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.
Recently, during a routine preparation for a professional soccer game, a mortar 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 al-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. The caption 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.
UNICEF reports that 20 percent 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 are children.
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 Syria’s.
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.
David Bull, 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, helpful, way. 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 world powers.
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 country.
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.”
Kenneth Bandler is a public relations executive in New York.