Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

No exit in Syria

With healthcare, education and living conditions at rock bottom, the Syrian people are bracing themselves for still worse to come, reports Bassel Oudat from Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

One can only dream of what should have happened, of a conflict that should not have got out of hand, of a revolution that promised the moon but crumbled in the face of a brutal military machine, of conferences held in Europe amid pomp and fanfare that fizzled out as those in the corridors of power failed to follow through and, ultimately, simply looked the other way.

One can reflect on all that, or just think of simpler wishes: a safe zone for refugees, a no-fly zone to protect them from the regime, guns and ammunition for the anti-regime forces, or at least humanitarian aid that manages to reach the besieged and the abandoned.

Perhaps one can think of even less than that — of the radicals streaming into Syria being stopped in time, of Iran reining in Hezbollah and passing for a credible regional player, of the Russians saying one thing and not doing another.

These are the dreams of the activists and the elite in Syria today, of the intelligentsia and of concerned observers. For the average Syrian, however, the worries are of a more immediate nature.

Can a wounded brother find a clinic that has gauze and antiseptics to treat his wounds? Is there a hospital that hasn’t been razed to the ground? Will there be petrol available at the petrol station where dozens of cars have been parked since last night? Is there a school that hasn’t been taken over by the government and turned into an army barracks? Is it safe to let the children walk alone to school, or do they risk being abducted for ransom?

The average Syrian dreams of bread. But bread is in short supply, and so are jobs, so is medicine, and so is every basic necessity that other people take for granted. The Syrian people also took them for granted just four and a half years ago. The average Syrian, whether pro- or anti-government, is hungry and dispossessed, tired and scared, running for cover and wondering if the end is near.

All international attempts to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis have stalled. Even with the humanitarian situation in the country past the point of tragedy, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is still using its military machine to bombard and intimidate and to wrench away territory and deny livelihoods.

Backed by thousands of mercenaries who know they can act with impunity, the regime has started a frenzy of vengeance. It is assisted by Lebanese and Iraqi Shiite militias and bolstered by Iranian military commanders. The Al-Assad regime is now going for broke against its opponents.

But this is only part of the peril. On the other side of the dismal scene stand the extremist Islamists with their black flags and Dark Ages agenda, their continuing appeal to the young and deluded, their propaganda and training, and their ability to raise money by robbing banks, stealing oil fields, improvising taxes and endless extortion.

Their presence has helped the regime claim that it is fighting terror. It has helped the Iranians claim that they are fighting terror. And now it is helping the Russians claim that they too are fighting terror.

A few weeks ago, Russian deployed its forces on the coast of Syria and then started flying bombing missions, a few against the Islamic State (IS) group but the majority against positions opposed to the Al-Assad regime.

As the fighting has continued, businesses have failed, factories have been bombed or just gone out of business. Routes have closed, supplies have disappeared and workers have been laid off, left to fend for themselves, not just against the threat of death or injury, but also against the nightmares of every ordinary family: the lack of food and clothing, fuel and heating, and the lack of a shelter to run to when the neighbourhood goes up in flames.

Hatreds that were not there before have been created. Divisions along long-forgotten ethnic lines have been reawakened. The horrors of having the wrong faith at the wrong time, or the wrong address or the wrong name, have been revived.

The bombs of the regime have not just destroyed homes and factories: they have hit the very heart of the country, boring through a social texture that was supposed to be solid and exposing the fragility of a civility that was supposed to last.

The Syrian economy is in a shambles. Agriculture is down to half its former level, before the conflict started. Industry is a thing of the past. The mining of such lucrative raw materials as oil and phosphates is at rock bottom. So is tourism, except for the injection of people with guns, many of them young and eager, who have come to fight for the many militias now fuelling the conflict in the country.

The government has practically no income and lives off the kindness of friends in faraway places like Moscow and Tehran.

These are the reasons that Syrians are taking to the sea, attempting to flee such horrors. Many have lost their homes, sometimes more than once. About 1.2 million homes, possibly more, have been destroyed or partially damaged by shelling. Almost half the population has been displaced. Not all such people have left the country, but those who have are not necessarily better off.

HEALTHCARE AND EDUCATION CRISIS: The regime routinely attacks medical facilities to deny its opponents access to treatment. It targets hospitals and pharmaceutical companies, along with clinics and emergency centres.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 75 per cent of hospitals in Syria have been destroyed, while 65 per cent of pharmaceutical companies have been put out of business.

Medical experts say that the blockade on the country has led to a shortage of most medical supplies. Doctors have run out of vaccines. People battling with long-term conditions such as diabetes, neurological disorders or heart trouble no longer have access to their regular medicines. Many of them are dying.

To ensure that the opposition, which the government calls “terrorists,” has no access to medical services, the government has banned the sale of medicine and surgical supplies. Now pharmacies, when they agree to sell cotton or gauze or antiseptics at all, only do so in small amounts for fear of being reported.

In the first month of their air raids, the Russians shelled five hospitals in Syria, killing dozens of civilians. According to opposition sources, about seven per cent of the fatalities in the conflict have been children.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), about seven million Syrian children have experienced injuries or trauma or both. Some have been forced to participate in the fighting. IS and Kurdish forces hire out children for their ranks, and the regime uses children to man its checkpoints.

