The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After a decade of war, the plight of Syrian refugees is only getting worse

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Ten years ago, protesters clamoring for political reform in Syria took to the streets in what were almost entirely peaceful, even joyous demonstrations. They had seen the upheavals in other Arab countries, which had forced a clutch of long-ruling autocrats to relinquish their iron-fisted grips on power. And they hoped that change and maybe even real democracy could come to Syria, a diverse nation steeped in a rich history that had been under the thumb of the family of President Bashar al-Assad for decades.

Instead, there has only been ruin and chaos. “The Assad regime gunned down those who called for a peaceful transition to democracy,” wrote CNN’s Arwa Damon, in a bleak synopsis. “Gulf countries sent in suitcases of cash with a wink and a nod towards more religiously conservative fighting units. Assad let former al Qaeda members and other criminals out of jail. The U.S., at the peak of its involvement, half-heartedly trained some ‘moderate’ rebels, many of whom went on to join the ranks of extremist groups.”

The Syrian conflict as a civil war is for all intents and purposes over. Assad’s forces now control more than 70 percent of the country and all its major cities. The rebel factions that remain exist within a shrinking cordon of strongholds, mostly in the country’s northwest — and, there, largely thanks to Turkish protection. In the northeast, Kurdish-dominated militias that once fought alongside a U.S.-led coalition find themselves at times battling both the regime and Turkey and its proxies.

Iran and Russia’s entry into the geopolitical maelstrom tipped the scales inextricably in the regime’s favor. Assad’s forces targeted civilian population centers with artillery and crude improvised devices like barrel bombs. Then, it deployed chemical weapons, according to a U.N. watchdog. Western powers focused their efforts on combating the brutal Islamic State; though the extremist group’s territorial fiefdom evaporated, analysts warn of its continued prospects for resurgence.

The past decade has shattered the nation and scattered its people. More than half of the population was forced to flee. “The United Nations stopped counting the dead in 2016 at 400,000. Six million Syrians fled their homeland, escaping across its borders into neighboring countries,” wrote my colleague Liz Sly. “Five million are still stranded, barely surviving in substandard conditions. A million climbed into flimsy boats to cross the Mediterranean to Europe … Away from the TV cameras, tens of thousands who had participated in the protests were being systematically rounded up and incarcerated in Syria’s gulag.”

For years, the plight of Syrian refugees existed in the Western imagination mostly as a threat, weaponized by far-right politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. (Never mind that, since the major exodus in 2015, Syrian migrants have on the whole proved an integration success story in much of Europe.) Even as foreign humanitarian aid dwindles, millions still languish in limbo in countries bordering Syria, living on the margins of the societies hosting them but too afraid of the grim fate that may await should they try to return.

Conditions are only getting worse. “Poverty and food insecurity are on the rise, school enrollment and access to health care are shrinking, and the COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out much of the informal work that refugees rely on,” noted a recent report from the U.N.’s refugee agency.

“People are at a breaking point,” UNHCR senior communications adviser Rula Amin told CBS News. While “the attention of the world has shifted from the Syria crisis and people tend to think that maybe it has become easier, with every passing year, it becomes more difficult, not easier for Syrian refugees.”

In Syria and the neighboring countries that host the bulk of its refugees, more than 23 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, noted the British medical journal the Lancet, adding that the “vast majority of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line.” The U.N.’s World Food Program estimates that some 12.4 million Syrians are now “food insecure,” an increase of 4.5 million people from just last year.

A generation of youth has been set back: In 2018, the Overseas Development Institute, a global think tank, calculated that 5.8 million Syrian children required “educational assistance.” UNICEF estimates that close to 3 million Syrian children inside and outside the country are just simply not going to school.

A meaningful political solution is not in sight, despite years of efforts by a host of international actors. Western governments have placed stiff sanctions on the Syrian regime, but that has done little to shake Assad’s power and arguably added to the pain of ordinary Syrian civilians. It’s unclear how a fractured, battered nation can come together again.

“It’s no longer a country, but a collection of people in the same spot of earth,” one Syrian activist told the Los Angeles Times.

Some dissidents cling to hope. “The price of joining the revolution was not small. We have paid a huge price and endured huge losses. But we are not just victims. We are survivors,” Hasna Issa, an activist formerly detained by the regime now based in the country’s northwest, told the Guardian. “We are raising the next generation in a way different to anything we could imagine before.”

Others live with a deeper despair. Reporters from Agence France-Presse asked Ola Dawarshi, a 26-year-old refugee in Turkey, when she would consider the possibility of returning to her war-torn home. “I don’t even ask myself that question,” she replied. “I don’t even think about it.”

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