On My Mind: Syria’s children
The international community has been sorely divided and incapable of assisting the people of Syria in an organized, helpful way.
Syrian children at refugee camp in Tyre, southern Lebanon Photo: REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
The human desire to maintain normalcy during wartime is one of life’s puzzling
anomalies. But that has become increasingly difficult in Syria for the most
innocent, the nation’s youth. Some 35 percent of the country’s 21 million people
are under the age of 14. What happens to them will largely determine the future
of Syria, a country in the process of being torn apart, as the conflict
initiated by the Assad regime enters its third violent year.
during a routine preparation for a professional soccer game, a mortar shell
killed a 19-year-old player in Damascus. Here was a reminder that the conflict
had definitely reached the country’s capital, where President Bashar Assad
remains holed up, determined to use whatever resources are available to carry on
his fight. He has maintained from the beginning that his opponents are
terrorists, an assertion that is not only factually inaccurate, but also cruelly
off base when considering the youngest victims.
Major media – also
recently – carried a photo of a sorrowful Syrian girl.
explained that she had just learned that the school she was attending as late as
the previous day no longer existed. Hers is not an isolated story.
reports that 20% of Syrian schools have been destroyed, damaged or seized by
families that, displaced from their own homes, have been seeking shelter within
Syria. The number of internal refugees now exceeds two million, and 800,000 of
them are children.
Many others, desperate to find some normalcy, have
fled Syria. Since the beginning of this year, the pace of refugees crossing into
Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey has accelerated, adding to the burdens of
international humanitarian organizations trying to provide basic services, as
well as the countries that, by sheer circumstance, are hosting the refugees.
Half of the one million Syrians who have found refuge in neighboring countries
The tragedy is further compounded by the obstacles that
stand in the way of delivering humanitarian aid, including food and medicine,
and the shortage of qualified medical personnel.
“The health system in
Syria has collapsed,” says Doctors Without Borders.
The tragic irony is
that the conflict started with children. Two years ago, in the southern Syrian
city of Daraa, a group of schoolchildren were arrested, and some tortured, after
scrawling anti-Assad regime graffiti. Each upheaval in the Arab world over the
past three years had a spark, and this ridiculously unnecessary government
assault on children and the outrage it evoked in their parents was
Yet, while other countries that have undergone political
revolutions – Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen – are still struggling for stability,
none has endured the kind of sustained wrath that Assad has poured out. He has
not held back from using just about every weapon available against his own
people, and even today shows no sign of relenting.
The Assad regime’s war
against Syrians has been transformed into a civil war, and the opposition forces
are so disparate – in ideology, geographic location and numbers – that the
country could be moving toward permanent fragmentation.
writing on The Guardian website, observed that “following a sudden disaster such
as an earthquake or tsunami, the response of the international communities is
rapid and effective.”
In contrast, the international community has been
sorely divided and incapable of assisting the people of Syria in an organized,
Those divisions, however, have not stopped the flow of arms
to the government and rebel groups. Syria, in short, has become a proxy setting
for playing out rivalries between other states in the region and even between
Ultimately, this inability of the international community –
chiefly the UN and Arab League – to mobilize in a united way to end the
conflict, will have the most lasting impact on Syria’s children, whatever the
final outcome of the tragedy and the ultimate configuration of the
What used to be “normal” for Syrians, life under a strictly
authoritarian regime led by one family for more than 40 years, has shifted to
brutally violent repression, and the new reality of a traumatized, deeply
divided nation will be extremely difficult to repair. That will have long-term
implications for all of Syria’s neighbors and the wider region. But, in the end,
the biggest losers are Syria’s children, whom UNICEF director Anthony Lake aptly
calls the “lost generation.”
The writer is the American Jewish
Committee’s director of media relations.