Nearly 2,000 schools have been destroyed over the course of the conflict and hundreds more turned into military barracks. According to Syrian activist Sawsan Zakzak, education has now come to a halt in Syria except in a few areas. “Only in three governorates are school and college students still attending classes as normal,” Zakzak said.

“The risk of going to school is high. Parents are afraid to send their children to school out of fear they will be abducted for ransom or hurt in an attack on their schools. So students have been dropping out,” he said.

SHORTAGES AND REFUGEES: With oil having doubled in price and now being hard to come by, families in both rural and urban areas and both rich and poor have gone back to using wood-fired ovens for cooking and heating.

Long lines of people waiting to buy gas bottles are now a familiar sight, while drivers sit in their cars queuing for hours, if not days, to fill up their tanks. Blackouts are now standard in many areas.

One of the reasons for the shortage of fuel is that IS has captured a significant number of the country’s oil facilities. It might have been thought that the group would be on the list of Russia’s bombing raids, but the Russians appear to have been too busy bombing the opposition to pay attention to such details.

The poverty rate in Syria was about 30 per cent before the revolution and has more than doubled since. The crisis is now of such proportions that unless further international action is taken very soon, many people could face famine conditions.

Political activist Fayez Sara has been urging safe passage for food and aid convoys to Syria. “There is a dire need of serious international action,” he said. “Safe passage should be provided for aid to reach the worst-hit areas, regardless of whether these areas are under government or opposition control. What matters is to provide sizeable and comprehensive help that stops the suffering.”

About 100,000 Syrians live in 57 refugee camps along the borders with Turkey, where the humanitarian, health and food situation is also dire. The Syrian regime has been blocking the supply of aid to these camps and accuses the refugees of siding with the opposition.

Officials in charge of the camps say that the Red Crescent is not providing enough help to the refugees. Mamoun Sayyed Issa, who used to run one of the camps, said that the camps, close to the Turkish border, are not “shelled by the regime out of fear of Turkish retaliation. But the camps do not meet the minimum criteria set by the UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency].”

According to Issa, doctors in the camps see an average of 200 patients or more per day. Only half of the residents in the camps have received measles vaccinations, and there is an acute shortage of medicine, especially for diabetes.

“Doctors give small doses of antibiotics because they don’t have enough to give full courses. So patients suffer relapses. Some medicines have deteriorated because fridges have stopped working during blackouts,” he added.

The camps lack equipment to carry out blood tests and X-rays, Issa said. “We had some 33 doctors treating some 100,000 refugees, one doctor for every 3,300 people, when I worked in the camps. UN criteria call for one doctor per 500 people,” he said.

Issa, who saw 16 children die of exposure when he worked in the camps, said that pregnant and nursing mothers lack necessary nutrition. “Mothers do not get their full nutritional needs. Each refugee gets only one quarter of a loaf of bread per meal,” he pointed out.

WHO has also warned of the spread of cholera in Syria. Experts say that the incidence of water-borne diseases such as typhoid and hepatitis is on the rise because of poor hygiene.

The supply of drinking water is only one third of its level before the revolution. Residents say that the regime also cuts off water to certain areas to punish civilians.

About 31,000 cases of hepatitis were recorded in Syria at the beginning of this year, and doctors now expect 1,000 new cases per week. Polio has also flared up because of the lack of vaccination. In some cases, vaccines received through international aid have been past their expiration dates.

Nearly 25,000 people are injured every month because of the ongoing conflict. Most cannot get proper treatment because of the lack of medical facilities and supplies. Since the conflict in the country began, some one million people have suffered disabilities. Meanwhile, more than half the local doctors have left the country.

WHO’S LEFT BEHIND? Despite the conflict, many people still refuse to leave the country. These, needless to say, don’t include members of the political opposition who are still holding conferences and interviews in hotels in Europe. But they do include ordinary people who lack the means to leave and who have only a minimal interest in politics.

Some of those who have decided to stay are revolutionaries who are determined to fight the regime until the very end. Others are activists who have remained in order to report on the situation.

And some are racketeers, who have never had it better. These are people who are making fortunes smuggling in supplies and trading in scarce necessities. There are also the gangs that bully people for money, abduct people for ransom, and rob and steal as the opportunity presents itself. Most of these brutal opportunists, though not all, are associated with the regime.

Most people still inside Syria are either living in reduced circumstances, but in relative safety, in regime-controlled zones, or are living in precarious conditions, with daily threats to their very survival, in areas targeted by the regime or extremist militias.

People living in the targeted zones have it the worst. Neither the regime nor IS has any respect for international law or human rights. When it is not shelling a town, the regime is often trying to starve the population into submission.

In the towns under the regime’s control, blockades and checkpoints are everywhere. Those suspected of working for the opposition face the threat of arrest and torture. The rest of the population is relatively safe, but it suffers from the usual shortages of food, water, fuel and medicine.

Ali Al-Abd, a member of the opposition, said that the Syrian people who have stayed behind are now facing overwhelming odds. “There is the fear of barrel bombs, random shelling and arbitrary arrest. People are arrested just because they were born in a region that is now outside the regime’s control,” he said.

Caught between mistrust and whizzing bullets, mired in local brutalities and foreign mendacity, the Syrians have little to look forward to. The country they knew will be hard to put back together, even when the guns fall silent.

Whoever is left standing after the conflict has ended, whoever is left with the power to rule, will have nothing to celebrate. There will only be the daunting task of trying to reverse the horror that has befallen the country.

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