A decade after the first shots were fired, cities are in ruins
and more than ten million have been displaced.
John Washington / The Nation
(June 30, 2021) — “Bombing, bombing, bombing” — that’s how Ahmad Yassin Leila recently described the whirlwind of destruction that met him and his young family as they sought shelter in Idlib, Syria, early last year. Leila, his wife, and their four children had come to Idlib after the Syrian government’s heavy artillery siege of their Damascus neighborhood of East Ghouta had forced them from their home years before. Since then, they had been on the run from the pervasive violence — shock waves, caved-in ceilings, flying shrapnel — that seemed to follow wherever they fled.
The Syrian government had been bombarding Idlib for months with tanks and armored vehicles, while Russian and Syrian warplanes dropped incendiary explosives, cluster munitions, and massive “barrel bombs” on a population that included over a million people who had fled from other parts of Syria and taken refuge in the province. The bombs targeted schools and hospitals in neighborhoods thought to be rebel strongholds, neighborhoods now reduced to rubble, blood, ash, and the streams of people attempting to get out.
In early 2020, Leila and his family piled onto a motorcycle and joined the hundreds of thousands fleeing for their lives and dying on the cold mud road packed with trucks, cars, handcarts, motorcycles, bicycles, and animals — a limping exodus heading north toward Turkey in search of safety. But the hundreds of thousands of refugees were brought up short at the border wall. Turkey wouldn’t let them in.
Leila’s family was left without shelter in the miserable cold of a northwestern Syrian winter, blocked by Turkey’s border to the north and “bombing, bombing, bombing” to the south. The temperature frequently dropped below freezing at night, so people took to burning whatever they could find for warmth. One night that freezing February, in their floorless tent, Leila noticed that something was wrong with his 18-month-old daughter, Iman. “Around 3 o’clock in the morning, I tried to move my little girl, the child,” he told me. “But she was really blue and not moving, and then her body became hot, and we did not know what to do.”
The baby became unresponsive and cold again. Alarmed, Leila took her in his arms and, along with his wife, started looking for an ambulance or car that could transport her to a hospital. Finding no vehicle to help, they set out on foot. On the way, as Leila carried her close to his chest, Iman froze to death.
When I first read of Iman Leila’s tragically foreshortened life and terrible death in The New York Times last year, it captured something for me about the protracted conflict’s human cost. Trying to understand what happens to someone who is fleeing persecution and is denied refuge has driven much of my reporting over the last few years. With the forcibly displaced, the desperate, and the undocumented, horror often piles upon horror. Ahmad Yassin Leila lost his daughter, and his name appeared in a newspaper, but then what? He was still living in a tent in the dead of winter, jets were still cutting across the sky on bombing missions, and border guards were still shooting at migrants trying to get beyond the wall.
This February, a year after Leila’s daughter died in his arms, I reached out to him via WhatsApp to learn more about what happened that night and what his family has endured since. His profile picture was a photo of Iman. In the picture, she is propped up on blankets and a pillow, wearing a loose-fitting T-shirt with a pink, apple-cheeked cartoon animal. Leila and his wife and their three surviving children, ages 5, 9, and 11, had just relocated to Afrin, a city in northern Syria less than 20 miles from the Turkish border. Through an interpreter, he told me about that time last year when he was trying to find a safe haven for his family. “We kept searching and looking for a home,” he said, “but could not find one.”
Iman Leila’s death and the hole it has left in her family was not caused by bullets or bombs or shrapnel — not directly, at least. Instead, her death and many others like it are due to the humanitarian crises that have followed in the conflict’s wake, crises that are now crashing against the borders of other countries in the Middle East, Europe, and beyond. With the war in Syria entering its 10th year this spring, the full humanitarian impact remains impossible to catalog. The failure to address this young century’s greatest refugee crisis led to Iman Leila’s unnecessary death — and the unfathomably violent Syrian conflict contains a multitude of stories like hers. What has a full decade of conflict done to the Syrians who have been forced from their homes, lost family members, and undergone hardships unimaginable to those who have lived without war?
Even as President Bashar al-Assad’s blood-soaked victory in the conflict seems ever more assured, Syrians — both those in the country and those consigned to refugee camps or to a precarious undocumented status throughout the region and the world — are trapped in a cycle of violent upheaval and refuge denied. Moreover, the bending of international norms that the Syrian conflict has occasioned — the return of chemical weapons to the battlefield, the disregard for civilian casualties exhibited by regional and world powers, and the abrogation of refugee and asylum laws — will shape conflicts across the planet for years to come. It is time for the humanitarian costs — both in terms of lives lost and obligations ignored — to be tallied.
Forty percent of Syria’s infrastructure has been destroyed,
including 50 percent of Idlib’s hospitals.
While the human toll of the war in Syria is difficult to comprehend, some numbers do help put the situation into context. Since Assad’s troops fired the first shots at peaceful protesters in the southern city of Daraa in the spring of 2011, around 6.6 million people have been displaced within Syria. A similar number have been forced to flee the country. The number of dead may be as high as 600,000. Nobody really knows how many people are languishing in the Syrian government’s secret prisons, but some observers estimate that hundreds of thousands may have been detained or disappeared in these human slaughterhouses. Forty percent of the country’s infrastructure has been destroyed. And people have been doubly, triply, multitudinously displaced, entire cities razed, neighborhoods engulfed in flames and flattened to rubble.
