Imagine going to bed at night knowing that bombs will rain from the sky before sunrise.
Imagine having no access to running water or electricity, or no guarantee that when you leave your home you won’t be shot by a rooftop sniper.
Imagine living in a decimated apartment block where your neighbors have gone so long without eating they’ve resorted to cooking leaves plucked from trees.
Welcome to Aleppo, Syria — the epicenter of the world’s bloodiest and most complicated conflict.
For more than five years, government forces loyal to strongman Bashar Assad have battled an array of rebels and Islamist extremist groups across Syria.
What began as internal unrest has morphed into a full-blown and ongoing international clash — a proxy war entangling the U.S. and a half-dozen other nations, all with competing interests.
The result is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in decades. Since 2011, the conflict has claimed the lives of an estimated 500,000 people and displaced more than 10 million.
“Imagine a slaughterhouse,” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said last week, referring to Aleppo. “This is worse. Even a slaughterhouse is more humane.”
The UN chief spoke out days after an uneasy ceasefire once again exploded into violence.
Syrian government forces and their Russian allies launched a punishing assault on the rebel-held areas of Aleppo that stretched into Saturday.
Now the conflict —which also involves Britain, France, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Islamic State terror group —is showing no sign of letting up, experts told the Daily News.
“Everybody involved in the war is looking at a series of dilemmas in which none of the options look all that great,” said Stephen Biddle, a defense expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Wars of this kind are really, really ugly. They typically involve very high casualty rates, lots and lots of refugees and they drag on —sometimes for decades.”
The roots of the conflict can be traced to the remote southern city of Daraa, just a few miles from the Jordanian border.
It was here, in early March 2011, that at least 15 boys were arrested after spray-painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of their school. The arrests came at a heady time in Syria and across the Middle East.
The Arab Spring was in bloom — the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt had just been forced out — and people across the region were clamoring for democratic rule.
Demonstrators calling for the release of political prisoners took to the streets in Daraa —an unusual event in a country where acts of defiance against the government had always been met with force.
The response was swift — and brutal.
Security forces opened fire on a group of demonstrators, killing four and triggering larger protests across the country. Amid the growing unrest, Assad offered a rare olive branch, releasing dozens of political prisoners.
But the mostly-peaceful demonstrations continued, and government forces cracked down with gunfire, beatings and arrests.
“There was some hope in the early days and weeks of the Syria uprising that Assad might acknowledge a need for change and reform, but they were false hopes,” said Andrew Parasiliti, director of the RAND Center for Global Risk Security.
“Assad’s response to the widespread demonstrations was instead defiant, old school, violent.”
President Obama called on Assad to step down in Aug. 2011. The Syrian dictator, to almost no one’s surprise, ignored the demand.
By the summer of 2012, dozens of anti-Assad rebel groups had agreed to form a loose coalition known as the Free Syrian Army. Assad denounced the opposition as terrorists backed by outside actors and bent on sowing chaos.
The overmatched rebels engaged in pitched battles with government troops in the densely-populated cities of Homs, Jisr al-Shughour and Aleppo.
The Assad regime even took the ghastly step of dropping chemical bombs on besieged cities.
Tens of thousands of civilians, including many children, were killed in the fighting in the civil war’s first few years. Massive groups of survivors began streaming out of the conflict areas, spurring a refugee crisis unlike any the world has seen since World War II.
Entering 2014, the war showed no sign of easing. By then, it was no secret that the Syrians were receiving help from one of their most powerful neighbors, Iran.
The Middle East has long been the site of a power struggle between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.
Iran has been the most ardent supporter of Assad, who is a member of the Shiite-linked Alawite sect. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has been one of his fiercest opponents.
With Iran entering the fray, it wasn’t long before fighters from Hezbollah, the Iran-supported Lebanese militia, started streaming into Syria to fight Assad’s enemies.
Seeking the overthrow of the Syrian leader, Saudi Arabia lent support to the Sunni rebel groups.
Iraq and Syria were both consumed by conflict. Out of the chaos emerged the ruthless Islamic State terror network.
The U.S. and Britain had been providing “non-lethal” support to various rebel groups. With the rise of ISIS, which took control of large swaths of Syria and Iraq, the Obama administration decided it was time to leave the sidelines.
A U.S.-led coalition began dropping bombs on ISIS targets in Syria in late September 2014. Around the same time, opposition forces mounted successful offensives against Assad’s fighters.
The country was already awash in bloody battles and tangled alliances. Then, in September of last year, the Russians stepped in.
Russia is a longtime ally of Syria, which by some estimates accounts for as much as 10% of Russian arms sales.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin, in rushing to prop up Assad, isn’t just acting out of loyalty. The conflict gives the Russian leader an opportunity to flex his military muscle in the face of the U.S. and reassert itself as a major world player, experts say.
Putin initially insisted that Russian jets were only targeting ISIS positions. But most of the air strikes have instead struck rebels fighting to topple Assad.
The Russians’ entry into the conflict has only complicated the American mission, experts say.
“The Russian military involvement in Syria has undeniably constrained American options,” said Jessica Ashooh, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force. “It has de facto restricted the areas in which the United States can operate, because of the wish to avoid dangerous close calls between Russian and American jets.”
Even Middle East scholars struggle to keep straight the shifting allegiances and agendas among the war’s key players.
The primary battle lines are relatively straightforward.
The Assad-Russia-Iran axis is primarily focused on snuffing out the anti-Syrian government rebels. The U.S.-Britain-France–Qatar alliance is committed to destroying ISIS and other Islamic terror groups, with a secondary goal of ousting Assad.
But the deeper one looks at the various players, the more convoluted the morass becomes.
“No two actors in this conflict have perfectly aligned interests,” said Biddle, of the Council on Foreign Relations. “That tends to make everybody’s aid less effective and promote a stalemate.”
To understand the true complexity of the war, consider the position of Turkey.
A sworn enemy of Assad, Turkey is now engaged in fierce fighting with ISIS along its Syrian border. But its primary objective is weakening the Kurdish forces in Syria, which are fighting to establish an autonomous region.
That means if the Turks were to be successful in crushing ISIS, the main beneficiaries would be their enemies – Assad and the Kurds.
“The Turks are really between a rock and a hard place here,” said Biddle. “But so is everybody else.”
For the U.S., succeeding in its mission to eradicate the Islamic State and the Islamist group formerly known as the Nusra Front would also produce an unpleasant side effect – strengthening Assad’s grip on the country.
There are other problems – the American proxies, like those of Russia, don’t quite have the same objectives as their chief backers.