Thousands of protesters in the rebel enclave of Idlib have marked 11 years since the start of Syria’s anti-government uprising, buoyed up by the global outcry over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
More than 5,000 people gathered on the main square in the north-western city on Tuesday in one of the largest rallies the region had seen in months. Many demonstrators hoped the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the Syrian government’s main backer, would rekindle interest in their cause.
“What is happening in Ukraine today is similar to the situation here; the enemy is the same and the goal is the same,” one protester, Radwan Atrash, told AFP.
The anniversary of the 15 March uprising was marked by demonstrations across rebel-held northern Syria. After the 2011 uprising escalated into civil war, the power of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, had held by a thread – until Vladimir Putin threw Russia’s military might behind the dictator. Half a million people have died in the war, mostly in attacks by the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.
About four million people, at least half of them displaced, now live in a region of north-western Syria that is the last enclave fighting Assad’s rule, despite years of Russian-backed offensives.
A few Ukrainian flags were visible at the Idlib protest, as they were banners expressing solidarity with the Ukrainian people and demanding action against Putin.
Ali Hamoush, an Idlib medic who was among the protesters, had some advice for his counterparts in Ukraine. “Fortify your hospitals with cement blocks; the enemy Putin does not distinguish between civilians, wounded people and fighters,” he said.
Russia has repeatedly targeted medical facilities in Syria, witnesses, doctors and human rights groups say. In Ukraine, a pediatric hospital was hit by an apparent Russian strike in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol last week, fueling accusations of war crimes against Putin.
As the conflict drags on, rights groups have pleaded for the international community not to forget Syria. “While we look with shock and horror at what is unfolding in Ukraine, we are reminded of the and worsening suffering that the Syrian population has endured,” Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said this week. “One of the greatest human tragedies of our time has gotten worse over the last year in the shadow of crises elsewhere.”
Syria’s economy has been battered by a decade of conflict and grueling sanctions.
In a joint statement, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the US said: “The coincidence of this year’s anniversary with the appalling Russian aggression against Ukraine … highlights Russia’s brutal and destructive behavior in both conflicts.”
Last week, the UN commission of inquiry on Syria called for “a review of the implementation and impacts of sanctions currently imposed on Syria” in light of deteriorating living conditions. But the five nations said they did “not support efforts to normalize relations with the Assad regime”.
Assad is among the few heads of state openly supporting Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow is recruiting thousands of fighters in Syria, from the regular army and from militia groups, to be put on standby for possible deployment in Ukraine.
The stiff resistance faced by invading Russian troops and Putin’s growing pariah status appeared to galvanize the Idlib crowd.
“My message to the Ukrainian people is: don’t give up. Eleven years have passed but we are undaunted and, God willing, victory is ours,” one protester, Salwa Abdelrahman, 49, said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism