April 27, 2020 — New York
This piece first appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
Syrian President Bashar Assad pronounced a death sentence on his own country long before the coronavirus arrived.
Using nearly every available man-made weapon, from bullets to chemicals, more than 500,000 Syrians have been killed since 2011, though the UN stopped counting fatalities several years ago.
About half of Syria’s pre-war population has been forcibly displaced, with 5.5 million living as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and another six million relocated, many of them several times, within Syria.
No cohort has suffered more than the country’s youngest. Assad initiated the violence with the arrest and torture of schoolchildren in March 2011. At the time, 35% of Syria’s 21 million population were under the age of 14.
Over the past nine years, more than 2.6 million children have been forcibly displaced inside Syria, and there are 2.5 million children among the Syrians registered as refugees in neighboring countries.
Yet amid this ongoing tragedy the circle of life goes on. Since 2011, 4.8 million babies have been born in Syria, and another million born as refugees in neighboring countries.
Their fate imperils the future of this severely broken country. Precious little has been done to protect Syria’s youngsters. Making little distinction between civilians and armed opponents of his rule, Assad, with the destructive assistance of Iran and Russia, has indiscriminately targeted schools, bakeries, water treatment plants and healthcare facilities.
More than two million children are not getting any formal education, as nearly 30% of the schools in Syria have been destroyed. Another 900,000 children in Syrian refugee camps in neighboring countries are not attending classes.
The situation in Syria’s northwest is particularly grim. Earlier this year more than 900,000 people, including 500,000 children desperately seeking some modicum of safety, arrived in Idlib. Pushing them into Syria’s northwest was done by design of the Assad regime. Many of these internal refugees came from Aleppo after enduring a brutal four-year siege. Immediately after the Assad regime finally reclaimed Aleppo in 2016, there were warnings that Idlib would become the next Aleppo.
A recent UN Human Rights Council report detailed the impact of the conflict on Syria’s youngest: “Robbed of their childhood and forced to participate in a brutal war, children have been killed and maimed in vast numbers,” the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria wrote. The commission faulted the Assad regime, as well as Islamic State and others, for the widespread, callous abuse of children.
The Assad regime is ultimately responsible for the prosecution of this war, for destruction of lives and property, and with Russia’s consistent vetoes of well-intended UN Security Council resolutions, inhibiting the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Damascus in January, and this month’s visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif to meet with Assad, reinforced their nations’ commitments to preserve the regime, as well as the continuing presence of Iranian and Russian forces on the ground in Syria. These two countries have invested more in Syria than any others, and the billions of dollars expended far surpass the pledges of Western and Arab donor nations trying to mobilize and deliver basic humanitarian relief.
Moscow has also blocked efforts to bring Assad before the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The trial in Germany of a former senior Syrian intelligence officer who fled to Europe will likely be a rare instance in bringing to justice those responsible for well-documented crimes against humanity in Syria.
Now, with the first cases of COVID-19 revealed in Syria this month, international relief agencies are calling for a cessation of hostilities to enable medical workers to stem the potential spread of the disease. Refugee populations, living in extraordinarily close quarters and lacking proper facilities for hygiene, are especially vulnerable. Yet thanks to the Assad regime, the severely wounded healthcare system can barely keep pace with the traumas of the conflict.
“In Syria, the health system is already in pieces,” the Financial Times reported. “After 600 attacks on health facilities since the conflict began, only half of Syria’s public hospitals and health centers are fully functional, according to WHO [World Health Organization] data.”
Basic survival has been the priority for many Syrians. They have endured incredible hardships, under constant threat of violence and death, while seeking shelter and food, and while striving to retain some hope that this conflict will end and that some normalcy in their lives will be restored.
For hundreds of thousands of children, however, the conflict is their normal.
“Every Syrian child has been impacted by the violence, displacement, severed family ties and lack of access to vital services,” UNICEF has reported. “This has had a huge psychological impact on children.”
The slow death of the Syrian nation has long-term ramifications for Syria’s neighbors and several European countries where refugees have settled; for Israel, which has responded to the deepening presence of Iranian forces in Syria; and for US interests in the region.
“Syria has exhausted the world’s compassion,” noted Walter Russell Mead in his Wall Street Journal column. “Nine years of civil war, each bringing greater atrocities and worse horrors than the last, have deadened the world’s conscience.”
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.