“If the situation continues like this, we will have nothing to eat”, a farmer told me in the eastern countryside of Hama in Syria. It was 2008, three years before the eruption of the Syrian crisis. He was protesting soaring fuel prices, a result of fuel shortages. With a severe drought at the time, fuel was needed to run the pumps that extracted groundwater. The rising prices of fuel meant that there was no water, no farming, no income.
Today, a fuel shortage is what the Syrian people need — a shortage of the geopolitical fueling of the war. The horrors and relentlessness of the violence sew deep scars and consequences for the country, region and wider world. In spite of the pain, and large-scale destruction, the Syrian people show remarkable resilience, solidarity and generosity. Though just as I reflect on their resilience, I see in their midst those too young to comprehend. Many Syrian children, the next generation, have lost any ordinary notion of childhood, have been long out of school, have suffered the loss of family, have seen the worst that humanity can bring, and are steeped in a culture of violence.
THE DESCENT INTO THE ABYSS FIVE YEARS ON
Protests first erupted in March 2011, calling for more freedoms and equality. Right from the start, a peaceful political solution was ignored and Syria descended into the abyss of a full-fledged civil war. Today’s latest statistics are baffling. Half of the population has been displaced and over 12 million Syrians are in need of emergency aid, 5.6 million of which are children. To put that into perspective, the number of Syrian people displaced and in need of emergency aid is equivalent to the total of the Lebanese, Jordanian and Qatari populations combined.
The number of Syrian children currently in need of emergency aid is equivalent to the populations of Los Angeles, Austin and San Francisco combined.
In terms of quality of life, on the one hand, citizens face a public service that has completely failed to provide them with any security or provisions, and on the other, they face the horrifying and ruthless spread of terrorism and insecurity. Life expectancy is estimated to have shortened by more than 20 years and Syria’s rank in the global index deteriorated from 56th in 2010 to 5th in 2013. In a country where youth literacy is above 95%, 2.3 million children are not able to attend school today. It is difficult to fully comprehend the cost and consequences of such a stunt in education to a generation’s future.
It is estimated that the country, in terms of development, has regressed by four decades.
RESILIENCE AND SOLIDARITY WHERE YOU LEAST EXPECT IT
In my communications with Syria, as would be expected, I hear horrific stories of indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, random bombs terrorizing daily life in schools, markets and hospitals. Yet, I also hear stories of ordinary Syrians showing extraordinary resilience and solidarity. In areas far away from active front lines, despite the roaring sounds of shelling and jet fighters, Syrians go about their daily business despite having access to only a few hours of electricity and clean water. In the country with the biggest displacement crisis in the world, members of the Syrian population that still live in their homes continue to host the less fortunate displaced communities in spite of wide-spread poverty and insecurity. These stories defy the simplistic narratives that reduce the conflicts in the country into merely sectarian tensions between various communities.
The Syrian people are refusing to be labelled as victims. Syrians have exercised remarkable generosity towards financially assisting their fellow citizens. During the World Food Programme’s (WFP) recent appeal in December last year, the WFP stated that Syrian nationals were the third largest group to contribute individually to the WFP’s online appeal. Syrians are also exercising great bravery in the face of brutal violence. During the early stages of the uprising, it was through the courage and ingenuity of young Syrian citizen journalists that the world received news of the human right violations conducted by the Syrian government. Today, citizen journalists continue to work and record in some of the world’s most hostile environments, including areas controlled by Islamic State (IS). They risk their lives in order to keep the voices of the Syrian population heard across the world.
INTERNATIONAL UNITY FOR PEACE AND THE CLIMB OUT OF THE ABYSS
Each day the war continues, the threat of irreversible damage to the unity of the country and its people grows. While the continuation of the war has been a result of many factors, it is important to underline the role played by regional and international powers in the prolongation of the conflict as it enters its fifth year. The first peace negotiation in Geneva in 2012, later known as Geneva I, was held in the complete absence of Syrian representation, be it from the government or opposition. By excluding Syrian representation, regional and international powers signaled the heavy presence of their own interests in the conflict. Within Syria, a message was received: regional and international powers were ready to wait and bide their time while Syria slowly bled and withered.
Consensus to end the war in Syria should not be as elusive as it seems today. Indeed, despite all the controversies, the international powers have managed to agree on important points regarding humanitarian assistance. In February 2014, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2139 which demanded all parties promptly allow UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners safe and unhindered access across conflict lines and across borders. It called on all parties to immediately cease attacks against civilians and lift the siege on populated areas. The resolution was later renewed in December 2014, allowing cross-border delivery to Syria for a year.
The international community should build on these achievements, however small and simple, to promote security and protection of civilians. Not only would such efforts save thousands of lives today, but it would also give the Syrian population a chance to focus on negotiations and to begin the process of determining how to govern their own country in the future. The need to establish effective governance is paramount — even if the war were to end immediately, the economic, social and political challenges facing Syria are tremendous.
The longer the war continues in Syria the more difficult is the path to reconciliation and reconstruction. The war has produced a costly draining effect on Syria’s skilled labor force. It is quite alarming to learn, for example, that 48% of Syrian doctors have fled the country. Only peace can reverse the brain drain and prepare the nation to embark on construction. Competing geopolitical interests should not be played out at the cost of making Syrians feel as though there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The refusal to negotiate and compromise only harms the wider interests of every country involved, as the dark consequences of the war spread well beyond the borders of Syria.
I am not sure where the farmer who I interviewed in 2008 is now. His village is currently under IS’ control. I hope he is safe in the country or somewhere else outside of Syria. The most important thing for him right now and for the millions of Syrians affected by the crisis is to know that the world will help them pass through this dreadful present. After that, Syrians can and will take care of their own future.