At the start of the Arab Spring, Syrian newborns could expect to live nearly 71 years. Five years later, life expectancy has plummeted to 55.4 years, lower than that in Afghanistan or Libya. As violence escalated, the United Nations even gave up on counting the Syrian war dead. Its last toll was 191,369 in August 2014. Since then, it has stuck firmly to an estimate of 250,000, despite continued slaughter and a February 2016 tally by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research of 470,000. Meanwhile, more than half the country’s population has been displaced: 6.3 million were forced to move within the country, and 4.9 million fled it altogether.
Such numbers highlight the importance of long-established efforts to protect and aid civilians during wars. That was the basis of the first Geneva Convention in 1864, and now it is part of the larger body of international humanitarian law, which allows the United Nations and other aid agencies operating under the principles of impartiality and neutrality to help those in need. But the task of sparing civilians also depends on the host government’s respect for such rules and principles.
In Syria, for nearly six years now, the Bashar al-Assad government has utterly disregarded these norms. The problem was first evident in March 2011, when the Syrian regime met a peaceful uprising with violence and repression. Since then, it has targeted civilians in areas unsympathetic to its rule, using siege and starvation, chemical weapons, cluster munitions, missiles and barrel-bombs, snipers and landmines, incendiary weapons, and incarceration and torture. Beyond attacking the people themselves, the government in Damascus has gone after essential civilian institutions such as schools, hospitals, and public health infrastructure, as well as doctors, aid workers, and first responders. From March 2011 to July 2016, there have been 400 documented attacks on health facilities, more than 90 percent by Syrian and Russian air forces. Of the documented 797 medics killed on duty, whether bombed, executed or tortured to death, 742 (93 percent) died at the hands of pro-regime forces. The Syrian regime, of course, denies these war crimes,