Even by wartime standards, it was an exceptionally brutal week in Syria.
In a series of catastrophic attacks on Aleppo, aerial attacks on opposition areas decimated an elementary school on one day, then struck a bustling marketplace the next. By one count, 25 children were killed in the schoolhouse raid.
Elsewhere, a car bombing in Homs and a mortar attack in Damascus tore through pro-government neighborhoods that have otherwise been relatively calm (again, by Syrian war standards). Those areas are increasingly vulnerable to a rise in suicide bombings by foreign fighters: men traveling to Syria to wage jihad, ostensibly fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The same jihadis have turned on moderate rebels and civilians, most palpably in Raqqa and most notoriously in the case of executions and apparent crucifixions]7 over the past several weeks. Some suspect that foreign jihadis from France were involved in the kidnapping of their countrymen: four French journalists who were recently released from captivity.
Overall, this week proves that a war that is left to fester will continually reach new lows. For the moment Syria’s war shows no sign of bottoming out. The flickering hope of peace talks, led by U.N. Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, was swiftly snuffed out by a deadlock in negotiations. Brahimi himself is set to quit the Syria assignment; news surfaced this week about the search for his replacement.
More broadly, the U.N. is at an impasse on Syria, facing frustration and public criticism over the limits to its humanitarian aid. NGOs have complained about a lack of U.N. coordination and leadership on the ground, while the U.N. rejected calls to deliver cross-border aid, which could circumvent the Assad regime and provide desperately needed help to civilians. Officials say their hands are tied: without a stronger Security Council resolution (and there isn’t likely to be one), there can be no U.N. aid in Syria without Syrian government consent. The problem, aid workers say, is the government doesn’t generally consent to helping Syrians in the opposing camp – the rebels and civilians in areas that stand opposed to Assad’s rule. Rebels are also accused of hampering aid efforts to suit their strategic gain.
“With Ban-ki Moon very clearly saying the regime is arbitrarily denying access to aid, he is making the case that Syrian authorities are failing in their responsibility to protect civilians,” Amnesty’s Kristyan Benedict told us.
“He is saying that the time for negotiating over access and getting through bureaucratic hurdles is gone, and sending a signal that waiting for permission should have time limits on it.”
While they wait, Syrians have become skilled in coping with scarcity, inventive in fulfilling their basic needs. In Homs, residents have learned to cook and eat whatever they can find, adapting culinary recipes for ingredients like grasshoppers, turtle meat, stray weeds and leaves off trees. In Aleppo, civilians have created networks of support for emergency medical care, filling in the gaps through a network known as “the civil defense corps.”
For now, it’s unlikely that Syrians in the most desperate conditions will have a chance to vote in the presidential election, now slated for June 3. Syrian officials have said it would be practically impossible to administer the vote in rebel-held areas, giving only loyalist regions access to the poll. For the first time they’ll have more than just Bashar al-Assad to choose from: nearly two dozen candidates have registered to run against him. The government is holding up the election process as a sign of its legitimacy, while critics of the regime say the entire process is a ruse, designed to extend Assad’s rule for another seven-year term.
Another group unlikely to see a ballot box: Syria’s refugees, many of whom were forced to flee the country illegally and without documentation. This week Jordan opened a new refugee camp for incoming Syrians: a facility near the town of Azraq that can expand to house 130,000 people. With lessons learned from the Zaatari camp, the U.N. designed the new camp to function more like a village, the Guardian reports. It speaks to the permanence that now marks refugee settlements – a consensus that there’s no going back soon. For Syrians, life has been reduced to a challenge of simply coping with the present day.