Normalising the extreme: why what happens in Syria still matters

Press release12 March 2020

Nine years on and the war still rages.

Are we numb to the tragedy that is Syria? As the intensity of fighting and human suffering worsens again in Idlib, Concern CEO Dominic MacSorley reflects on a deafening international silence.

After nine years of such unrelenting suffering perhaps, we do not know what to feel. Scenes of people packing everything, losing everything, exhausted and shattered physically and psychologically have become devastatingly regular. What is the difference between 2011, 2015 and 2020? People fleeing somewhere, anywhere that will be safer than where they were.

What we are witnessing is what some experts refer to as the ‘normalising of the extreme’. Real lives collapse on screen every day. We see this suffering so often that we do not even understand it any longer.

In the New York Times last month, journalist Margaret Renkl wrote of this effect: ‘Perhaps there are just too many photos now, too many bloody troughs of suffering in too many God-forsaken places, to focus for long on any one tragedy.’ We live in tumultuous times for sure, but when we no longer react, we are in dangerous territory.

A Syrian refugee camp in Iraq.
A Syrian refugee camp in Iraq. Photo: Concern Worldwide/Gavin Douglas

The United Nations estimates that over half a million people have died since the Syrian conflict started but no one knows for sure. It could be many more and it will be decades before the true cost is counted. What we do know is that there have been breath-taking levels of destruction, lifetimes of loss.

Thirteen million people inside the country still depend on humanitarian assistance, many of them living in the most dire of circumstances. With 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, over one million in Lebanon, and 655,000 in Jordan, it is the countries bordering Syria that are left to shoulder what is rightly a global responsibility to protect people fleeing the war.

Each of these countries opened their borders to provide refuge in what was to be a temporary situation. Displacement should always be a temporary solution pending a positive resolution and a return to ‘home’, to peace and safety. Nine years of temporary is a very long time – for everyone involved.

The political cost of this war is chilling. While the UN as a whole has been critical in facilitating the humanitarian response to the crisis, the United Nations Security Council has unequivocally failed the Syrian people. The Council, established to maintain international peace and security, has been unable to stop the war, nor has it been able to uphold the rules of war. Calls for restraint and respect for international law are wilfully ignored time and time again.

The human cost of this failure has been immense and is still escalating. The number of attacks on schools and medical facilities in 2018 was at the highest level since the conflict began in 2011. Today, less than half of all public health centres in Syria are fully functioning. Combine this with mass displacement and overcrowding and you have an explosively fertile ground for illness, disease, and now an additional threat of Coronavirus.

After almost a decade of war, Syria has been destroyed and no money will ever be enough to replace what has been lost, but millions of young Syrians are looking to rebuild their future. Teenagers and young adults will shape the future of Syria and they will have to pick up the pieces of this war, make sense of immense loss, help the children who have been born into the war, and create a future built on peace and hope. That is all they can do and it is our responsibility to help them to do that.

A Syrian woman pictured with her baby.
Nahida* (31) with her youngest child Adham, Photo: Concern Worldwide/Gavin Douglas

Concern has been responding to the Syrian conflict since 2013. Currently we are reaching over a million people with food, shelter, education, and protection across Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. It is a difficult and often dangerous operation but it is critical to the families we help – a vital lifeline.

With every child who can go to school and every parent who can buy food for the family, we are working to build a better future. For every family whose lives have been destroyed, we must continue to help them to see hope, possibility and peace ahead.

The only solution to end this conflict however, is a political solution. There is still a chance for the UN Security Council and UN Member States to show leadership to work together to end this conflict but nine years on, it is a very small chance.

No conflict since the establishment of the Security Council 75 years ago has exposed its limitations more clearly than the war in Syria. With every war crime, every attack on civilians, every incident targeting aid workers and medical staff, and every veto exercised, the powerlessness of the Security Council is hammered home.

The United Nations saw the light of day in 1945, when it was created in the wake of the devastating World War II with pledges to save future generations from the atrocities of war and reiterate faith in fundamental human rights. It has failed. By March 15, it will be 3,288 days since the start of the crisis. In comparison, World War II ended after 2,194.

As the conflict enters its tenth year, we desperately need renewed public outrage and action to demand moral and responsible leadership, a new order to prevent and address conflict. We must ensure that the Syrian conflict marks a tragic low point in our history and not a harbinger of what is to be replicated in the future.

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