Red Cross report reveals the pain and loss of Syria’s youth
15 Mar 2021|

Today is tagged, by some who give historical events a beginning and an end, as the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Syria.

It is, in fact, one of several days, over many months, which might be picked as the start of that nation’s slide into one of the most brutal and destructive conflicts of the modern era.

In December 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi responded to years of abuse by police and officials by setting himself on fire. That act triggered public anger and violent protests that drove President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country after 23 years in power.

Hopeful Western commentators later called the events that followed the street vendor’s death the Arab Spring, helping build an expectation that major positive change was coming to the Middle East and that people power could topple dictators. Major change was coming, but it was mainly bad.

The protests that followed in a number of countries were met with varying degrees of violence.

When this wind of change stirred the leaves in Syria there was, for a time, reason for optimism.

The security services established in Damascus by the ruling Assad family had a long-held reputation for brutality towards dissenters. But Bashar al-Assad, who’d by then been president for a decade, was a young ophthalmologist who’d trained in London (his wife, Asma, was born there of Syrian parents). His education and his cosmopolitan image brought an international anticipation that he would reform and modernise his country.

In February 2011 protesters staged a demonstration in Damascus demanding the release of a man who’d been assaulted by police and arrested. The protest was largely peaceful.

Then, in early March, teenagers were arrested for spray-painting slogans critical of the government on walls in the city of Daraa. Word spread that they were being tortured, and protesters marched through the city’s streets demanding their release. Again, those protests were largely peaceful but they worried Syria’s rulers.

On 15 March 2011, 10 years ago today, thousands of protesters marched in Damascus, Aleppo and several other cities. Many were arrested and some were reported killed.

Protests across the country continued into July, triggering military operations by Assad’s security forces.

On 31 July, matters escalated when the Syrian army met the protests with tanks.

Rebel groups with varied ideologies mounted armed opposition to the government and consolidated their hold on cities and towns across the country.

The Assad regime responded with unrelenting force, a complete absence of humanity and an extraordinary lack of adherence to the ‘rules’ of war.

Its forces used helicopters to drop barrel bombs—literally drums and sometimes larger containers packed with explosives—into heavily populated neighbourhoods that opposed the regime, killing whole families in the process.

With the only warning the steady thumping of the aircraft overhead, these cheap and easily assembled devices could turn whole city blocks into piles of rubble—the awfulness of the September 11 terrorist attacks, day after day for years.

Into this landscape, and into Iraq, came the Islamic State terror group with its beheadings and mass graves. The bad guys in this conflict had been overshadowed by something unimaginably worse.

The West intervened, and then the Russians, and Assad survived.

The International Committee of the Red Cross takes great care to maintain its neutrality and to avoid attributing blame in conflicts. It aims to protect victims of armed conflicts and promotes respect for international humanitarian law and its implementation in national law.

But its research paints a horrific picture of the war’s impact on a generation of young people in a country of around 20 million people.

The ICRC commissioned a report on the impact of 10 years of conflict on Syria’s youth, revealing some of the deeper effects. The survey was carried out by market-research company Ipsos, which interviewed 1,400 men and women aged 18 to 24 in Syria, Lebanon and Germany in December and January.

A decade of loss: Syria’s youth after ten years of crisis says a decade of violence has had a devastating impact on Syria and left deep scars on a generation of young men and women.

Hundreds of thousands are dead, tens of thousands have gone missing without a trace, millions are displaced and an entire region has been destabilized by the lasting consequences of this long-running crisis.

The conflict has also robbed an entire generation of Syrians of their younger years. Traditional milestones such as graduating from school, getting a job or starting a family have been missed during a decade of financial struggle, disrupted access to education and anxiety about the future.

The ICRC says that in a country where more than half the population is under the age of 25, the survey is a glimpse of what millions have endured in the past decade.

Of those interviewed who still live in Syria, nearly half said a close relative or friend had been killed in the conflict. One in six of those interviewed said at least one of their parents had been killed or seriously injured and 12% had themselves been injured in the conflict.

More than half of those interviewed who’d fled to Lebanon or Germany had lost contact with a close relative.

The major impact on mental health has been largely neglected, the report says. ‘Nearly two out of three young Syrians report having experienced anxiety in the past 12 months, while more than half have struggled with depression and sleeping disorders. Tragically, among all those who reported such emotional distress, very few have been able to receive medical treatment.’

Syria once boasted a basic level of enrolment in education of almost 93%, with 2.8 million students enrolled in secondary education and more than 650,000 at university. Now, more than half (57%) of the young Syrians surveyed reported having missed years of school—if they got to go at all.

The report says that after 10 years of loss, displacement and disconnection, the impact on young Syrians’ families and friendships has been devastating and is, in many cases, permanent and beyond repair.

But Syrians in all three countries appear united in their hopes for the future. ‘While those who left Syria feel fairly well accepted (especially in Germany), most young Syrians continue to view their native land as their home.’

Over the next 10 years, many of them hope to find stability and happiness, and to start a family. ‘Crucially’, says the report, ‘70% of young Syrians consider themselves optimistic about the future.’

That finding, after all the horrors of barrel bombs and beheadings, gives a foundation for Syrians and the international community to build on.