As Syrian government forces and their allies began last month to make strides towards recapturing the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta from terrorist hands, Western governments, media, and aid agencies have started to cry out: but what about the children? They point the finger squarely at Syrian and Russian forces for killing innocent children.
"How much cruelty will it take before the international community can speak with one voice to say enough dead children, enough wrecked families, enough violence, and take resolute, concerted action to bring this monstrous campaign of annihilation to an end?" UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein asked. There have undoubtedly been child casualties in the pitched battles between Syrian government forces and their allies and the so-called ‘rebel’ terrorist groups. But the child victims of this war are far more than just the children killed in one battle, or in bombing by the Syrian government of terrorist-controlled areas. The war -as a whole- has in many ways destroyed the lives of an entire generation of Syrian children and youth. Al-Hussein’s question in fact must be directed towards the United States and others who supported the terrorist groups which tore the country apart in the first place.
Syrian Children: The Lost Generation
“In this war I lost five cousins, my mother, my brothers, my sisters, my uncle… and most important of all - we lost our country.”- Ibrahim, child from Damascus (BBC interview)
The Lancet Medical Journal reports that 13,800 Syrian children were killed between 2011-2016, and many more injured. Currently, 8.6 million Syrian children are in desperate need of assistance according to UNICEF. Six million of these children are refugees, displaced from their homes - and often separated from their families or orphaned by the war.
But the threats Syrian children face are not merely physical - the war has taken a harsh mental toll on the young generation as well. With the war entering its eighth year, three million Syrian kids have never known a life without the constant anxiety of war. Two thirds of Syrian children have lost a loved one in the war and many have lost parents, siblings, or friends right before their eyes. The result is as many as 70% of Syrian children experiencing “toxic stress”, according to a report by Save the Children. Many children have become withdrawn, aggressive, or simply lost the ability to speak entirely.
In an interview with Deutsche Welle, an 11 year old boy describes the effects of toxic stress well: "I am constantly tired; I always think of certain pictures and they scare me a lot. That is why I cannot concentrate at school. Then I am afraid that something will happen to my parents. Then everything hurts, and I cannot eat anything.”
The war has also torn apart families as people are killed and displaced. Stress has been a major factor in skyrocketing divorce rates and increasing reports of domestic violence and conflict, which deeply affects children as well. An increasing number of families are single-parent households (usually single mothers) as one parent is killed, or, as is often the case in refugee families, one parent makes the often-treacherous journey to Europe to secure a new life for their family there.
Syria’s education system - once one of the best in the region - has also taken a huge blow, with schools destroyed or sometimes taken over by terrorist groups. Displacement and a lack of security has also taken many children away from their studies. Nearly three million Syrian children are now out of school. The International Rescue Committee released a report last year which found that nearly half of seventh-graders could not read at a grade two level, and 46% of eighth graders could not complete a second-grade math problem.
In areas under control of Daesh (ISIS), schools have been turned into recruitment and training camps. Parents report being forced to send their children to ISIS-run schools, where they learn to count with bullet shells and are educated in types of weapons, along with the group’s extremist ideology.
Many children have also been forced to give up their education to work to feed their families - and for many young boys, “work” means fighting for terrorist organizations. Both ISIS and other terrorist organizations such as the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (formerly al Nusra Front) and related groups have been reported paying boys as young as thirteen to fight for them.
The war has been catastrophic for Syrian children, tearing apart their lives, their families, and their future. Aid agencies warn that Syrian children are rapidly on their way to becoming a ‘lost generation’ - an entire generation of a country without adequate education or family support and traumatized by war. So where has been the outcry from imperialist countries and their media for the past seven years? Where is the outcry when children are killed by terrorist groups? And who bears the responsibility for this tragedy in the first place?
Who is Responsible for This Tragedy?
The conflict in Syria is not a ‘civil war’ but an imperialist military intervention. From the very beginning, the US government and their allies trained, armed, and funded so-called ‘rebel’ groups to create chaos in the country and fight against the Syrian government with the goal of overthrowing President Bashar al Assad. The Pentagon ran a $500 million program to this end; the Canadian government has contributed $5.3 million to these groups. But many of these ‘moderate rebel’ groups have links to al-Qaeda and related organizations and shared the group’s extremist ideology. Furthermore, the resulting destabilization fractured the country and allowed for the rise of Daesh.
The Syrian army is not fighting grassroots ‘rebels’ or ‘freedom fighters’ but foreign-backed terrorists. Over the course of the war, these groups came to occupy large areas of Syria, including major cities. A 2016 Amnesty International report titled “Torture Was My Punishment” detailed some of the crimes of these terrorists, which included public executions, torture, and wholesale massacres. Some of the groups have also imposed an extreme interpretation of Islamic law in the areas they have captured, punishing anyone who does not comply with their law.
It is not the Syrian government, but these terrorists and their foreign backers who have torn Syria apart. Western media and leaders cry for the children of Syria, but if it were not for their funding these terrorists and tearing the country apart, Syrian children would still be going to school, playing in the streets, living in their homes, and experiencing what childhood was meant to be instead of a life of fear, scarcity, uncertainty and terror.
