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Isolated and Forgotten in Syria

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If the latest agreement to a ‘cessation of hostilities’ in Syria, forged by the International Syria Support Group, were to be implemented it would be the first formally declared end to fighting in Syria since the conflict began nearly five years ago.

Although the agreement includes a U.S. and Russian plan to deliver humanitarian aid to besieged areas, it falls short of a formal ceasefire since it was not signed by the main warring parties – the rebels and Syrian government forces, and it will doubtfully stop Russian airstrikes that have already killed thousands.  The opposition might be forgiven then for their skepticism after three rounds of failed Geneva peace talks and the relentless deterioration of facts on the ground.

And with the regime’s recent advances on Aleppo–which is facing the heaviest bombardment since the conflict began–aided by Russian bombings, some 50,000 more residents have fled the area under threat of siege, and the U.N. warns that 300,000 more may be at risk of starvation. To them these talks ring hollow.  If President Bashar al-Assad’s track record is anything to go by– he has blocked aid to 99 percent of those under siege and recently admitted that he intends to retake all of Syria “without any hesitation”– the Munich deal, like others before them, will   have no bearing on reality.  Such would require the cooperation of all sides of the conflict, which has been as of yet unattainable.  Meanwhile humanitarian groups, for their part, are outraged that aid–which should be a neutral component–is being used as a political tool for concessions.

People are still asking why Syrians are fleeing and why the situation in Syria is so desperate.  They remain unaware that not only is it refugees who are suffering, but the one million people within the country who remain under siege, blockaded– mostly by regime troops–in areas where aid is restricted and civilians face not only the dangers of bombardments, but of disease or starvation.   It is these horrific conditions that have led opposition representatives–along with over 100 humanitarian and U.N. agencies–to demand that the Assad Regime abide by U.N. resolutions and the rules of law that call for unhindered humanitarian access and an end to sieges and bombardments.  It is also why NGOs and Syrians have long called for safe zones and no-fly zones to provide safe passage for the vulnerable, but that window closed after Russia’s intervention last year.  It seems there is no political will for Assad or his chief backer, Putin, to concede in light of recent military gains by the joint Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces. Moreover, oil and weapons trading with Gulf nations, Iran, Turkey among others continues unimpeded.

After the conflict first broke out in March of 2011, subsequent to the Syrian army’s brutal crackdown of peaceful protests in Daara, the battle between state and civil society morphed into a complex civil war that goes beyond the reductionist Sunni/Shia divide.  The atrocities of jihadis who later joined the rebel forces, groups such as ISIS (ISIL, IS or Daesh) and the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra Front from Iraq are well known, but less apparent is the fact that the regime, as a result of its ‘scorched earth’ campaign, is responsible for 98% of civilian casualties.

Before reaching the saturation point last fall that resulted in a mass migration to Europe, one which continues to this day, the conflict had already displaced some ten million Syrians, left 300,000 dead (including over 10,000 children), and resulted in over half a million people trapped under siege–a number that has since doubled. Of the four million Syrians who have fled their country, thousands have already perished crossing the Aegean or Mediterranean seas, and thousands more still wait hopefully at the boarders to Turkey or Jordan.

But within Syria itself millions remain trapped in 52 besieged areas–according to Siege Watch–in what amount to open air prisons.  Yarmouk Refugee Camp is one such place, where residents face disease, undernourishment, dehydration and starvation in conditions one U.N. official described as ‘beyond inhumane.’  In their resourcefulness desperate residents have resorted to eating grass, leaves and pets; they are making their own medical supplies, improvising tools and burning plastic or cloth for heat.  In the town of Madaya–which brought recent attention to the sieges after reports that 70 died due to starvation—U.N. aid was finally allowed into the enclave.  However it was but a drop in the bucket for the 13 million in need of assistance.

While all parties–the regime, the rebels and ISIS are now involved in using siege as a weapon of war (and also in profiting from the siege economy), this ‘starve and surrender’ tactic is not new to the regime which began withholding food and water soon after the conflict broke out.  The regime has also kept chlorine from Syria’s aquifers (rendering the water undrinkable) and has deliberately cut both water and electricity supplies, according to the Red Cross (ICRC).

Additionally, in Syria some 200,000 still languish in Assad’s notorious prisons, 11,000 detainees have been tortured to death and thousands exterminated.  Those not captured face the on-going risks of kidnapping, arbitrary detention, sniper attacks, car-bombings, aerial bombings, torture and rape, if not death.  In the words of one resident losing hope, “time is blood.”  It is not that Syrians want to flee their country, they simply have no other options if they want to survive.

In another violation of international law, the Assad regime continues to use illegal barrel bombs,–improvised explosives made from oil barrels or gas cylinders and filled with chemicals (such as chlorine), metals, TNT, etc.—which the Syrian Army has dropped on hundreds of civilian towns.  By targeting residential areas—particularly hospitals, schools, churches, mosques and markets–these crude bombs, along with elephant rockets, cluster munitions and other chemical weapons, have been the leading cause of death in Syria.  Despite agreeing to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons program in 2013 (under international supervision), and since the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2209 banned the use of chlorine gas as a weapon, the army has continued carrying out deadly sarin and chlorine attacks.  According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the (now rarely discussed) use of chemical weapons in Syria’s war has become routine.

Last summer, on the anniversary of the regime’s 2013 sarin gas attacks in Ghouta which killed over 1,400 people, the Syrian Army carried out another brutal massacre at a market place in the city of Douma, in which 100 civilians were killed and several hundred injured.  Then on October 30, according to Doctors without Borders (MSF), at least 70 more people were killed and 550 wounded in another under-reported attack on a marketplace east of Damascus.

The regime carries out these civilian attacks under an anti-terrorist narrative leading the world to choose between Assad and ISIS, but as long as both the Assad Regime and the Islamic State prevail–both of which are complicit in carrying out war crimes and targeting civilians, now with Russian support—radicalism will thrive, Syria will remain uninhabitable and residents will flee, or perish.  If air drops of humanitarian aid are carried out they will offer some relief to the besieged, but they will not protect them from aerial bombardments.  Only when safety is restored can the hemorrhaging of refugees stop, the displaced return home, and civil society begin the long process of re-building.

Whether or not we believe in a categorical imperative to help, or in the U.N.’s moral ‘Responsibility to Protect,’ and whether or not the world was sincere in its calls to never again allow a Rwanda or Bosnia under international watch, world leaders have until now failed the Syrian people. Notwithstanding the tireless work of countless NGOs on the ground, humanitarian supplies are still not reaching their destination, and Syrians and allies alike understandably feel betrayed by the U.S.-led coalition of 60 nations that targets ISIS while allowing Assad to carry out these war crimes with impunity.

Geopolitics is rarely driven by humanitarian concerns.  But what U.N. Human Rights chief, Navi Pillay, described as the ‘collective paralysis’ of the world, has left the international community with a moral as well as legal and security dilemma, and has left Syrians feeling isolated and forgotten.  As the carnage continues, even in the wake of new agreements, when it comes to Syria is the world community being true to its international human rights values and collective human conscience.

Brita Rose is a freelance blogger/editor. She also works in publications with non-profit and faith-based organizations in NYC, and has an M.A. in International Relations–with a focus on the Middle East and Conflict Resolution–from the CUNY Graduate Center.

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