Remember Syria? The civil war there is entering its fourth year. While all eyes are on the Ukraine crisis, a far deadlier conflict goes on in Syria. Like his partner in the Kremlin, Bashar al-Assad has no concerns about international law, diplomatic solutions, or sharing of political power. His job is to wipe out “terrorists” who threaten his rule. Assad will soon run for reelection—imagine that!—and thus, again like Putin, continue his dictatorship for at least another several years.
The US and its European Union (EU) partners got snookered when they persuaded Assad to agree to give up Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. They gave him an opportunity to look like a responsible leader by surrendering his least important weapons. His compliance thus became a weapon, reducing the US and EU to waiting for him to remove all chemical weapons and hoping that he might be willing to negotiate away his regime. Of course he has no such intention. Eventually, he will turn over all the chemical weapons, but not before he can claim victory in the war on the ground.
Meantime, the Syrian people are suffering terribly, with over 140,000 civilian deaths and millions of people displaced internally or abroad. Have you seen the photos of Aleppo and other bombed out cities? It’s Sarajevo all over again—a “grotesque” situation, John Kerry has said. And as happened at Sarajevo, the international community’s dithering on Syria has eliminated any chance to act decisively on behalf of threatened civilians.
The refugee situation is staggering, and relief efforts have no hope of keeping up with the flow of people across borders. According to estimates by several humanitarian relief organizations, in a country of about 23 million people, 2.14 million have fled to neighboring countries. Another 6.5 million people are internally displaced. (Those figures are current; see the USAID fact sheet at www.usaid.gov/crisis/syria.) The refugees are in camps in Lebanon (776,900), Jordan (534,400), Turkey (500,200), Iraq (194,600), and Egypt/North Africa (142,300). Many of these tent cities will become permanent since it is quite unlikely that the war will end anytime soon.
Over 9 million Syrians are estimated by UN and US agencies to be in need of assistance. At Yarmouk, one of the largest refugee camps just outside Damascus, with perhaps as many as 20,000 persons, including Palestinians as well as Syrians, Amnesty International charges that the Syrian government is “using starvation as a weapon of war.” AI’s director for the Middle East adds: “The harrowing accounts of families having to resort to eating cats and dogs, and civilians attacked by snipers as they forage for food, have become all too familiar details of the horror story that has materialised in Yarmouk” (www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26481422).
The situation for children is particularly desperate. A report just issued by Save the Children (www.savethechildren.org/atf/cf/%7B9def2ebe-10ae-432c-9bd0-df91d2eba74a%7D/SAVE_THE_CHILDREN_A_DEVASTATING_TOLL.PDF) notes not only the raw figures on child refugees, but also the sorry state of health care:
“Syria’s three year civil war has had a devastating impact on children. At least 1.2 million children have fled the conflict, and become refugees in neighbouring countries, while another 4.3 million children in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance. Children have witnessed and experienced extreme violence, and more than 10,000 young lives have been lost as a direct result. . . . Since the outbreak of war three years ago, it is probable that several thousands of children have already died as a result of greatly reduced access to treatment for life-threatening chronic diseases like cancer, epilepsy, asthma, diabetes, hypertension and kidney failure. This is more than a crisis. It is the threatened collapse of an entire health system, which endangers the lives and well-being of millions of children.”
The war has caused the flight of doctors, lack of medicine, and destruction of health care facilities.
And there’s more. The executive director of UNICEF, on returning from Syria the other day, spoke of the likely impact of loss of regular schooling for some 3 million children. “If these children lack skills because they’ve lost years of education,” he said, and have “hatred in their hearts because of what they’ve seen,” you can imagine how their futures will unfold: “a great danger for Syria, the region, and the world.”
These observations are heartrending. They leave the reader feeling helpless to do much more than send a check and urge one’s government to protest the failure, mainly of the Assad government, to respect a February UN resolution. It demands that all sides allow humanitarian organizations to deliver health care across military lines and cease attacks on civilians. The resolution has the support of 128 humanitarian relief organizations—governmental (such as USAID), nongovernmental (such as Mercy Corps, Doctors Without Borders, and Islamic Relief), and international (such as the UN High Commission for Refugees/UNHCR and UNICEF). If a way can be found to enforce the resolution—and yes, that means with a multinational force acting as escort—and thus permit delivery of desperately needed assistance to the Syrian people, I would favor it. Would you?
FYI: For a fairly complete list that provides contact and ways-to-help information, see www.cnn.com/2013/09/06/world/iyw-how-to-help-syrian-refugees/.
Bravo! This is the best overview of the terrible situation in Syria that I have seen. One small nit: rather than saying that Syria is “a country of about 23 million people,” cite the figure from the Population Reference Bureau’s annual World Population Data Sheet, which was 21.9 million people as of mid-2013. As for a multilateral escort force, Absolutely!
I only wish that I could think of something even better, but like a lot of people, I’m perplexed.
Heartbreaking to even read, and leaves me feeling so utterly powerless. But, you make a great argument for a multilateral escort force as at least a start.
Bravo Mel, an excellent post and excellent recommendation! I would actually go one step further myself and say it is high-time the UN developed its own humanitarian defense force of full-time volunteers that can be dispatched with the approval of 11 Security Council members and not subject to veto powers. But back here in reality, such a scenario will never happen. Truly a tragic situation that demonstrates how far we have yet to go to be considered a truly compassionate species.
Yes, it is high time, and yes, it won’t happen. Recall that Article 43 of the UN Charter provides for a multilateral military force:
“All Members of the United Nations, in order to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security, undertake to make available to the Security Council, on its call and in accordance with a special agreement or agreements, armed forces, assistance, and facilities, including rights of passage, necessary for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security.”
Needless to say, no country other than France has ever urged that such a force be formed.