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Half of Syrians displaced in ‘proxy’ war

20 March 2020


Lilas Nabhan, aged ten, who was injured by an unexploded mortar shell in Aleppo in 2016, sits with crutches and her prosthetic leg in Aleppo, northern Syria, on Tuesday of last week

Lilas Nabhan, aged ten, who was injured by an unexploded mortar shell in Aleppo in 2016, sits with crutches and her prosthetic leg in Aleppo, northern...

THE Syrian war, which entered its tenth year this week, has become “shameless”, a Syrian-born priest in the Church of England, the Revd Nadim Nassar, said this week.

“I feel I see the ugliest face of politics I have ever seen — even worse than what I saw during the civil war in Lebanon,” Fr Nassar, the director of the Awareness Foundation, said on Tuesday. “I am more convinced than ever that it is a proxy war. . . It is absolutely open and obvious, and nobody is hiding anything about it. And the biggest loser is the Syrian people.”

UN agencies marked the ninth anniversary of the conflict on Sunday with the publication of a series of sobering statistics reflecting its human impact.

Half the Syrian population have fled their homes. Since December, 960,000 people are estimated to have been displaced, 80 per cent of whom are women and children. About 25,000 are currently pregnant, and midwives operating in Syria are reporting that there has been a sharp increase in cases of early delivery, miscarriage, and low birth-weight. Pregnant women are asking for caesarean deliveries, as they are afraid to go into labour while on the move and without medical care. UNICEF estimates that about 4.8 million children have been born in Syria since the conflict began. Another million have been born as refugees in neighbouring countries.

Two schools in five cannot be used, because they have been destroyed, damaged, are sheltering displaced families, or are being used for military purposes. More than half of all health facilities are non-functional. Prices of basic items have increased twenty-fold since the war began. Overall, more than 11 million people across Syria are deemed to require aid.

“The suffering of the Syrian people during this tragic and terrible decade still defies comprehension and belief,” the UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, said on Sunday. “Hundreds of thousands of Syrians, men and women, have lost their lives. Hundreds of thousands have been detained, abducted, or are missing. Human-rights abuses, crimes, destruction, and destitution have taken place on a monumental scale. . . The horrific and enduring nature of the conflict is proof of a collective failure of diplomacy.”

Last week, the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, spoke of “nine years of human-rights abuses on a massive and systematic scale, eroding international norms to new depths of cruelty and suffering”.

World Vision’s Syrian-advocacy director, Caroline Anning, said on Tuesday that Syria was “the most clear indictment of the failure of diplomacy in this century. . . You can’t bomb a country into peace; it doesn’t work that way. All it is doing is destroying the social and physical fabric. . .

“International humanitarian law has been completely abandoned in Syria: people use banned weapons on populated areas, they bomb schools and hospitals with impunity. . . It’s not too late — there could still be justice — but it is damning and so disappointing to see the failure of the international community to put the lives of civilians above their own politics.”

While there was a “lot less conflict” than in the peaks of 2014 to 2016 — “it’s a lot calmer in large parts of Syria” — there had been a “big escalation” in Idlib in recent weeks (News, 21 February), and, compared with previous years, much less energy was being poured into securing a ceasefire.

“Many of the issues that contributed to the conflict — inequality, poverty, a lack of resource — have been made ten times worse,” she said. “In areas being contested, we have seen really big escalations for violence in last year, and I think until there is proper lasting ceasefire and peace deal we can expect more violence in those areas.” World Vision was still seeing a “generous response” from the public and from governments including Britain’s, she said.

A joint statement issued on Monday by the governments of France, Germany, the UK, and the United States said: “Nine years ago today, tens of thousands of Syrians peacefully took to the streets calling for respect for human rights and the end of government corruption. Instead of heeding the Syrian people’s legitimate demands, the Assad regime responded with a ruthless campaign of arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture, enforced disappearances, and violence. . .

“The Assad regime must accept the will of the Syrian people, who demand and deserve to live in peace and free of shelling, chemical-weapons attacks, barrel bombs, air strikes, arbitrary detention, torture, and starvation. . . Fighting terrorism cannot and must not justify massive violations of international humanitarian law or continued violence.”

They reiterated that they would not support reconstruction efforts “until a credible, substantive, and genuine political process is irreversibly underway. Absent such a process, reconstruction assistance for Syria would only entrench a deeply flawed and abusive government, increase corruption, reinforce the war economy and further aggravate the root causes of the conflict.”

Since 2011, the UK has provided more than £3.1 billion to “trusted partners” in Syria and the region, the Department for International Development confirmed last week, It also announced that the RAF had delivered 37 tonnes of UK aid to Turkey, which is now the largest refugee-hosting country in the world.

Ms Anning said this week that World Vision was adhering to principals of impartiality and conducting “early recovery activities” within the UN’s humanitarian response plan, including the rehabilitation of schools and repairing of basic infrastructure to ensure that people had access to water and electricity.

On Tuesday, Fr Nassar said that it was wrong to blame only the Syrian government: “All factions of the conflict are to blame. . . They are all being funded and supported by external forces. . . All of them failed to put Syria first. They put themselves and their survival first. The people of Syria are intelligent enough to see that. We are not stupid. We see that the war is about who remains in power.”

Recalling the Syrian uprising of 2011 (News, 1 April 2011), he described having “anticipated the worst when arms were picked up . . . Immediately, countries started picking sides inside Syria to support with money and arms and it got out of control. And everybody, of course, totally forgot the requests of the people of Syria — why they went to the squares and the streets.

“The people of Syria wanted change, to take part in their destiny. They wanted to make their country flourish . . . fighting the corruption which invaded every corner of life in Syria. All those legitimate and great requests disappeared and became sectarian. Political Islam hijacked the uprising. . . We have thousands and thousands of foreign fighters coming in the name of Allah.”

Although Christianity was “about hope”, he could not say that he saw an end to the conflict. He had been warning for “years”, that government deals that saw the transfer of opposition fighters to Idlib would create a “focal point”. Nobody wanted to repatriate them. The UN reports that, in the northeast, at least 28,000 children from more than 60 countries — “many the offspring of former extremist fighters, remain languishing in displacement camps, deprived of the most basic services”.

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