11 years into Syria's civil war, this is what everyday life looks like

Images offer a rare look into northeastern Syria, where disparate rebels, outside nations, and the Islamic State still engage in a complex conflict.

Women tend to a girl’s hair in front of a damaged building in Raqqa, Syria, in 2021. The former capital of the Islamic State between 2014 and 2017, Raqqa was the center of heavy fighting between Kurdish forces and Islamic State jihadists. According to the UN, 80 percent of the city's infrastructure has been destroyed.

As the world watches the continuing violence in Ukraine, a bitter anniversary is being marked in Syria, where the country is entering its second decade of civil war. The conflict—sparked by the arrest of alleged anti-government graffiti artists in early March 2011—has left some 400,000 people dead and shattered the country into a tenuous patchwork of territories mostly allied to the government of Bashar al-Assad  in the west, and independent Syrian, Kurdish, and Turkish government forces in the east.

One of the biggest flashpoints remains in northeast Syria, says photographer William Keo, who traveled to the region after the fall of the Islamic State in 2019. Keo’s aim was to document the rebuilding of a society emerging from five years of extremist rule. But instead he found himself in the middle of a new offensive after Turkish troops launched cross-border operations into Syria against Kurdish-aligned forces.

“I understood that this was another war that was starting,” Keo says, “a long war that would not be like the first 10 years.”

This new decade of war will be grinding. And while Kurdish forces track down ISIS sleeper cells in one of the country's most unstable regions, Deir-Ez-Zor in eastern Syria, the group remains powerful in the area. Now, even more instability looms as Russia, a chief supporter of the Assad regime, directs its forces and attention to its invasion of Ukraine while new sanctions hamper its financial support for this Middle East conflict.

Keo, who returned to northeast Syria again in 2021, talked to National Geographic last week from the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Syria should serve as a cautious reminder on where the Ukraine conflict may lead, he says. He also worries that the refugee crisis currently unfolding in Europe will divert the world’s attention from Syria’s displaced people—that images of victims from the war in Ukraine will resonate more than those from Raqqa or Qamishli. His objective is to document universality in moments, snippets of life that go on regardless of the surrounding chaos.

“Going to the market with your kids can be very universal,” Keo observes. “I just try to tell a complex story with simple pictures.”

William Keo is a French-Cambodian photographer and 2021 Magnum Photo Nominee based in Paris whose work focuses on his family’s refugee past: migration, social exclusion and inter-community intolerance. Since 2016, he has been documenting the Syrian refugee crisis in the Middle East before covering Syria after the fall of the Islamic State organization. See more on his website.

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