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Syria's horrific war marks grim milestone

Almost 5 million children in Syria have known nothing but war for nine years while another 1 million were born as refugees into a harsh life, UNICEF reported.

GENEVA (AN) — Almost 5 million children in Syria have known nothing but war while another 1 million were born as refugees into a harsh life, UNICEF reported on Sunday, marking the start of the devastating conflict's 1oth year.

The U.N. children's agency and other United Nations officials pointed to the grim milestone as a reminder of the urgent need to end the war that began in March 2011. Yet the international community remains unable or unwilling to stop a "deepening" conflict that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and uprooted millions more, according to the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen.

Pedersen, a Norwegian diplomat who has been the U.N. secretary-general's special envoy to Syria since the start of 2019, said the suffering of the Syrian people for the past decade still defies comprehension and belief. The war has led to the 21st century's worst humanitarian catastrophe so far, and the rise and fall and continued survival of the Islamic State group.

"Hundreds of thousands of Syrians, men and women, have lost their lives. Hundreds of thousands have been detained, abducted or are missing," Pedersen said in a statement.

"Human rights abuses, crimes, destruction and destitution have taken place on a monumental scale. Half the population has fled their homes," he said. "And with close to a million people newly displaced due to heavy violence in the past three months in the Idlib area alone, the tragedy is deepening."

Some 4.8 million children were born in Syria since the conflict began nine years ago, while another 1 million were born as refugees in neighboring countries. More than 960,000 people — including at least 575,000 children — have been displaced just since December.

It has now been a decade since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad got underway with protests in Daraa over security forces’ detention of a group of boys accused of painting anti-government graffiti on school walls. On March 15, 2011, a protest was held in Damascus’ Old City.

Three days later, security forces killed four people when they opened fire on a protest in Daraa. Activists regard those as the first deaths of the uprising, which grew in proportion to Assad's increasingly brutal crackdown on the demonstrators. The 2011 uprising against Assad eventually turned into an armed insurgency.

“The war in Syria marks yet another shameful milestone today,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, who was in Syria last week, said of the March 15 milestone. “As the conflict enters its 10th year, millions of children are entering their second decade of life surrounded by war, violence, death and displacement. The need for peace has never been more pressing.”

Ted Chaiban, UNICEF's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, noted the complexity of the war, which is now essentially being fought by proxies, after accompanying Fore on her trip to Syria.

"Violence and active conflict sadly continue in several locations including in the northwest with severe consequences on children, while in other parts children are reconnecting with some of their lost childhood, slowly rebuilding their lives," said Chaiban.

“It is evident, however, that nine years of brutal fighting brought the country to the brink," he said. "Families told us that in extreme cases they had no choice but to send their children to work or marry their girls early. No parent should be forced to make such decisions.”

UNICEF said that in northwest Syria, the escalation in armed conflict and harsh winter conditions added to the already dire humanitarian crises facing hundreds of thousands of children and families. In the northeast, it said, at least 28,000 children from more than 60 countries remain languishing in displacement camps, deprived of the most basic services.

More than 2.8 million children are out of school inside Syria and in neighboring countries. About 40% of all schools are destroyed, damaged, sheltering displaced families or used for military purposes, the U.N. agency reported, while over half of all health facilities are non-functional. About two-thirds of children with disabilities require specialized services unavailable in their area.

“The warring parties and those supporting them have failed to end the carnage in Syria,” Fore said. “Our message is clear: Stop hitting schools and hospitals. Stop killing and maiming children. Grant us the cross-line and cross-border access we need to reach those in need. Far too many children have suffered for far too long.”

Choosing peace

At least 384,000 people, including more than 116,000 civilians, have died in Syria since the war began, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday. Now, the fate of the Syrian people is precariously and inevitably linked to the broader region and the international community, according to Pedersen.

"The horrific and enduring nature of the conflict is proof of a collective failure of diplomacy. Unprecedented levels of diplomatic cooperation and fortitude are needed to bring an end to this conflict," he said. "The parties must meaningfully engage in negotiations. The international community must demonstrate a renewed sense of urgency in supporting the Syrians in finding a U.N.-facilitated political solution."

The war has not only killed hundreds of thousands of people but has also displaced half the nation’s 22 million pre-war population. Islamic State militants seized upon the war to take over large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq until earlier this year. But by March 2019, the self-declared ISIS “caliphate” had lost its last remaining claim to any territory.

In October 2019, Turkey launched an offensive to eradicate the Kurdish militia after U.S. President Donald Trump pulled U.S. forces out of northeastern Syria, where Kurds developed a system of self-rule.

Weeks later, Syrian peace talks were held for the first time in Geneva under the auspices of a new Syrian constitutional committee, a U.N.-authorized assembly of 150 government, opposition and civil society members. They were the first face-to-face talks between Syria’s government and opposition mediated by the United Nations to try to end the war.

The committee grew out of a U.N. Security Council resolution in December 2015 calling for a Syrian-led, U.N.-mediated political process that “establishes credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance and sets a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution.”

The committee’s “Syrian-led” makeup partly results from diplomatic efforts by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Russia and Iran strongly support Assad’s government, while Turkey supports the Syrian rebels.

After a Russia-hosted peace conference adopted a framework agreement in January 2018, the committee was created in September with the aim of rewriting Syria’s constitution. Pedersen said the 2015 Security Council resolution is the only framework for negotiating a peace settlement that has legitimacy and support of the international community.

In recent weeks, a fragile cease-fire led by Russia and Turkey has been more or less holding in Syria's Idlib province. Millions are trapped or fleeing amid fighting between Russia-backed Syrian government forces and Turkish-backed forces in one of the last rebel enclaves.

"The suffering of Syrians is catastrophic and must end," Pedersen said. "The unity of all in the international community must coalesce toward the fulfillment of all Syrians’ legitimate aspirations. We must choose peace."