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Fighting for freedom: The Syria Campaign Open in fullscreen

Sheeffah Shiraz

Fighting for freedom: The Syria Campaign

Within six years, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed [Getty]

Date of publication: 14 March, 2016

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Interview: From working with The White Helmets to the creation of Planet Syria, The Syria Campaign continues to accelerate progress towards a peaceful and democratic future for Syria.
On March 15, Syria's war entered its sixth year.

In these six years, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed. More than 12 million people – half the population – have been displaced, while many others have attempted to flee the fighting by making the perilous trip across the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

Labelled as the "greatest humanitarian crisis of our era", the Syrian war has developed into a bigger and more complicated conflict.

With the emergence of extremist elements such the Islamic State group, the fighting in Syria has given way to a war where more than 80 countries have become involved – on all sides.

"The majority of Syrians want neither President Bashar al-Assad nor the Islamic State group," begins Anna Nolan, director of The Syria Campaign.

"They want an end to the violence and the establishment of a democratic Syria.

"Yet the world is not hearing from these Syrians."

A five-person team of human rights activists – each from a different country – The Syria Campaign is a global advocacy group that aims to mobilise people around the world for the protection of civilians inside Syria.

The majority of Syrians want neither Bashar al-Assad nor the Islamic State group... They want an end to the violence and the establishment of a democratic Syria

Launched in 2014, it campaigns to save lives and accelerate progress towards a peaceful and democratic future for Syria.

"While the media obsesses about the Islamic State group, we are working to promote another, sometimes forgotten narrative – of ordinary civilians, who are not taking part in the fighting but instead are fighting all manner of oppression," says Nolan.

The Syria Campaign helped bring The White Helmets to the world's attention, a group of Syrian volunteers who could not sit and watch people die under the rubble, instead working endlessly to save lives on all sides of the conflict.

It also supported the creation of Planet Syria, a network of more than 100 non-violent organisations representing 18,000 activists across Syria seeking global solidarity to stop the bombs.

"We work to connect Syrians caught between the twin brutality of the Assad regime and extremist groups with people around the world who can act and support them," Nolan tells The New Arab

"Only by listening to the demands of Syrians and standing with those who want a peaceful and democratic future for the country, can stability be restored and extremism driven out.

"There are no solutions to the conflict in Syria that can be drafted up in faraway capitals or dropped from the sky. Our campaigns elevate the heroic and inspiring work of Syrians and in this way we hope to mobilise support for the only people who can really end this crisis: Syrians themselves."

There are no solutions to the conflict in Syria that can be drafted up in faraway capitals or dropped from the sky

Refocusing the attention

The Syria Campaign launched on the third anniversary of the uprising in March 2014 "at a time when Syria was slipping off media and political agendas" of countries around the world.

"As international human rights activists, we wanted to do what we could to refocus global attention and action on Syria. We all had different connections to Syria and wanted to bring our skills together to make sure that the world did not abandon so many people in need," Nolan explains.

"We knew that there was a Syria no one was talking about: the country where, every single day, doctors and rescue workers were risking their lives to save others; where teachers were building underground schools and media activists doing everything they could to keep telling the world what was happening. 

"We felt that if people knew this story of Syria, we could overcome some of the barriers of disillusionment, apathy and compassion fatigue we knew people in the United States and Europe were experiencing."

Nolan says a lot has changed since the campaign started: the emergence of the Islamic State group, the refugee crisis reaching European shores and external countries bombing Syria and killing scores of Syrians.

"Syria today is back in the spotlight. However, despite the immense scale of human suffering and instability there is a lack of serious effort from world leaders to end the violence.

"We are now trying to transform that focus and attention into political action that can make life better for millions of Syrians.

We knew that there was a Syria no one was talking about: the country where every single day doctors and rescue workers were risking their lives to save others; where teachers were building underground schools and media activists doing everything they could to keep telling the world what was happening

10 key dates in Syria's war

2011: Revolt and repression
- March 15: Unprecedented protests inspired by the Arab Spring erupt, demanding reform after 40 years of iron-fist rule by President Bashar al-Assad's family.
- Security forces crack down on protesters in Damascus and Daraa, known as "the cradle of the uprising", where 100 people are reportedly killed on March 23.
- The regime claims it is cracking down on "an armed rebellion" by radical Islamists, while Britain, France and the United States denounce the repression.
- Protests spread, with demonstrators calling for Assad's ousting.

2012: All-out war
- July 17: Moderate rebels from the Free Syrian Army declare that the battle for Damascus has begun, but the government holds its ground.
- July 19: Rebels launch an offensive in the northern city of Aleppo, which has since been divided between rebel-held neighbourhoods in the east and regime-held districts in the west.

2013: Chemical attacks
- August 21: Hundreds of people are killed in chemical weapons attacks targeting rebel bastions near Damascus. The West accuses Assad's regime.
- In September, the United States and Russia agree on a plan to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons, narrowly heading off US strikes.

2014: Rise of the extremists
- January 14: The Islamic State group, which emerged in Syria in 2013, seizes Raqqa, the first provincial capital to fall out of regime control.
- June 29: IS declares the establishment of an Islamic "caliphate". It later claims numerous murders, including of Western hostages.
- September 23: The US and Arab allies launch airstrikes on IS in Syria.

2014: The fall of Homs
- May 9: Syrian troops recapture the Old City of Homs, after a two-year siege and near-daily bombardment. Rebels withdraw.

2015: Kobane liberated
- January 26: Kurdish forces backed by US-led airstrikes drive IS out of the flashpoint town of Kobane on the Turkish border, after months of fierce fighting.

2015: Al-Nusra spreads
- March 28: Syria's al-Qaeda franchise, the Nusra Front, backed by rebel allies, seizes most of the northwestern city of Idlib, the second provincial capital after Raqqa to fall out of government hands.
- In May, Assad says that such set-backs do not mean the conflict is lost, but in July he acknowledges the shrinking ranks of his army.

2015: Russia intervenes
- September 30: Russia launches airstrikes on Syria, saying it is targeting "terrorists" including IS, but faces accusations of hitting non-extremist rebels and civilians as it seeks to bolster Assad.

2016: Ceasefire
- February 27: An unprecedented "cessation of hostilities" comes into force. It applies to combat zones between Russian-backed regime forces and non-extremist rebels, but does not apply to the more than half of the country's territory that is controlled by extremist groups.

Keeping the ceasefire alive  

In hopes of bringing an end to the conflict, a US-Russia brokered ceasefire came into effect late in February, with both sides agreeing on the terms and conditions for the "cessation of hostilities".

"While the violence has not stopped, it has reduced, and that means innocent civilians who otherwise would have been killed, are still alive today," says Nolan. 

The Syria Campaign set up a system to monitor any violations by creating a website that collates data from medics, rescue workers and local councils.

Over the past week, it has reported dozens of violations, including sniper fire, barrel bombs and Russian air raids. 

Violations have also been reported by Syrian opposition groups, who claim Russia and Damascus violated the ceasefire 26 times in the first three days.

"We are working with our Syrian partners to understand what more we can do to help keep this fragile ceasefire alive," says Nolan.

Reporting the unreported

Since the start of 2016, the team has been working on a campaign named Break the Sieges to shine light on this previously hidden part of the conflict.

Siege Watch report, issued by the Netherlands-based aid group PAX and the Washington-based Syria Institute in February, revealed that more than one million Syrians are trapped in besieged areas. 

At least 250,000 living under siege are children, with many forced to eat animal feed or grass, roots and leaves to survive. Earlier this year, shocking images circulated online of starving skeletal children, highlighting the horrific consequences of such sieges.

"The issue of sieges was being hugely under reported and the United Nations' role was allowing the Syrian regime to use food as a weapon of war. A key part of the agreement was that aid would be delivered to areas under horrific starvation sieges at the start of the ceasefire. This has not been honoured," says Nolan.

"The Assad regime, which is denying access to 99 percent of those under siege, continues to block aid trucks. In one of the worst hit towns, Daraya, many are on the very edge of starvation. It is an outrage that children are starving to death while UN aid sits in warehouses just miles away," Nolan states.

The group reveals it is also in the preparatory stages of planning a "large-scale campaign" focusing on the situation of detainees.

"The Assad regime has presided over one of the most brutal and systematic uses of arbitrary arrest, forced disappearance, torture and execution in recent memory. Little is being done to stop this ongoing and pervasive abuse of human rights," Nolan says. 

Despite the scale of abuses, there is little international awareness or engagement on the issue, the campaign explained.

It is an outrage that children are starving to death whilst UN aid sits in warehouses just miles away

The Syria Campaign says that, although progress has been made in some areas related to the conflict, such as reducing aerial attacks through a partial ceasefire and easing sieges through partial aid delivery – there has been absolutely no progress made on the situation of political prisoners in Syria.

"We want to make sure that decision-makers know the extent of the crimes being perpetrated against detainees in Syria, both to increase pressure for the immediate release of political detainees and to take steps towards accountability for those responsible," Nolan added.

The Syria Campaign continues to place the demands of Syrians front and centre. With a bold, political voice, it has been working relentlessly to communicate what is happening to civilians to the rest of the world.

"Our focus will remain on running campaigns in line with Syrian demands on what protection they need. Civil protection is the cornerstone of what we do and we want to make sure that it becomes a priority at the highest level," Nolan tells The New Arab.

"We work on Syria because we believe that everyone, everywhere deserves to live in freedom and dignity," Nolan adds. 

"And we know if anything similar were in our countries, it would be Syrians who would be supporting us."

Follow Sheeffah Shiraz on Twitter: @SheeWrites

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