By Elise Ann Allen
ROME (Crux) — Ten years after Syria’s bloody civil war began, most of the fighting is now over. Yet the country is now facing a massive economic, social, and humanitarian crisis in which rampant poverty is the next major battle it faces.
Referring to the March 15 anniversary of the start of the Syrian civil war, Pope Francis in his Sunday Angelus address said the decade-long conflict “has caused one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of our time.”
In the past 10 years, the war has caused “an unknown number of dead and wounded, millions of refugees, thousands of disappeared, destruction, violence of every kind and immense suffering for the entire population, especially the most vulnerable, such as children, women and the elderly,” he said.
Pope Francis urged all parties involved in the war “to show signs of goodwill, so that a glimpse of hope can open up for the exhausted population,” and asked for “a decided and renewed commitment, constructive and supportive,” on the part of the international community, “so that, having laid down their arms, we can mend the social fabric and begin reconstruction and economic recovery.”
The pontiff then led pilgrims in praying a Hail Mary for suffering to end and hope to be revived in “beloved and martyred Syria.”
Speaking to Crux about the state of the crisis 10 years into the conflict, Giampaolo Silvestri, secretary general of the AVSI Foundation, which carries out development and humanitarian projects in Syria, said that “fighting in Syria for the most part is over, but the bomb of poverty has exploded.”
With roughly 80 percent of the population living under the poverty line, “it’s an enormous problem,” he said, adding that in his view, small reconstruction projects must begin in rural areas, supporting schools, hospitals, and other essential services.
Similarly, Flavia Chevallard, AVSI’s representative for Syria, said the decade-long war has caused “an enormous economic crisis,” as well as Syria’s isolation from the international community.
Things were already difficult when Lebanon’s financial crisis began, and the coronavirus pandemic has compounded the situation, she said, adding that the cumulative impact has been “catastrophic.”
“There’s been a fast devaluation of the local currency: the Syrian pound lost three quarters of its value during 2020, and prices of basic items increased 200 percent. This means that people are not able anymore to get enough food, many people tell me that they cannot even afford bread anymore,” she said.
With the bulk of the population living in poverty, “the needs are incommensurable in the whole country,” Chevallard said, noting that in areas where AVSI is active, such as Aleppo, Damascus, and portions of the country’s northeast and northwest, “the situation is very critical.”
“There is another perception that I feel people have in the Western world, and it’s that in the Middle East people is used to war and violence. This is not true,” she said, adding, “Very often people here ask me if I knew Syria before the war, and they talk about their life before.”
“It’s touching to see how people are still shocked by how the war arrived and destroyed their lives, as anybody in Europe would be,” she said, noting that at the moment, “hope is unfortunately rare after ten years of war and no signs of an improvement.”
How it began
What began as a series of peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad 10 years ago warped into an intricately complex and devastatingly bloody civil war that has left more than 500,000 people dead or missing, and millions more displaced.
Assad succeeded his father as Syria’s president in 2000, at a time when many citizens were complaining about high unemployment rates, corruption, and limited political freedom. In March 2011, peaceful pro-democracy protests broke out in Syria’s southern city of Deraa, which the Syrian government responded to swiftly and with deadly force, causing mass protests nationwide.
Unrest quickly intensified as Assad’s opponents took up arms, initially in defense and later to oust security forces from their towns and cities — actions which earned the opposition supporters the title of “foreign-backed terrorism” from Assad.
From there, violence quickly spiraled out of control and civil war erupted. However, the situation became increasingly complex as numerous rebel groups sprouted and neighboring countries began to take sides in the conflict, sending money, weapons, and soldiers. As the violence descended into chaos, numerous jihadist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda also entered the scene, seeking to advance their own agendas.
By now, Assad’s forces have largely retaken the country, with fighting currently limited to a few pockets in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, near the border with Turkey.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), as of December 2020 there were at least 387,118 deaths as a result of the war, 116,911 of whom were civilians. However, an additional 205,300 were registered as missing and presumed dead, including some 88,000 civilians believed to have died of torture in state prisons.
Nearly 12,000 children have either been killed our wounded as a result of the war, according to UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s agency.
