On Monday this week, the world had a clear view of the top and bottom levels of war and the forces that drive history, namely world powers that play with smaller states like summer toys, and ordinary men, women, and children whose suffering in war launches them onto journeys of dehumanization that always end badly. In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of most Russian military forces from Syria, while in Amman, Jordan, the UNICEF regional representative released a report about the impact of the last five years of war on Syria’s children.
This stark lesson in how history happens captures the hard realities of heartless foreign powers and helpless local citizens that have shaped the Arab World over many recent decades. These top and bottom levels of war’s impact help us make sense of what has been happening in the region for decades now.
The Russian action is the easier of the two to grasp, as big powers throw their weight around smaller countries whenever they need to make a point, whether that point is related to domestic credibility, regional standing, global perceptions, genuine national strategic interests, or just their sense of honor and respect that is calculated in the dead bodies of Syrians and many other helpless people in developing countries of the South. For centuries, great powers and their armies have marched in and out of the Middle East at will, usually oblivious to what they leave behind, as Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Iraq today still confirm. Such wars are not the result only of big power imperialism, and in fact usually can be traced to local dictatorships like those of the Baath Party and the Assad and Hussein ruling families in Syria and Iraq that ravaged those societies.
The important report by UNICEF released Monday captures the street- and family-level picture of how societies disintegrate, as their individual citizens slowly weaken and finally shatter under the unbearable weight of many years of warfare, siege, starvation, exile, and death. Their total helplessness and vulnerability reflect the combined consequences of the two great scourges of their existence: domestic dictatorships and foreign military interventions.
As a dozen foreign and regional powers move in and out of Syria with their arms shipments and their own troops, the lasting damage can be measured in the criteria of human de-development and despair that UNICEF’s report mentions—in this case, the current status and likely lingering, or even lasting, impact of the wars on Syria’s children.
The raw figures are bad enough, but they do not capture the full damage and future threats of what happens when large numbers of human beings are dehumanized in their own societies, often by their own government or people. The raw figures show that 3.7 million children born in Syria since the war started five years ago, including 306,000 refugees in exile or on the run, have known only war, fear, and displacement. About 15,000 unaccompanied or separated children have crossed Syria’s borders in their desperate quest to stay alive.
Children under siege or in exile are being forced into marriage—for girls at the age of 11 or 12 years in some cases—and boys as young as 5 and 6 years old are working to scrape enough money to help their families stay alive. Some girl brides are reportedly giving birth at the age of 12 or 13. In areas of heaviest conflict, virtually all children (98 percent of those examined) show signs of profound emotional or psychological distress. Once vanquished or minimized, diseases like polio, hepatitis A, measles, and leishmaniasis have returned to maim and kill at will.
But the most troubling consequence of war is not just that it kills, degrades, or permanently scars people; it is that is spawns a cohort of emotionally disfigured youth whose loss of dignity often leads to destructive behavior that perpetuates violence. These youth first withdraw from normal social interactions, and subsequently often re-engage in society as hardened gang or militia members who join the war in order to regain a life and compensate for how the war ruined their lives. UNICEF’s medical surveys show that about one in five teenagers feel such high frustrations in their family situations.
This slow, steady, numbing dehumanization of young Syrians measured in hundreds of thousands of lives is mirrored in similar trends in other countries at war in the Arab region. Most distressingly, this also occurs in marginalized areas of mass hopelessness and lack of life opportunities in peri-urban and rural regions of Arab countries that are not at war; this is what sparked the Arab uprisings five years ago, and keeps millions of men and women fighting for their lives, and a better future for their children.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @RamiKhouri.
Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global