Syrian civil war enters 5th year, no end in sight

The Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011 with a small protest in Damascus by about 200 people, enters its fifth year this week with no end in sight.

Bashar al-Assad clings to power, but the country has been devastated

An anti-Syrian government protester waves the Syrian revolutionary flag during a protest to mark the fourth anniversary of the Syrian uprising, at the Martyrs square in downtown Beirut, Lebanon on Sunday, (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

On March 15, 2011, a small group of protesters gathered in Damascus to demand democratic reforms and the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Before the day was over, a European wire service reported, more than 41,000 people had joined a Facebook group called The Syrian Revolution 2011, Syrian Twitter users tweeted for the world to pay attention, and video footage emerged showing the protests.

That small spark ignited a civil war that enters its fifth year this week with no end in sight.

In Damascus, Syrian air force jets pounded a suburb on Sunday, killing at least 20 people and scattering shattered concrete blocks and mangled cars in the streets, activists said.

The Local Co-ordination Committees activist collective and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday's air raids targeted the district of Douma northwest of the capital. Assad's air force bombs Douma and other rebellious neighbourhoods and towns around Damascus on a daily basis.

Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman said government jets carried out four strikes on Douma Sunday morning that killed 20 people and wounded more than 100. He warned the death toll could rise because many of the wounded were in critical condition.

An amateur video posted online shows the moment of what the narrator says is the fourth strike. The roar of an airplane can be heard overhead, followed by a massive explosion. A huge column of grey smoke can then be seen rising over rooftops and television antennas.

Transition strategy

The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting of the events depicted.

In Egypt, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he would be willing to talk with Assad to help broker a political resolution to the country's civil war.

Kerry said in an interview with CBS News that the U.S. is pushing for Assad to seriously discuss a transition strategy to help end Syria's four-year conflict, which has killed more than 220,000 people, given rise to the Islamic State group (ISIS) and destabilized the wider Middle East.

"We have to negotiate in the end," Kerry said. "What we're pushing for is to get him to come and do that, and it may require that there be increased pressure on him of various kinds."

The Obama administration has long pushed for a political settlement to the Syrian crisis, and helped bring the Assad government and the Western-backed opposition to the negotiating table in early 2014. Those talks collapsed without making any headway, and there has been no serious effort as of yet to revive them.

We have to negotiate in the end.- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

"We've made it very clear to people that we are looking at increased steps that can help bring about that pressure," Kerry said, without elaborating on what those steps might be.

Since the beginning of the conflict, the Syrian government repeatedly and publicly agreed to international peace efforts while simultaneously ignoring the commitments it has made under them. It also has refused to discuss any proposal to usher Assad out of power.

Assad's role

Assad's Western-backed opponents, for their part, maintain that Assad can have no role in the country's future, and that any negotiated settlement must be based on the so-called Geneva roadmap, which envisions a political transition in Syria toward democracy by the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers.

Everybody agrees there is no military solution; there's only a political solution.- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

"Everybody agrees there is no military solution; there's only a political solution," Kerry said. "But to get the Assad regime to negotiate, we're going to have to make it clear to him that there is a determination by everybody to seek that political outcome and change his calculation about negotiating. That's underway right now."

At the United Nations, senior officials urged world leaders earlier this week to work to bring about meaningful change in Syria.

"We have expressed our horror, our outrage, our frustration as we have watched the tragedy unfold," the UN’s senior humanitarian officials said in a joint statement, highlighting a crisis that has already claimed more than 220,000 lives.

"We need world leaders to put aside their differences and use their influence to bring about meaningful change in Syria. As humanitarian leaders we are committed to continuing to do our best to help all those caught in the middle of this war."

More than 12.2 million people continue to require life-saving aid as a result of the conflict. The conflict has also provoked massive displacement with more than four million people having sought refuge in neighbouring countries, while a further 7.6 million are displaced within Syria.