the period 2015-2016 after the direct Russian military intervention, with 178 and 242 attacks respectively. In 2017, at least 150 schools were attacked. Going by these numbers, this puts the total figure in the areas mentioned at around 1,292 schools attacked.
Of course, definitive figures are impossible to obtain given that the number of affected schools changes almost daily. One report by the UN Secretary-General to the Security Council on April 23, 2014 concludes that around 4,072 schools have been closed, damaged or used as a shelter by the displaced as a result of the conflict. Others put that number even higher.
Today, the picture is quite different. The percentage of students in secondary school dropped from 98% in 2011 to only 57% in 2012. In the 2015/16 school year, at least 2.3 million Syrian children inside Syria and in neighboring countries were out of school and 1.3 million remain at risk of dropping out of school. More than one in three schools in Syria is currently non-operational, whether because they were destroyed, turned into displacement centers, or repurposed for military functions. Schools that remain in use suffer from massive shortages of teachers and supplies, and face challenges with relation to water, sanitation, and hygiene conditions. The direct costs for rebuilding the country’s damaged and destroyed educational infrastructure is estimated to be around USD$1.3–3.2 billion. Of course, the human cost is unquantifiable.
Syrian children have not only been affected through damage to schools. Overall, the conflict stands out for both the magnitude of children affected by violence, but also the manner by which they have fallen victim to the war. In terms of civilian toll, an analysis of conflict data provided by the Violation Documentation Center and published in the Lancet concludes that through the end of 2016, 101,453 Syrian civilians have been killed by direct violence. This constitutes 70.6% of all conflict-related violent deaths. The proportion of children amidst these broader figures has steadily increased from 8.9% in 2011 to an alarming 23.3% in 2016. This means around 17,401 children have been killed through direct violence, which the report defines as “injuries inflicted by violent methods used by warring parties.”