Children: A Cynical Propaganda Tool
While the lives of Syrian children appear to matter to Western leaders, it seems it is only the lives of certain children which matter - that is, the ones which are politically convenient. Imperialists lament the lives of children in East Ghouta, yet remain silent on the crimes of the terrorists – including the killing of civilians in adjacent government-held neighbourhoods. Amnesty International’s report details routine kidnapping of children and teens by some armed groups. Some of these children were never seen by their families again.
Children have also been specifically targeted in mass killings by these groups, such as the 80 children who were killed on an aid convoy which was evacuating them from terrorist-controlled area last year. A suicide bomber approached the convoy offering chips and children’s cookies - a deliberate attempt to target children and their families. Yet the deaths of 126 innocent people - 80 of them children - scarcely a word of condemnation came from governments or media in the US, UK, Canada, or elsewhere.
Yet again we see imperialists crying crocodile tears over the children in East Ghouta - while they have ignored the suffering of millions of Syrian kids at the hands of a war they created, they now use children to cry foul as Syrian forces and their allies inch closer to defeating the terrorists.
Do Iraqi Children’s Lives Matter?
Since 2001 and the beginning of the ‘war on terror’, the world has watched as a new era of war and occupation has begun - and children have been some of its primary victims.
In Iraq, nearly three decades of war and sanctions is taking a harsh toll on children. Five million are in need of humanitarian aid and one in four live in poverty, according to a 2017 UNICEF report. There are nearly 800,000 orphaned children in Iraq, many of whom lost their families directly or indirectly due to the war. The US-led war on Iraq has torn apart the lives and the futures of these children.
Perhaps one of the most grotesque legacies of the war on Iraq, though, is the impact of bombing with heavy-metal containing munitions and chemical agents such as white phosphorus. Iranian toxicologist Mozhgan Savabieasfahani reports, “We could see that when the bombing started so did the birth defects. In May 2010, 15% of 547 babies born at the Basra hospital had severe birth defects. This is in contrast to 2% to 4% that is normal.”
Depleted uranium, mercury, lead, and other toxic metals have led to high rates of miscarriages, premature births, and childhood leukaemia, along with often horrific birth defects in children.
There are truly no words to describe the suffering and horror these children face - all at the hands of the US, UK, and allies such as Canada.
What About Afghan Children?
Despite promises of progress from the US-NATO coalition, Afghan children are no further ahead after nearly seventeen years of war. From birth, children face an uphill battle with 35% of babies born underweight. Lack of adequate sanitation or running water and poor nutrition contribute to one of the highest under-5 mortality rates in the world, with more than a quarter of children dying before their fifth birthday, according to the World Health Organization.
Those who are lucky enough to reach their fifth birthday are often robbed of their childhood: around 20% of Afghan children must work to feed their families, often in dangerous, heavy-labour jobs. Some young boys and girls are forced into prostitution to put bread on the table. Few are fortunate enough to receive an education: just 60% Afghan kids are in school – and even out of those, many are not able to attend due to security concerns and other war related reasons.
The situation for Afghan children was bad enough before the war; after nearly seventeen years of suffering, little has improved, and many more children have been displaced from their homes, orphaned, or maimed in the war.
What About Yemeni Kids?
And what of the great tragedy facing Yemeni children, which the UN calls “the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis”? Since the Saudi intervention and bombing campaign began three years ago, children have paid a terrible price. 400,000 children are malnourished, many quite severely. Saudi Arabia has blocked aid shipments from humanitarian organizations meant to alleviate the suffering of these children.
Air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition have repeatedly been aimed at civilian targets such as homes, schools, and hospitals, leaving over 5000 children dead or injured in their wake. These air strikes have come with full logistical and tactical support from the US.
Save the Children: End the Wars!
Do the lives of Iraqi, Afghan, or Yemeni children matter less than the lives of children in East Ghouta? Or are we truly expected to believe that after more than a decade and a half of wars and occupations - with the blood over hundreds of thousands of dead children on their hands - that the imperialists have found it in their hearts to care for children in Syria? Of course, they do not. Children are not viewed as human beings, as precious gifts by these cold-hearted killers, but as political tools, whose lives can be used to justify their actions.
Hundreds of millions of children around the world suffer under the noose of imperialism, which allows a few countries to gain wealth off the land and resources of most of the world, whose resources they exploit.
The suffering is exacerbated when these imperialist countries go to war to fight for control over that same land and those resources. Children time and again pay the heaviest price for these wars, often being the most vulnerable to the scarcity of food, destruction of family, and ongoing trauma and fear which comes with war.
There is only one way to save the children of Syria and the children of the world: for imperialist countries to end their wars, occupations, and interventions and for oppressed nations to be able to exercise their self-determination. In this way we could begin building a better and more peaceful world for everyone, and a brighter future for our children.
Follow Nita Palmer on Twitter: @NGP1z0
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