(March 18, 2020) For the people of Syria, the civil war that started almost exactly nine years ago marked the most destructive outcome of the so-called Arab Spring. This series of social media fuelled uprisings moved like a careening serpent throughout the Arab world in 2010 and 2011.
Street protests began in Tunisia in 2010 and spread to Libya, Egypt, Syria and Bahrain throughout 2011, with people demonstrating against oppressive regimes, poverty and inequality. Nine years later, the body count is beyond what could have been imagined when protesters took to the street and city squares, and shared their experience on Twitter. Western nations heralded their bravery.
But the Arab Spring soon ended, and the Arab world was thrown into a bloody era called the Arab Winter.
By October 2011 Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled with an iron fist for 42-years was captured, tortured and killed, his body put on display on a mattress in a commercial freezer for days as Libyans filed past. As many as 30,000 died as a result of the upheaval.
“The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that around 200,000 people were internally displaced in Libya as of October 2018,” wrote Human Rights Watch in a 2019 report.
“Since 2011, militias and forces affiliated with several interim authorities, as well as ISIS fighters, have attacked religious minorities, including Sufis, Ibadis, and Christians, and destroyed religious sites in Libya with impunity.”
This past week the country braced for a new round of fighting as countries ignore a UN embargo and flood the country with weapons to be used by factional fighters in Libya.
Similarly, uprisings in Egypt and Bahrain buffeted their countries from one end to the other.
Only Tunisia’s protests resulted in the creation of democratic elections, although the country is not considered safe for travel by the government of Canada.
And then there is Syria—500,000 men women and children dead since March 2011, 6.6 million people displaced internally, and another 5.6 million refugees situated around the world.
“The nine-year war has decimated public services,” UNICEF Executive Henrietta Fore said in her February 26, 2020 briefing to the UN Security Council.
“Over half of all health facilities, and three out of 10 schools, are non-functional. The economy is in freefall — with the destruction of physical capital costing an estimated $120 billion, and half a trillion in economic losses. And the Syrian pound has lost nearly 50 per cent of its value in the last year. Eleven million people across Syria still require urgent humanitarian assistance.”
And now “Syria’s carnage nears a horrific climax” according to an editorial in the Washington Post on February 26, 2020.
“According to the United Nations, some 900,000 people have fled a new offensive, including air strikes by forces of the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Russian and Iranian allies since December.
The New York Times suggested on February 18, 2020, that “the attack seems to be a bid to cut supply lines from Turkey to areas held by the opposition forces or even an effort to encircle and besiege the city of Idlib …
“The estimates of 900,000 people in flight include 500,000 children. Most of these civilians are crammed into a narrow strip of territory near the Turkish border, which is sealed. Many have no shelter from bitterly cold weather,” the newspaper reports. “Russian and Syrian planes have deliberately triggered this exodus by relentlessly bombing civilian targets in Idlib, which has been the largest remaining stronghold of anti-Assad forces.”
In February, the New York Times created an interactive picture book of what the flight of hundreds of thousands of people looks like and explains how it got to this point.
On February 28, 2020, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced plans to scale up its response in the region, providing medical assistance and distributing humanitarian goods, such as tents and blankets.
“Our ability to step up assistance depends on a steady supply of items reaching northwest Syria,” it said in a press release, “and MSF asks Turkish authorities to enable the passage of staff and supplies into Syria.”
The Syrian civil war has costs, human and financial.
At the end of 2018, MSF had more than 1,000 staff on the ground in Syria and in the five years from 2014 to 2018 spent USD $192 million on its Syrian operations. In 2009, prior to the Arab Winter, MSF had virtually no presence in Syria. And they are not alone in spending hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to help the people of Syria.
In the same five-year period, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spent USD $818.5 million in Syria. In 2018, ICRC spent $183 million or 10% of its global budget in Syria and had 619 staff on the ground. In 2009, ICRC had 13 staff on the ground in Syria and spent 0.12% of its global budget there.
While numbers for individual countries are not immediately available, UNICEF spent a total of $3.7 billion dollars in emergency activities alone on its Middle East and North Africa portfolio in the five years from 2014 to 2018. In 2018, it spent $905 million or 17% of its global budget on its Middle East and North Africa portfolio. In 2009, it spent $4.3 million on that portfolio or 0.65% of its global budget.
Yet, the tragedy continues.
“This is the worst wave of displacement we’ve seen during the Syrian conflict,” said Fabrizio Carboni, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Geneva-based director for the Near and Middle East on February 25, 2020. “Amid the harsh winter conditions in Idlib, we see people trapped, isolated and running out of ways to cope. It’s completely unacceptable.
“We urge the parties involved to allow civilians to move to safety, either within the areas they control or across the front lines. This safeguards their lives, dignity, health, and well-being,” Mr. Carboni said.
UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore has recently spent time in Gaziantep, Turkey, where she visited the humanitarian logistics hub in Bab Al Hawa on the border with Syria.
“Sending aid across Syria’s borders has been a lifeline for vulnerable families,” Fore said. “Nine years since the conflict started, five million children still need aid. We must help them at all costs. We are deeply grateful to our local partners on the ground for their heroic work – sometimes despite the personal toll on them and their families.”
After outlining five political steps member nations of the UN Security Council had to do “to stand up for the children of Syria and speak with one united voice,” Fore made one final plea.
“Millions of Syrian children are crying tonight — from hunger and cold…from wounds and pain…from fear, loss and heartbreak. They, and their families, face a brutal winter and an uncertain year ahead. We must stand with them. We must tell them that we choose peace. History will judge us harshly — and justly — if we do not.”