Back in 2015, the world was momentarily aghast when pictures of the body of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old boy who drowned in the Mediterranean and then washed up on a Turkish shore, went viral. The images of Kurdi, who was from Kobani, Syria, and died with his mother and brother while trying to make the perilous journey from Turkey to a Greek island, forced the world to confront the reality of the humanitarian crisis. Politicians in the West were briefly held to account for refugee policies that had failed to respond adequately to the crisis: According to reports, Kurdi’s family had been seeking, ultimately, to reach Canada, and the child’s death became a major issue in that country’s national elections.
But last year, when another young Syrian boy drowned — this time in the Aegean — half a decade after Kurdi’s death, the world hardly noticed, as journalist Robert Mackey pointed out at the time. Was Iman Leila another example of the Syrian War surpassing the limits of the world’s attention, or of a tragedy that exceeds our capacity for empathy?
The reality, for desperately fleeing Syrians, is that things have only gotten worse since Kurdi’s death, and the vast majority of people displaced by the conflict have not been taken in by Western countries, in part because of nativist fearmongering in Western Europe and the United States. The US took in just over 18,000Syrian refugees during the Obama administration. The Trump administration slashed those numbers significantly, resettling just 62 Syrians in 2018, before suspending all refugee applications last spring in response to the Covid pandemic — likely a violation of international law. (Even when the US was accepting significantly more refugees — nearly 85,000 from dozens of different countries in 2016 — that was only 0.4 percent of the worldwide total.)
After a concerted campaign in 2015 to welcome Syrian refugees, largely in response to Kurdi’s drowning, Canada took in just under 45,000 from 2015 to 2020. Of the Western European countries, Germany has taken in the most refugees, at over 600,000; the Netherlands has accepted over 100,000; and a number of Eastern European countries have striven to take in none. The UK has accepted fewer than 20,000 Syrian refugees, though supposed “tides” of asylum seekers have contributed to a wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric there, both in the run-up to the Brexit vote and afterward.
Denmark is poised to become the first European country to begin deporting refugees back to Syria after deciding to reevaluate the cases of people who had fled Damascus — a city that Denmark now deems to be safe, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary. Asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, including a number of African nations, have sparked the rise of far-right groups in other European countries and continue to provoke a potent backlash in the United States.
Germany, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have taken in millionsof refugees.
All of which means that nearly all of the Syrians displaced by the war have been forced to remain in the region. There are over 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, making up around a quarter of the country’s population. In Jordan, with a population of about 10 million, there are 1.3 million Syrian refugees, and in Turkey, there are more than 3.5 million. The destabilizing effects on these countries of this influx of traumatized and impoverished refugees cannot be overstated, even while the real victims remain the Syrians.
In Lebanon, Syrian refugees face a host of restrictions, including arbitrary raids, curfews, and checkpoints that apply only to them. More than 80 percent don’t have legal residency, and 90 percent live in extreme poverty and are vulnerable to arrest, harassment, and detention. In Jordan, in one of the largest refugee camps in the world, called Zaatari, more than 76,000 people suffer from acute health problems. And last year, 10,000 refugees were stranded, with little access even to essential resources, in a makeshift encampment at the Jordan-Syria border. Syrians in Turkey face precarity, unemployment, detention, and xenophobic attacks. And even as Europe closes its borders and uses the refugees as pawns in its negotiations with Turkey, Turkish border guards have brutally beaten, illegally deported, or killed Syrians breaching the border wall. Yet this hasn’t stopped thousands of Syrians — facing bombs, torture, or starvation at home — from trying to escape.
Ahmad Kdor, a Syrian originally from Ma’rat al-Numan, in the northwestern part of the country, has been forced to uproot himself multiple times. This spring, he described his experiences after being arrested at a checkpoint outside Damascus and taken to a secret prison, one of the many regime-run black sites that are places of almost unimaginable suffering. “I tasted the most severe forms of torture,” he told me.
Kdor now lives in Idlib province, sometimes earning as little as a dollar a day as a laborer. When he can, he helps distribute food aid from a foreign NGO. He and his family rent a small home but are on the verge of moving into a nearby tent city, as Kdor can’t afford both to feed his family and to pay rent. He described the desperation surrounding them: “Some people hanged themselves, while others burned themselves because of the psychological stress and their inability to take care of their families and children. They could not do anything about it except to take their own lives.” He added that “around 90 percent of people living in tents [in Idlib] are dependent on humanitarian assistance. This humanitarian assistance is not enough, but it is better than death.”
Though Assad has wrested back effective control over about two-thirds of the country, the current economic collapse in Syria is adding even more misery to the crisis. Ongoing international sanctions, an all-time low for the Syrian lira, and a banking collapse in neighboring Lebanon have squeezed Syria’s finances. In the past year, as the economy has continued to tank, food prices in the country have gone up 247 percent. According to the World Food Program, 12.4 million people in Syria, or about 70 percent of the population, are food-insecure, and 1.3 million are severely so, which means they sometimes go a day or more without food.
Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma and a fellow at the Quincy Institute, told me, “For the Syrian people, who have suffered so much over the last 10 years, the suffering has only become more severe over the last year. For most, the direct violence and fighting are over, but economic conditions have collapsed at a faster pace over the last year than at any time during the worst war years.”
Kdor described his daily routine now: “I wake up in the morning and watch the news, see where the planes bombed and who died. Every day we fear that the regime will advance to our areas, and there are no remaining areas to which we can flee. We fear that the regime will come and kill us and our children.”
Besides the ongoing human toll, the conflict has also set dangerous precedents through the evisceration of international human rights law. The Syrian government, as well as the United States, Russia, Turkey, and others, have simply not been held to account for their numerous and egregious violations of such laws. Sara Kayyali, a Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch, cited the Chemical Weapons Convention, which had been one of the most robust and stringently followed international war covenants. But the Syrian government — which acceded to the convention — has staged multiple chemical attacks and never been held accountable. “We have a morbid joke,” Kayyali told me, “that in the Syrian context, we used some words too early [back in 2012 and ‘13] and then the situation kept getting worse and worse” — for example, what’s beyond “crimes against humanity”? At some point, language reaches its limits.
In 2017, during a US-led coalition campaign to liberate Raqqa, which had been suffering under ISIS’s heel for three years, US Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said that the goal was “zero human casualties,” adding: “I challenge anyone to find a more precise air campaign in the history of warfare.” The reality, however, was that thousands of civilians were injured or killed by the US-led strikes. The American munitions came raining down amid a Russian bombing campaign that had been going on for at least two years. The Russian strikes, too, though allegedly targeting ISIS, hit and killed Syrian civilians. In other words, the accounting is being exacted on the people of Syria, not on the regime.
Iasked Nadia Hardman, a refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, what she views, after 10 years of war, as the hardest challenge Syrian refugees currently face. “The knowledge that so many can’t go back,” she replied. “They’re living in eternal limbo. They’re living in a country that doesn’t want them. To be where they know they’re not wanted, and they can’t go back. There’s not much hope.”
Hardman told me about Syrians leaving Jordan to return to Daraa, the city near the Jordanian border where the uprising started. Their homecoming, however, has not been what they’d expected. Young men of fighting age have to go through a “reconciliation” process in which they vow not to take up arms against the government. They run the risk of being forcibly conscripted into the Syrian Army or picked up by the military security agency.
In the areas under government control — where peace has ostensibly been restored — homes have been destroyed, food is scarce, people can get bread only every few days or once a week, fuel is difficult to obtain, electricity lasts for just a couple of hours a day, and there are reports of extrajudicial killings and disappearances. “Challenging doesn’t cover it,” Hardman said of the security and economic situation. “The conditions are exhausting. Life is extremely difficult.”
In 2021, Human Rights Watch estimated that 50 percent of the health care infrastructure in Idlib province had been destroyed. Much of the rest of the country is dealing with the same or worse levels of destruction. Formerly rare or containable diseases, such as measles, hepatitis, and typhoid, have proliferated. And then the pandemic hit.
While the fighting has waned in some parts of the country over the last year, an extremely dangerous daily reality has made it difficult to judge the severity of Covid-19’s toll in Syria. However many Covid-related infections and deaths there are, the quarantines and curfews have certainly weighed down an already sinking economy. Last summer, the situation reached such a desperate point that, in Damascus and other government-held areas, people took to the streets again in protest — this time knowing full well the lengths to which their government would go to quell dissent.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley.
“They wanted their rights, they wanted an end to the corruption, they wanted bread and dignity,” Kayyali told me, describing the initial impetus for the protests back in March of 2011. Despite the 10 years of brutal war, “I don’t know many Syrians who have given up on those initial demands.” There have been numerous attempts to bring peace — official talks in Geneva, cease-fires promised and announced and abandoned — and still the war drags on into its second decade, with US, Russian, Turkish, and other forces remaining on the ground there.
“And now we are here, in Syria,” Ahmad Yassin Leila told me a year after his baby daughter froze to death in his arms. He and his family have lived through yet another winter in a tent, this time in Afrin. Despite being legally considered Syrian soil, Afrin has been occupied by Turkish forces, as has the surrounding region of northwestern Syria, also known as Rojava, since the Trump administration green-lit the incursion in 2019. Though they live under Turkish control, Leila and his family cannot cross into Turkey. But they are done running for now.
“We are not thinking about leaving,” Leila told me, “because we are tired of moving around, and we are waiting for God to make things better for us, and we do not want anything else. We want to teach the children and have them go to school. We want this situation to end, and we do not want anything else.”
John Washington writes about immigration and border politics, as well as criminal justice, photography, and literature. He is also an award-winning translator, having translated Óscar Martinez, Anabel Hernández, and Sandra Rodriguez Nieto, among others. His book, The Dispossessed, on the global story of asylum, was published by Verso Books in 2020. Find more of his work at www.jblackburnwashington.com
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