In addition to those who have been killed, SORH found that so far, more than 2.1 million civilians have been injured or suffered permanent disabilities as a direct result of the conflict.
Syria’s pre-war population of around 22 million has been drastically reduced or scattered. Some 6.7 million are internally displaced, most of whom are living in camps, and an additional 5.6 million are living abroad as refugees, roughly 93 percent of whom have relocated to neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.
Since December alone, nearly one million people were driven from their homes in Syria’s north as fighting lingers, with UN agencies warning the battle for the Idlib province could turn into a bloodbath.
Squeezed by international sanctions, crippled by the loss of many of its hospitals and schools, and burdened by the coronavirus pandemic, Syria also faces an enormous humanitarian crisis in which some 13.4 million people required some form of assistance as of January 2021. According to the UN, more than 12 million people in Syria struggle to find enough food to get through a single day, and some 500,000 children are chronically malnourished.
According to Chevallard, “Children are always victims of war.”
In addition to the risk of malnourishment and the lack of access to education for almost a decade, there is also concern about the long-term psychological impact the conflict will have on the next generation, whose entire lives have been spent under duress.
“For children it is especially dramatic because many of them have only lived in war, and they don’t know otherwise,” Chevallard said, recalling how a friend told her about a 15-year-old boy who “didn’t have any life experience or education, because he spent 6 years of his life doing nothing, closed in his house, because the streets were too dangerous.”
“It is difficult to measure the impact on this level, as it is difficult to evaluate the impact of trauma and depression among children and youth, but it is a very real consequence of war,” she said, adding that just because the fighting is mostly over, that doesn’t mean life is easy.
“When we speak of Syria, we need to speak of a regional crisis, because the impact is felt in the entire region,” Silvestri said, noting that Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon in particular have all been hugely impacted by the Syrian war, “but especially Lebanon is a country that has been destroyed by this crisis.”
While coping with some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon is also in the throes of a crippling financial crisis that has the country on the brink of economic collapse, where poverty is soaring, and many banks are blocked, with small limits on what can be withdrawn per month.
According to Chevallard, the economic impact of having millions of people camped out indefinitely is not the only reason neighboring countries are reluctant to host Syrian refugees, but for Lebanon, there is also the recent memory of the role Palestinian refugees played in its own 1975-1990 civil war.
“This complexity is not always perceived by the Western world,” Chevallard said.
With tensions increasing between the people and the governing class, and with increased anger over allegations of corruption among the political elites, Silvestri said he believes Lebanon’s internal woes combined with the pressure of hosting millions of Syrian refugees long-term could throw Lebanon itself into another civil war.
Andrea Avveduto, communications chief for the Pro Terra Sancta organization, which operates in Syria, said the Syrian war has also awoken complex regional power struggles and even religious conflicts among Muslims.
At the beginning of Syria’s war 10 years ago, “there was a rush to gain power…the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, financed this war, these groups, these militias,” Avveduto told Crux, “so the situation can ignite again very, very easily.”
“The whole Middle East is in this situation of precarious stability,” he said, cautioning that there are already signs that the so-called Islamic State is reemerging in Iraq, while Lebanon is on the verge of political and economic collapse, “so in reality the population is so exasperated that there is a risk the social fabric won’t hold.”
Avveduto said another factor that emerged in the Syrian war, which was evident from those who financed it, was the conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the region.
Shiites currently represent just 20 percent of the Muslim world, whereas Sunnis are roughly an 80 percent majority, he said, adding that in his view, “There is obviously an interest in stabilizing that part of the Arab region — Syria, Iraq, and now Lebanon — also in order to eliminate those last countries government by the Shiite minority.”
“How will the war in Syria change the status of the Middle East? Today we don’t know, but certainly Syria is part of all these interests, and naturally where there is a void there is someone who wants to fill it,” Avveduto said.
Looking to the future
In terms of the future, both Avveduto and Silvestri had clear ideas on what needs to be done.
Silvestri said there is an urgent need “for donors to finance reconstruction, “because if in Syria there is no effort to start rebuilding the hospitals, schools, some streets, there will never be the possibility to return.”
He also stressed the importance of volunteer projects, which he argued would help “diminish the pressure and tension” in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan due to the presence of Syrian refugees.
