The Syrian conflict is entering its fifth grim, awful year. It has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people, displaced more than a third of the country's population, and left roughly half in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
"The truth is that the suffering in Syria is without parallel in recent history," said former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright, during a press call with reporters on Wednesday. It was organized by the #withSyria coalition, a grouping of 130 international humanitarian and human rights groups focused on ending the civil war and providing aid to those affected.
Albright condemned the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for "making a mockery" of U.N. resolutions passed in recent years to better protect Syrian civilians and secure humanitarian relief for war-blighted areas of the country. She urged more pressure from the international community to rein in a spiraling "regional conflict" that's become a "human rights catastrophe of the first order."
To hammer home the point, the #withSyria coalition released a series of satellite pictures, analyzed by a group of scientists based in Wuhan University in China. It showed the dip in "night-light" between March 2011 and now. They estimate that 83 percent of the lights in Syria "have gone out" since the start of the conflict. The effect is most noticeable around Aleppo, located in the north near the border with Turkey. In 2011, it is ablaze with light. Four years later, and there's barely a flicker.
"Satellite imagery is the most objective source of data showing the devastation of Syria on a national scale," said Xi Li, the lead researcher on the project. "Taken from 500 miles above the earth, these images help us understand the suffering and fear experienced by ordinary Syrians every day, as their country is destroyed around them."
In some of the most war-ravaged areas, like Aleppo, an estimated 97 percent of the lights have gone out. This is a consequence both of the massive displacements of the country's population, as well as the toll of the destruction wrought on Syrian physical infrastructure. "The exceptions," said Li, "are the provinces of Damascus and Quneitra, near the Israeli border, where the decline in light has been 35 percent and 47 percent respectively."
The tragic irony of the conflict is that the worse and more dangerous it seems to get, the less able the international community appears to be to start a meaningful process to end it. That trend "needs to be reversed," says David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee and a member of the coalition.
Otherwise, the picture is clear. "Syria is entering the dark ages," warns Miliband, a former British foreign secretary, "literally and metaphorically."