An image taken from video provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center shows 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting in an ambulance after being pulled out or a building hit by an airstrike in Aleppo, Syria, on Aug. 17.(Photo: AP)
The image of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, injured and traumatized by fighting in the Syrian city of Aleppo, captured the world’s attention.
Footage of the bloodied and dust-covered boy went viral after it was provided by Syrian journalists at the Aleppo Media Center. It shows him sitting in an ambulance, rubbing his head and looking surprised at the blood on his fingers.
He is one of innumerable casualties of a civil war that has raged for more than five years: hundreds of thousands of killed, millions of refugees who’ve flooded neighboring nations and millions more trapped in a humanitarian crisis. Yet the war grinds on. Despite repeated attempts at a lasting cease-fire and world outrage triggered by tragic images such as Omran’s, an end to the fighting is nowhere in sight.
The country is irreparably divided
The fighting, which started in March 2011 with a crackdown by Syrian government forces against non-violent demonstrators, has pitted part of the country’s Sunni majority against the ruling Allawite minority, which has allied itself with other Sunnis, Kurds and Christians. Neither group of combatants shows any willingness to stop fighting short of total victory.
A resident of Aleppo, Syria, inspects the damage caused by airstrikes on rebel-held areas in the city Aug. 16. (Photo: Thaer Mohammed, AFP/Getty Images)
The divide is apparent in Aleppo, once Syria's most populous city. Syrian regime forces who control the western part of the city fight alongside Kurdish forces. The eastern part of the city is controlled by rebel forces who are mostly Sunni Arabs. Their battle for control has left the city in rubble and 2 million civilians desperate for food, water and medicine.
Though every part of Syria is unique, Aleppo in the northwest is critical, said Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It's a key to the Syrian civil war because if the regime loses Aleppo, it means there's no chance to keep the unity of Syria," Balanche said. "If the regime controls the city, they will control all the north of Syria."
Neither side is strong enough to win
Government forces have been unable to take full control of Aleppo because the Syrian Arab Army loyal to President Bashar Assad is depleted after years of fighting and desertions, said Chris Harmer, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “The Syrian Arab Army does not have the manpower to maintain a siege on a city the size of Aleppo,” Harmer said. “The rebels have been able to launch a counterattack."
The rebels, though tenacious fighters, lack an air force or air defenses to counter Syrian and Russian airstrikes that have pounded rebel-held civilian areas, convoys and personnel.
Foreign powers prolong the conflict
Both Assad’s forces and Syrian rebels have powerful allies who provide weapons and assistance.
Tuesday, Russia began launching airstrikes from a base in western Iran, the first time in decades that Iran has let a foreign power use its military bases. The move shows the two countries' commitment to helping Assad prevail.
A year ago, the Syrian dictator appeared to be losing as rebels destroyed many of his tanks with U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles provided by U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf. Russia turned the tide of the war in Assad’s favor with an air campaign that it said was aimed at “terrorists,” but which the State Department said targeted U.S.-supported opposition forces.
Iran has provided funding and organized Shiite militias from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Lebanon to add thousands to the ranks fighting alongside Assad.
Various rebel factions have been supported by Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Arab Emirates and Turkey, said Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq and dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
A religious rivalry between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite-led Iran “is part of the entire regional problem,” Crocker said. “Amid the hot waters of the region, you have a burgeoning Saudi-Iranian cold war.”
The Islamic State and al-Qaeda complicate everything
Early in the conflict, President Obama supported moderate rebels against Assad, whom the United States accuses of committing war crimes against his people. Islamic State extremists control large parts of the Syrian countryside, and elements of the rebel group Free Syrian Army are allied with a terrorist organization: al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front.
“It becomes very difficult for the U.S. to develop a consistent strategy to both support the rebels and fight the Islamic extremists,” said Matthew McInnis, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
Obama is in a bind because the rebels increasingly appear to be dominated by extremists, validating claims by Assad, Russia and Iran that they’re fighting terrorists, McInnis said.
Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview in July in the capital, Damascus. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
There's no international agreement on what comes next
The United States and its allies and Syria, Russia and Iran have sought to reach a political resolution in talks in Geneva. The United Nations' Syria envoy, Steffan de Mistura, has presided over numerous cease-fires and agreements for humanitarian relief that collapsed or were never implemented. The latest effort at a halt in fighting to send in relief failed Thursday.
Peace talks between the Syrian government and rebels have deadlocked over Assad’s role during the transition and the composition of rebels who would participate in the talks. Assad and his allies insist that he stay. The rebels and the United States want him out.
“The so-called Geneva process is utterly futile,” Crocker said.