Has the World Forgotten Syria?
2023 marks almost 12 years since the peaceful uprising in Syria turned into an aggressive conflict provoking a regional humanitarian crisis. Since the offset, parties to the conflict have flagrantly violated human rights and international human rights law protections. 15.3 million people are expected to require humanitarian aid in 2023. This is a 1.9 million increase from 2021.
The estimated death toll is 400,000 people. However, reports suggest that this number underestimates the actual death toll. 12.3 million have been forced to flee the country, according to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, with 6.7 million currently internally displaced in Syria. As a result, Europe and neighbouring countries have endured significant pressure.
What is happening in Syria in January 2023?
Authorities Unlawfully Violate Civilian’s Rights
Syrian security forces and government-affiliated militias continue to detain, disappear, and mistreat civilians arbitrarily. Vulnerable groups such as children, people with disabilities, and the elderly living in retaken areas have signed so-called “reconciliation agreements”. However, their rights continue to be violated. Moreover, authorities unlawfully confiscate property and restrict freedom of movement to areas of origin for returning Syrian refugees.
In September 2022, the chair of the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria warned that larger-scale fighting might return.
Syria is Unsafe For Returning Refugees
Syria remains unsafe for returning refugees. Even though intelligence services are not bombing some parts of Syria daily, at any moment, the regime can attack any house and kill, arrest, rape, torture or steal money from any family.
Syrians cannot fight back as the regime will not be held accountable for their actions. Despite this, countries such as Turkey and Lebanon began advocating for large-scale returns of Syrian refugees in 2022.
Millions Face Starvation and Denied Basic Human Rights
Currently, Idlib stands as the last anti-government territory in Syria. Despite a ceasefire, the Syrian-Russian military alliance still poses a threat to over 3 million civilians trapped in this territory. The anti-government armed groups continuously restrict their freedoms and deny the people their fundamental human rights.
Throughout 2022 the government diverted humanitarian aid from civilians as Syrians faced the worst economic crisis since the conflict began in 2011. Thus, millions face starvation and are malnourished with minimal access to food and clean water. Shockingly, an estimated 90% of Syrians lived below the poverty, and more than 600,000 children were chronically malnourished in 2022. A deadly cholera outbreak spread across northern Syria, leading to fears that it may reach other parts of the country.
Furthermore, electricity and fuel shortages resulted in millions of people without access to essential healthcare services. Moreover, the Syrian pound fell to record lows resulting in many state agencies being closed for several days at a time.
ISIS’s Territorial Defeat
Turkey and local factions continuously violate human rights in Turkish-occupied territories with impunity. Following ISIS’s territorial defeat in northeast Syria, Kurdish-led authorities and the US-led coalition have yet to provide compensation for civilian casualties, offer support for identifying the fate of those kidnapped by ISIS, or address the tens of thousands of former ISIS family members that are trapped in camps and prisons. Consequently, this has led to a deteriorating security situation and higher risks of re-radicalization of those who escape.
Bashar al-Assad Continues to Violate Human Rights
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, has emerged militarily victorious from the ongoing war. In May 2021, Bashar al-Assad secured a fourth term as president, meaning he will serve until 2028.
Moreover, the presidential elections did not occur under the auspices of the United Nations-led political process. Thus, the elections failed to adhere to standards for free and fair elections.
The Assad regime caused brutal repression, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Assad has used chemical weapons such as chlorine gas against civilians and conducted torture and extrajudicial killings. Assad used disproportionate aerial bombardment and shelling, resulting in millions of civilian casualties and trauma. There are ongoing international condemnation and widespread calls to convict Assad in the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, Syria has become a forgotten conflict in which the Assad regime’s crimes go unpunished.
Pederson’s “Six-Point Agenda”
Geir O. Pedersen of Norway, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, has appealed to the UN Council to shift these worrying dynamics by outlining a “six-point agenda” moving forward in 2023.
- Point 1: Stepping back from escalation and restoring relative calm on the ground.
- Point 2: Renew its framework to provide unfettered humanitarian access to all Syrians who require assistance.
- Point 3: Resume the meetings of the Syrian Constitutional Committee.
- Point 4: Pushing for the release of detained, disappeared and missing persons.
- Point 5: Improving and increasing dialogue towards identifying and implementing initial step-for-step confidence-building measures with Syrian stakeholders and international actors.
- Point 6: Increasing engagement with Syrian civil society, including the Syrian Women’s Advisory Board.
Western Media’s Selective Empathy to Humanitarian Crises
The Western media portrayed “selective empathy” towards various countries facing war and violence. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is classified as “different”. Europeans considered Ukrainians as more “civilized” than those suffering in countries like Yemen, Libya, Ethiopia, Palestine and Syria. People on social media are now classifying the 2015 “refugee crisis” as a “racist crisis”.
The despicable selective empathy, double standards and discrimination have uncovered a deep-rooted undertone of injustice across Western media. The West has ethnicity, “whiteness” and location as driving forces behind the amount of empathy shown.
Read more: Children in Syria with no Future.
International Actors Influencing Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis
Russia, Turkey, the United States, and Iran willingly provide military and financial aid to warring factions and allow the hostilities to continue with impunity across Syria.
Israel frequently conducted aerial strikes in Syria, in places such as Aleppo and Damascus airports, in 2022. According to the UN, the Israeli attack on Damascus International Airport in June 2022 disrupted the UN aid supply for approximately two weeks.
After nearly 12 years of conflict, Syrians need hope for the future. Syria’s forgotten conflict must be addressed before a catastrophic deterioration is reached in 2023.
Millions are desperately in need of humanitarian aid and are suffering. Syria is on the verge of another “flare-up” that could lead to the return of a large-scale war. Millions are dying in displacement camps as resources are becoming scarcer. Furthermore, donor fatigue is rising as other conflicts, and wars like Ukraine dominate media headlines.
We must continue to support UN cross-border humanitarian assistance in Northwest Syria and urge the members of the UN Security Council to renew the cross-border resolution. Moreover, as mentioned above, Pederson’s six-point agenda is imperative in alleviating the desperate humanitarian disaster that has been unfolding in Syria for many years.
Syria’s forgotten conflict must be of top international concern, and international human rights protections must be respected.