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The Syrian conflict has been one of the most devastating in recent history. Currently, it is estimated that there are some 6.6 million refugees outside Syria. A further 6.7 million are displaced inside the country and an estimated 13.4 million are in need of emergency assistance within Syria.[i] Meanwhile, within Syria, international sanctions are having a catastrophic impact upon the whole civilian population. There is a desperate shortage of fuel; of electricity; of medicines; and of construction materials. Costs have rocketed due to inflation and the shortage of goods and cost of transportation, and it is estimated that over 80% of the population now live below the poverty line, with over 60% of the population struggling to afford even basic food survival rations. The tragedy of this is compounded by the fact that prior to the start of the conflict in 2011, Syria ranked higher on the international Human Development Index, including for education and health, than almost all other Middle Eastern countries, and was a middle income country.
The exact number of those who have died in the Syrian conflict is unknown. It is thought to be between 400-500,000 persons. Whilst the origins of the conflict were rooted in political and economic discontent, it soon developed deeply sectarian expression and evolved into a proxy conflict involving multiple factions of fighters from numerous countries. Many of those have sought to impose an exclusive ideology that opposes the inherent plurality of Syrian society and has had an arguably genocidal impact on minority communities in areas where extremist factions (including ISIS and Al-Qa’eda linked groups) have prevailed.
Dr. Nabil Antaki from Aleppo wrote on 15 March 2021:
“For 10 years, we have been living through war; longer than the 2 world wars of the last century: suffering, bereavement, poverty, misery have become our daily lot, a daily life which is a nightmare…. Our children’s childhood has been stolen, our teenage dreams vanished and our youth’s future stolen. And yet we were living very well before the events began, in a safe, stable, secular and prosperous country. Everything was not perfect – far from it – but no injustice, no violation of human rights, no reform, justified destroying our country and sacrificing generations of Syrians.
Although for the past year there has been hardly any fighting in Syria, the lives of Syrians are one of hardship and suffering. We are living through an unparalleled economic crisis caused by 10 years of war, by the financial crisis in Lebanon and by the sanctions imposed by the USA and European countries.
Pope Francis has just completed a historic visit to Iraq which, like its neighbour Syria, has paid a high price for an invasion – occupation and partition, organized under a false pretext, by those who impose sanctions and teach others about Human Rights. Pope Francis keeps repeating that we are “All Brothers”. May that message be heard by those who treat Syria and the Syrians as enemies.”
Whether or not events in Syria meet the legal definitions of Genocide, as has happened in neighbouring Iraq, minority communities, particularly Christian and Yazidi communities have seen a catastrophic reduction in numbers in areas where militant groups have prevailed. It is to be hoped that the international community, rather than pursuing policies that prolong conflict and support extremism, might implement policies that promote dialogue, peace, justice, the sustaining of plurality in Syrian society; life and hope for all; and the rebuilding of the nation.
[i] Figures from UNHCR, 15 March 2021.