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Never before in this bloody half-decade of fighting have Syrian civilians been so imperiled—and so alone. “I know someone whose kid was shot by a sniper in Salah al-Din [a district of Aleppo] and the girl was only seven years old,” Khokoud Helmi, a founder of the Syrian underground newspaper Enab Baladi, told me. She tracks the conflict on a nearly minute-by-minute basis from southern Turkey, where she sought safety several years ago. She used to have dreams of a peaceful revolution—then of the international community getting involved to help bring peace to Syria and to stop the Assad regime from killing its citizens. But over time, as the killings continued and the world looked away, she has abandoned those ideas. “I have no hope anymore of the world taking any further steps. Things are intensifying; people are dying on a daily basis.”
For years, Waleed and others—citizen journalists, civil society activists, aid workers—wrote, talked, and pleaded with the world to spend more resources and more diplomatic energy on bringing Syria’s conflagration to an end. But “the UN didn't do anything to stop the siege of Aleppo and they haven't said anything about the Russian airstrikes—no one has said anything,” Waleed says. “The people of Aleppo, now they don't care anymore for the UN or the international community.”
Before the fight came to Aleppo this year, the city was home to the largest share of the country’s 6.5 million internally displaced people. People fled to Aleppo for safety. No longer.
“The places that once were safe are no longer safe, the places that people thought would be a last resort are no longer safe,” says Christy Delafield, a communications officer with the NGO Mercy Corps, which is working in Syria. “We’ve worked in an informal settlement on the border with Turkey and displaced people went there and had that settlement bombed and seen civilians die.” Space created for civilians has shrunk throughout the conflict, since no side can win a decisive or lasting battlefield advantage. Hospitals and schools have been hit in the fighting; camps for internally displaced people have been targeted.
"Things are intensifying; people are dying on a daily basis.”
Indeed, the situation has sunk to a point where there is virtually no place for civilians to escape the fighting. “If people flee from Aleppo to Idlib, then they are fleeing from being under fire to being under fire.” That’s why more than four million Syrians have left their country. But with welcome mats rolled up, that is no longer an option.
“One hundred percent, they are trapped, and it is really difficult to think of any other conflict where basic protection of civilians and humanitarian access has been so politicized and made so subordinate to the military situation,” George Readings of the International Rescue Committee tells me from his office in Amman, Jordan. “The very nature of humanitarian access has almost been redefined in Syria—we have allowed it to lose some of its true meaning.” The idea had been that humanitarian access would be guaranteed—aid would be fully neutral and civilians who were not part of the fighting would not be targets. No more.
Now, Readings says, “we end up talking about things like one-off convoys going and distributing aid or we end up talking about the Russian proposal of so-called ‘humanitarian corridors’ into Aleppo, and none of these ideas actually really get close to allowing the kind of sustained humanitarian access that is actually necessary to meet the needs of Syrian civilians living in those areas.”
Readings is among many in the aid community who note that, in the Syrian conflict, “aid and humanitarian assistance have been hugely politicized, and they have become something that is used as a lever to try and encourage groups to engage in diplomatic negotiations.” But that has the effect of further tying humanitarian aid to battlefield events rather than separating it from them. Right now, with political negotiations stalled, humanitarian access has also sputtered.
“People cannot flee, they cannot get evacuated, they cannot even get food and medicine,” says Zaher Sahloul, a Chicago-based doctor who offers care inside Syria as part of the Syrian American Medical Society. “Humanitarian corridors that the Russians claimed they opened, no one has taken them; actually, in Aleppo, they call them the ‘corridors of death.’”
As a result of the battlefield and political stalemate, the humanitarian toll has been unimaginable. Orphanages have moved underground—literally—to avoid death from bombs falling from the sky. Surgeons operate in underground hospitals with walls shaking mid-operation. Readings has watched for five years as the death toll, now estimated to be above 400,000, has climbed.
“There is nowhere for people to go,” Readings says. “Civilians should be able to stay in their homes if they want to and they should be able to stay there safely, but they can’t in many areas of Syria now. They should be able to seek refuge within Syria and that is increasingly difficult for them, both because it is difficult to cross borders and because we have found that places where people seek refuge, such as internally displaced camps, have become targets for the conflict as well.”
And yet even while the catastrophe drags on, it seems unlikely that things will improve for civilians in the near term. Each side wants to score battlefield gains before the stalled Geneva talks finally resume. The quest for leverage, not respect for civilian life, is driving things on the ground.
The international community must use its diplomatic heft to strive for real and unfettered humanitarian access for civilians inside Syria, not more talk as mothers, fathers, and children perish. A cessation of hostilities that is not tied to political imperatives should be the immediate goal. And the world must keep its eyes and its pressure on the warring parties to protect those most vulnerable: citizens who are not fighting in the war around them and who have absolutely no place to go to escape it.