Currently funds are tight, including from international donors such as the United States and EU countries, Silvestri said, noting that the UN is set to hold a virtual meeting later this month to discuss the Syrian crisis, and he hopes to secure funds for reconstruction.
“There is no fighting, there are no more bombs, but poverty has exploded…People don’t have enough to live,” he said, and criticized American and European donors who in the past have refused to support rebuilding efforts until Assad is out of power, calling them “deaf.”
“We must recognize that Assad by now has won, and we need to start rebuilding … Otherwise, we’re in a vicious circle. We give money only for humanitarian purposes, so these people stay there, and we won’t rebuild because Assad is there, and we stay in a vicious cycle. Rather, we must try to go in a virtuous cycle,” where things are moving forward, he said.
Before rebuilding can begin, Avveduto said international sanctions should be lifted.
“The only thing that can really change the card on the table is to allow people to breathe…to remove the economic sanctions on Syria and the embargo,” Avveduto said, noting that Syria has lived under economic sanctions for eight years, which has had a devastating impact on the country.
Citizens, he said, “don’t have gas, they don’t have electricity, they don’t have products, it’s not possible to trade, there are no tourists, there are no pilgrimages. There are not commercial exchanges, there is nothing.”
While rebuilding is necessary, “Today the true invisible wound that is destroying Syria are the economic sanctions. I will repeat this with force (because) those who live or die because of this situation are clearly the people,” he said.
Due to skyrocketing inflation rates and the lack of basic goods and medicines, black markets have emerged for certain projects, lines to get gas are miles long, and electricity is being rationed, with some people left in the dark and without heat during cold winter months.
Suicide rates have also increased, because the people are “desperate,” Avveduto said, noting that Pro Terris Sancta has helped to rebuild some 600 houses in Aleppo and has financed the building of cultural centers in Damascus, but the organization has had to halt these reconstruction efforts to respond to immediate needs, “because people are still dying of hunger.”
“They don’t have access to gas, no water, no electricity, so we cannot offer development projects if they don’t have bread to eat, if they can’t make it to the end of the day. This is the real problem,” he said.
In terms of what role the church can play in help to alleviate the crisis and the burden many Syrians face, Silvestri said the local Church will continue to support and carry out projects in the region aimed at assisting all citizens, regardless of religion or social status.
Aid agencies such as Caritas International, Aid to the Church in Need, and the AVSI Foundation have long been active in the area, offering programs that support hospitals and schools, and which food and other basic needs.
“We won’t lose hope, because regardless, it’s worth it to help these people who are suffering. If there is no political will for change, it’s very difficult, but we won’t abandon Syria or Syrians,” Silvestri said.
Chevallard praised the many Church officials and religious stayed in Syria throughout the war to provide support, despite the risks.
“It is a choice that requires courage,” she said, and pointed to the Vatican’s ambassador to Syria, Cardinal Mario Zenari, as a prime example, saying he never left the country, and his presence allowed certain projects such as AVSI’s Open Hospitals initiative to continue.
“This has an enormous value, not only because of the great work that these people did and is doing, but as a sign. A sign that Syrians are not left completely alone, in a period where Syrians felt abandoned by the world,” Chevallard said, adding, “this means hope, that is the thing that people need the most now.”
Avveduto said he believes providing this hope for people has been, is, and will be the Church’s primary task going forward.
“When the war finishes, it will not be a Christian country, it will always be of a Muslim majority, but it will be judged on what it did during the war. The charity it provided during the war will be the business card it presents to the new government, to the new Syria,” he said.
This is important, he said, because “the Church, with all this charitable work, which is indiscriminate, which reaches everyone, will build bridges.”
“The vocation of the Church is to heal wounds, to build relations, bridges between Sunnis and Shiites,” he said, noting that while this is in many ways a political task, it is “a task that changes society.”
By doing this, he said, the Church can help Syria “reach peace as soon as possible.”
“There is a peace that is not a sense of war. The army can win the war, but making peace is something else,” Avveduto said. “It’s a daily effort. It’s a task based on education, formation, healing wounds. This creates a serenity in relations in the country, and above all, allows them to hope.”