Before it's too late
As humanitarian conditions continue to worsen in Syria, observers are urging action before time finally runs out, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
The cost of the uprising against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad over the past 14 months has been very high for the country's population, leaving behind many human tragedies and deep wounds that will be difficult for any new government to heal.
The humanitarian catastrophe the country faces is no longer limited to the deaths of more than 16,000 civilians and 4,000 soldiers during the uprising, as tens of thousands of prisoners are also languishing in jail and one million people have been displaced, with 200,000 refugees fleeing to neighbouring states.
The tragedy in Syria has affected people protected under international law, with Syrian and international human rights organisations reporting that 1,360 children have been killed in the country, and more than 45 journalists have been killed, unheard of in wars in the region.
Five paramedics with the Syrian Red Cross and dozens of doctors and nurses have also been killed, and some 500,000 Syrians are believed to have been incarcerated and tortured. Thousands of homes have been destroyed or looted.
The Syrian Revolution Statistics Centre, an NGO, has reported that civilian victims now number some 17,960 dead, 1,310 of whom are women, while 688 have died from torture. Some 65,000 people are missing, and around 212,000 people remain behind bars.
According to the centre, about 50,000 people have been wounded, with estimates suggesting that the regime's security forces now kill one civilian every 40 minutes, arrest one every three minutes, and kill one child every day.
The Syrian opposition, supported by human rights and international NGOs, has accused the regime of targeting paramedics and doctors and of killing the wounded in hospitals under its control. The regime has exterminated entire families, the opposition says, and carried out public executions of civilians and army defectors. It has also bombed field hospitals erected to treat the wounded.
Human rights groups and the opposition have declared several towns in Syria to be "disaster areas" because of the siege by military forces and the non-stop artillery shelling that has taken place. Wounded civilians have died because they have not been able to receive treatment, the groups say, and corpses rot in the streets because snipers have been targeting anything outside that moves.
Meanwhile, the regime claims that it is pursuing "armed terrorist groups" across the country and that it has been carrying out "precise military operations". The regime blames the revolutionary brigades for the massacres, destruction and killings, contradicting reports put out by international organisations.
The latest UN report issued in June estimated that more than 1.5 million Syrians were now in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, even as relief agencies face major obstacles in reaching those in need.
The Local Coordination Committees (LCC), an opposition movement that organises and documents events in Syria, has accused pro-regime forces of using children as human shields to prevent the Free Syrian Army (FSA) from attacking tanks during military operations in several areas. Entire families were buried under rubble during the shelling of some Syrian cities over the past month, the LCC says.
The international NGO Amnesty International said in a June report that the regime was committing "crimes against humanity and war crimes" in the name of defending "higher state interests" in revenge attacks on groups believed to support the opposition.
Amnesty said there was evidence that regime soldiers had dragged people, including children, outside their homes and killed them, sometimes burning their bodies. It also accused the Syrian regime of torturing prisoners, including the sick and elderly, and it demanded that the UN Security Council refer the regime to the International Court of Justice.
In a report a few weeks ago, the US NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Syrian forces of using sexual violence against male, female and child prisoners arrested in connection with protests or in house-to-house raids.
It said that none of these governmental forces were being held accountable, and nor were pro-regime militias, though it also added that war crimes had been committed in strongholds of the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian NGO Supreme Relief Commission said that regime forces had prevented the treatment of the wounded during demonstrations except at state-owned hospitals where there was a heavy security presence. The wounded were arrested as soon as they entered hospital, the Commission said, and many pro-regime doctors and nurses assaulted patients, sometimes even killing them.
Syrian blood banks do not supply the injured with blood without security clearance, and the regime has banned the tetanus vaccine from the market along with other supplies used in minor surgery. The security forces arrest doctors and shoot at ambulances carrying the wounded, sometimes using ambulances as decoys to reach areas where there are protests, the Commission said.
A report by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) issued last week accused the Syrian regime of violating human rights by carrying out executions around the country during military operations. The report said that government forces were using automatic weapons, artillery and tanks to attack volatile areas, while opposition forces were using only rudimentary explosive devices in attempts to stop them.
Investigators were updating a list of those suspected of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria with a view to possible future prosecution, the UNHRC said.
For the first time since the start of the uprising, the chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, held talks last week aimed at allowing a team to enter Syria to investigate the massacres that the opposition claims were carried out by regime forces and militias.
Mohamed Al-Hosni, a lawyer and director of the Syrian human rights group Sawasia, doubted that Pinheiro's visit to Syria or the commission, slated to submit a report in September, would be of much use.
"His visit is pointless," Al-Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The commission has been operating for nearly one year, and it has issued two reports confirming that regime forces are committing massacres against civilians, but there has been no international resolution to protect the people of Syria. In fact, there has been a political decision by the international community to prevent the Syrian people from obtaining their political and civil rights."
"The paradox is that the crimes committed by the regime have been documented on audio and video footage and in live feeds, and these have put pressure on the public conscience and will remain a mark of shame against the international community. The latter has been moving selectively, dividing people into those whose lives are precious and those whose aren't."
"The UN institutions are blindly following international political decision-making, sometimes justifying it and at other times seeking to find a margin to take action, while waiting to see what world political decision-makers, especially Washington, decide to do next. I believe that UN missions will continue to knock on the door of the regime in Syria, but I am positive they will never enter Syria unless they do so on the regime's terms, which has been fabricating charges against the opposition and obscuring the facts and evidence," Al-Hosni said.
Meanwhile, humanitarian conditions in Syria are worsening, and they are likely to deteriorate further if the ongoing violence does not stop. Thousands of orphans and widows are wondering how and where they will now live, and they are likely to be joined by thousands more in the coming weeks and months.
Thousands of the wounded will likely die because of poor healthcare, but the international community has been unable to arrange for humanitarian relief agencies to enter Syria without restrictions in order to reach those who need assistance. For the Syrian opposition, sympathy is no longer enough. The international community must take immediate humanitarian action before it is too late.