THE BLOG

Syria's Lost Generation

21/05/2013 13:31 BST | Updated 20/07/2013 10:12 BST
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War still rages in Syria - a fact that we are too quick to forget. The second birthday of the crisis has long passed and resolution doesn't appear to be on the horizon. When Syria-related news does reach our media outlets and Twitter feeds, it usually focuses on chemical weapons or possible intervention by the US. There is little talk of the abhorrent humanitarian crisis, which deteriorates daily.

Last week, the UN reported that the number of refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries stands at over 1.5 million. Internally displaced people number three million, 80,000 have died and the damage wrought on cities and villages, many of great historical and cultural significance, is overwhelming. With a political solution stalling at every minor hurdle, the suffering of the Syrian people continues unabated.

By far the greatest victims of the ongoing conflict are Syria's children. They are suffering disproportionately. Both rebel groups and national forces are increasingly recruiting youths for use as soldiers and human shields. Syria is rapidly a becoming a place where the innocence of childhood has been replaced by the cruel realities of trying to survive a vicious and extant war.

At least two million innocent children are trapped inside the country. They are under constant risk of malnutrition, disease, trauma and early marriage. According to charities on the ground, thousands are homeless, struggling to find enough to eat and living in barns, parks and caves. In many areas, public infrastructure has completely collapsed; leaving sanitation systems and drinking water supplies defunct.

Thousands of children have missed two years of education as teachers have fled and schools have been attacked. New research carried out amongst refugee children by Bahcesehir University in Turkey reveals the extent to which children have been directly targeted in the war. Shockingly, one in three children report having been hit, kicked or shot at and many more have been tortured and even raped. The conflict has caused the breakdown of society in parts of the country but it has also led to the collapse of childhood for millions of youngsters.

The research also reveals many children are exhibiting signs of severe emotional trauma as they struggle to come to terms with their experiences. Nearly one third of those surveyed articulated that they have been separated from members of their families. Three quarters have experienced the death of a close friend or family member.

With young males increasingly being used by armed groups as porters, runners and human shields, the already high risk of emotional difficulties and post-traumatic stress disorder is increased exponentially. However, women and girls are at risk too and many teenage girls are being married off early to 'protect' them from a widely-perceived threat of sexual violence.

As is the case with many brutal intra-communal conflicts, rape is being used as a weapon of war. Accurate statistics are difficult to ascertain, but it is certain that rape will be underreported due to the sensitivity of the issue, especially among conservative communities. In similar conflicts, around 50 percent of rape victims have been children and there is no reason to suggest why Syria would be any different. In fact, sexual violence is repeatedly cited by Save the Children as one of the main reasons for families fleeing their homes.

In international debates surrounding the conflict, these humanitarian issues have largely been overshadowed by the political impasse. The international community has tiptoed around the Syrian situation because of Syria's pivotal role in the region's power struggles. The complexity of foreign powers' stakes has rendered it impossible to replicate the sort of international efforts that were devoted to Libya. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the only international stakeholders to have supplied arms to the Syrian opposition whilst Russia and Iran have relentlessly supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The EU insists that a political solution is required and reaffirmed support for a democratic transition in Syria. Europe has also urged all parties to discuss establishing a humanitarian corridor at the Syrian-Turkish border and the EU also remains the largest provider of aid to the Syrian people, both those within Syria and those in neighbouring countries; committing more than €400 million so far, with at least €200 million more to come.

However, more must be done by the EU, national governments and the international community to ensure both a humanitarian and a political solution. A protracted conflict benefits President Assad, who has every intention of pursuing the war. Assad will not negotiate with the opposition, much less step down, as long as he enjoys support from Russia and Iran.

The EU should continue to provide humanitarian assistance but must also intensify its dialogue with Russia, even if the country is unlikely to shift its position any time soon. Moscow has everything to lose if Assad falls, not least its image as an antipode to the western world. Yet Russia can also be instrumental in unlocking the diplomatic stalemate, and no political solution is possible without Russian involvement.

Most importantly, any solution to the crisis must be two-track; it must be an equal balance between politics and humanitarianism. This is the only way to prevent children in the country from becoming Syria's lost generation.