Syria war offensive kills civilians across country: monitors
Syrian forces backed by Russia have launched deadly attacks across the country in the run-up to UN-backed talks. After making gains against rebels and the "Islamic State," Damascus is consolidating control in Syria.
In the run-up to United Nations peace talks at the end of November, Russian-backed Syrian government forces launched attacks across the country at the weekend, killing dozens of civilians in the process, according to independent monitors.
Airstrikes and artillery fire on the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region outside the Syrian capital killed at least 23 people on Sunday, including four children, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said.
In the "Islamic State"-held village of al-Shafah in the Deir el-Zour province, 53 civilians were killed, including 21 children, when Russian airstrikes hit "residential buildings," SOHR told AFP news agency.
SOHR relies on a network of on-the-ground sources to relay information. The observatory said it determines aircraft used in air raids by location, flight patterns and munitions used.
Key points about Syria's conflict
The conflict erupted in 2011, when government forces launched a brutal crackdown against peaceful protesters calling for the release of political prisoners and for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
More than 300,000 people have been killed since then, with the civil war fracturing into a multi-front conflict involving global super powers, regional rivals and non-state actors.
Multiple attempts to end the conflict have failed. However, the UN has sponsored new peace talks aimed at gathering support for a political solution scheduled to start on November 28.
War with no end
Syria has been engulfed in a devastating civil war since 2011 after Syrian President Bashar Assad lost control over large parts of the country to multiple revolutionary groups. The conflict has since drawn in foreign powers and brought misery and death to Syrians.
Syria's army, officially known as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), is loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is fighting to restore the president's rule over the entire country. The SAA has been fighting alongside a number of pro-Assad militias such as the National Defense Force and has cooperated with military advisors from Russia and Iran, which back Assad.
The northern watchman
Turkey, which is also part of the US-led coalition against IS, has actively supported rebels opposed to Assad. It has a tense relationship with its American allies over US cooperation with Kurdish fighters, who Ankara says are linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighting in Turkey. The Turkish military has intervened alongside rebels in northern Aleppo, Afrin and Idlib province.
The eastern guardian
The Kremlin has proven to be a powerful friend to Assad. Russian air power and ground troops officially joined the fight in September 2015 after years of supplying the Syrian army. Moscow has come under fire from the international community for the high number of civilian casualties during its airstrikes. However, Russia's intervention turned the tide in war in favor of Assad.
The western allies
A US-led coalition of more than 50 countries, including Germany, began targeting IS and other terrorist targets with airstrikes in late 2014. The anti-IS coalition has dealt major setbacks to the militant group. The US has more than a thousand special forces in the country backing the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Free Syrian Army grew out of protests against the Assad regime that eventually turned violent. Along with other non-jihadist rebel groups, it seeks the ouster of President Assad and democratic elections. After suffering a number of defeats, many of its members defected to hardline militant groups. It garnered some support from the US and Turkey, but its strength has been greatly diminished.
Fighting between Syrian Kurds and Islamists has become its own conflict. The US-led coalition against the "Islamic State" has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias. The Kurdish YPG militia is the main component of the SDF. The Kurds have had a tacit understanding with Assad.
The new jihadists
"Islamic State" (IS) took advantage of regional chaos to capture vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Seeking to establish its own "caliphate," IS has become infamous for its fundamentalist brand of Islam and its mass atrocities. IS is facing defeat in both countries after the US and Russia led separate military campaigns against the militant group.
The old jihadists
IS is not the only terrorist group that has ravaged Syria. A number of jihadist militant groups are fighting in the conflict, warring against various rebel factions and the Assad regime. One of the main jihadist factions is Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of Idlib province and has ties with al-Qaeda.
The Persian shadow
Iran has supported Syria, its only Arab ally, for decades. Eager to maintain its ally, Tehran has provided Damascus with strategic assistance, military training and ground troops when the conflict emerged in 2011. The Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah also supports the Assad regime, fighting alongside Iranian forces and paramilitary groups in the country.
Looming humanitarian crisis
Rebels in Eastern Ghouta have held out against Syrian government forces throughout the country's nearly seven-year war. However, the government's siege has caused a humanitarian crisis in the area, causing severe medical and food shortages.
The opposition local council, called the Eastern Ghouta Damascus Countryside, said that the government's escalating bombing was causing people to seek shelter in unsanitary places — which could lead to outbreaks of disease.
Sunday's deaths come despite Eastern Ghouta falling within a so-called "de-escalation zone" that was put in place by a deal brokered between Assad's allies Russia and Iran as well as rebel-backer Turkey.
These girls are attending a class at their school in the Yemeni port city of Hedeidah despite the fact that a wall has been almost completely taken out by a Saudi-led air strike. The country has been enmeshed in a bloody civil war for three years now, and the conflict shows no sign of ending. Saudi Arabia has led a coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015.
Learning in a barn
Syria is another country in the Middle East wracked by civil conflict, with millions displaced and hundreds of thousands killed. Some of the displaced children are seen here being taught in a barn for lack of school buildings in the rebel-held area of Daraa in southern Syria. Chairs are also in short supply, meaning several of the children have been forced to sit on stones instead.
Although Iran and Russia, which both back the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, made a deal with rebel backer Turkey to make Eastern Ghouta a "de-escalation zone" from July, the agreement has been repeatedly violated. This school in the Eastern Ghouta village of Hamouria did not escape damage, and humanitarian workers have warned of a dire situation inside the enclave.
Syrian children are seen here attending classes in improvised conditions in a rebel-held area of the southern city of Daraa. Although many countries are determined that children in Syria should not become a "lost generation" for lack of schooling, the war is making it difficult and sometimes impossible for lessons to continue.
Return to normality amid signs of war
This wall at a school in the Syrian village of Hazima, north of Raqqa, is full of bullet holes from the war. The extremist group "Islamic State" closed the school and many others in northern Syria when it took over the region in 2014. Now it has been driven out, children can go back to learning normal subjects instead of the extremist propaganda taught by the hardline Islamists.
Games amid ruins
"Where do the children play?" British singer Yusuf Islam, commonly known by his former stage name of Cat Stevens, once asked in a song. These children have found their playground in this damaged school in al-Saflaniyeh in eastern Aleppo province. But one can only wish they had nicer, and safer, surroundings for their games.