Russia's backing of Assad stokes fears of worsening conditions in Syria

Increasing international involvement, particularly by Moscow, is raising concerns that the already terrible conditions for Syria’s people could worsen.

Some worry Russia's increased support of Assad's regime could prolong conflict

Residents walk amid rubble at a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Arbeen in late May. (Yousef Homs/Reuters)

Noura al-Ameer, a Syrian in exile, has come to think of the conflict that has ravaged her country as the third world war.

Not in terms of casualties, to be sure, but because the conflict has raged for four and a half years and has grown from an internal uprising against the government into a war involving not only Syrians, but outsiders as well.

It has drawn in Iran and Russia, and western nations, including Canada, who are using airstrikes to try to defeat the militants of ISIS. Increasing international involvement, particularly by Moscow, is stoking fears that the already terrible conditions for Syria's people could worsen.

Hamzeh Ghadban is a Syrian with an aid agency called Assistance Coordination Unit. It operates more than 30 large refugee camps in northern Syria. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)
"If it wasn't for the support from Russia and Iran, I think this war would have been over two, three years before now," Hamzeh Ghadban, a Syrian with an aid agency called Assistance Coordination Unit, told CBC News.

"What's really keeping Bashar in power is all of the support he gets from his allies ... Now Russia's getting more involved. Day after day, things get more complicated in Syria."

"I feel like all the whole world is fighting each other in our country," al-Ameer added. "We want our country back. And we want freedom."

A quarter of a million Syrians are dead, according to the most recent - and conservative - estimates. Ameer, an official with the opposition Syrian National Coalition, says the true casualty figures are much higher.

Syrian Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units take up positions earlier inside a damaged building in Hasaka in northern Syria, monitoring Islamic State troops stationed nearby. (Rodi Said/Reuters)
Entire towns and large parts of major cities, such as Aleppo and Homs, lie in ruins after years of fighting between rebel groups, ISIS and the Nusra front and forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar al-Assad.

The numerous predictions that Assad and his regime would fall have proven incorrect time and again. In fact, it seems the eye-doctor-turned-dictator is as secure in his job as at any point during the Syrian uprising.

He's lasted this long, not on his own, but with a lot of help from his friends.

Assad's chief allies Iran, the Shia militant group Hezbollah and Russia have propped him up. Weapons from abroad have given his forces air superiority, and have allowed him to kill untold numbers of civilians by using barrels packed with explosives dropped from aircraft overhead to flatten entire neighbourhoods.

Seeking shelter

It's little wonder so many Syrians have decided that after more than four years of war, with no end in sight, a dangerous and expensive journey toward Europe is their only option.

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army look at bodies of what they said were members of President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus, earlier this summer. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)
Four million Syrians have fled their country, with most seeking shelter in neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the recent wave of Syrian refugees heading to Europe came from inside Syria, not the refugee camps in neighbouring countries. They appear to be more well-off and better educated, with many speaking some English or other languages that could help them find work.

There are growing numbers in recent weeks who have decided to flee, rather than have their sons or other male family members drafted into Assad's armed forces to replace those killed by the fighting.

"The regime is running out of military people, so (Assad) is taking all the young kids, he's forcing them — between the age of 16 and 45 — to fight their own people," said Ghadban.

His organization, Assistance Coordination Unit, helps the millions of Syrians displaced within their country. It operates more than 30 large camps in northern Syria, where refugees sleep in tents, listening to the sound of airstrikes and artillery in the distance.

Life is little more than a wave of human misery for those who cannot or do not want to flee Syria. Food is scarce for many. What is available is much more expensive, meaning families often subsist on rice and vegetables.

It's estimated that about 750,000 children are not attending school. College- and university-age Syrians are unable to complete their education, which will also make it more difficult to find work when the conflict is over.

Nour Abdoul, 11, does go to school a few hours a day in Kilis, a Turkish city on the Syrian border. But she has no textbooks, and often there are no math classes. She dreams of becoming an engineer, to help rebuild her country.

No end in sight

No one knows when the war will end.

"Only God can say," said an elderly man who escaped Syria with his wife and five children nearly four years ago.

In fact, the conflict could become even more intense and drag on even longer, with word that Russia appears to be sending more of its forces and aircraft into Syria.

Bassam Moustafa is a senior commander of a brigade of about 10,000 Free Syrian Army fighters operating in northern Syria. He is concerned about increased Russian involvement in the conflict. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)
Satellite pictures purport to show a buildup of Russian military equipment and housing for troops at a key regime airbase in Latakia, one of the few remaining Assad strongholds.

"Russia is helping Assad more than we expected," Bassam Moustafa, a senior commander of rebel forces in northern Syria, told CBC News.

Moustafa leads a brigade of about 10,000 Free Syrian Army fighters, who he said have pushed back regime forces this week along several key supply routes near Aleppo.

But he worries about a buildup of military might from Moscow.

"We see Russia as the enemy," he said. "Their presence will certainly make the war last longer. And it will help the regime to continue to kill women and children."

Read more about Russia and the Syrian crisis: 


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.


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