Radicalisation threatens Syria’s children of war

Almost 5 million children have been born into Syria’s conflict since it began nine years ago.
Sunday 29/03/2020
A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces gives bread to children near the village of Baghouz, Deir ez-Zor province, Syria. (Reuters)
Fertile ground. A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces gives bread to children near the village of Baghouz, Deir ez-Zor province, Syria. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Almost 5 million children have been born into Syria’s conflict since it began nine years ago. A further 1 million have been born in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, the United Nations’ children’s fund said.

In addition to the 4.8 million born into conflict are the 5,427 whom the United Nations verified as having been killed in the war since monitoring began six years ago, a UNICEF report released March 15 stated. The actual number is thought to be far higher.

Elsewhere, 2.8 million children — approximately around one-third of Syria’s child population — exist outside of functional education systems and 5,000 children — some as young as 7 — have been drawn into the fighting.

Whatever the political future of Syria, it will find itself trying to rebuild a society with an entire generation traumatised by conflict and vulnerable to the calls of the recruiters of militias and armies that continue to fight over the future of the country.

“It’s a huge crisis,” Juliette Touma, regional chief of communications for UNICEF, said. “Syria, historically, had a highly literate and educated society, so this has a huge impact for education.”

Conditions for the children are often desperate, exacerbated by the harsh winter this year.

“Many of these children have been raised in camps for IDPs (internally displaced people) in Syria,” Touma said. “Some are born in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, while others are born in makeshift settings in countries such as Lebanon. These are the harshest places for children to exist.”

The recent escalation of fighting in Idlib brought further hardship to children sheltering in and near overcrowded IDP camps. UNICEF said more than 960,000 people, including approximately 575,000 children, have been displaced in north-western Syria since December 1.

In north-eastern Syria, at least 28,000 children from more than 60 countries, often the offspring of the foreign fighters who flooded to Syria’s civil war, must survive the winter and the fighting in makeshift camps. As of January, only 765 children had been repatriated to their countries of origin.

“It’s estimated that a child has been killed every ten hours in Syria in the past six years,” Touma explained. “This doesn’t include those who die of disease, cold, accidents or through other chronic diseases and illnesses, such as cancer.” The potential spread of COVID-19 to the camps remains a huge concern.

Experts suggest that the longer the conflict continues, the greater the rupture inflicted on Syrian society, putting rebuilding it further out of reach.

“Much of a child’s resilience to trauma and their ability to recover from it is determined by their past experience,” Dr Gregory Keane, mental health adviser at Doctors Without Borders (MSF), said by telephone from Paris, “That’s to say, if they grew up in a stable, loving environment they’re likely to assimilate trauma over time.

“That was the case with the first generation of refugees we saw from what was, at the time, a highly functional society.”

However, as the war has progressed, so conditions for child refugees deteriorated, Keane said, with increasing numbers of young children and adults presenting to MSF with profound mental disorders.

“Any psychiatrist will tell you that you can’t offer a child any kind of curative treatment without some sense of stability,” Keane said. “We can go part of the way in providing that, by introducing some kind of routine but, as long as their situation remains temporary, finding any kind of long-term solution to their trauma is very challenging.”

Despite dramatic advances by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, much of Syrian territory remains in flux, being fought over by a variety of governments, militias and jihadist groups. Into this mix has grown a dislocated generation without ties to or reason to believe the words of any government or its proxy.

“You’ve got a whole generation looking for some kind of stability and a sense of their own significance and who’s giving it to them, nobody,” said Scott Atran, an anthropologist and founding fellow of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at the University of Oxford, who has conducted several field studies of societies in conflict.

“I’ve found that less than 2% of Sunni groups have any interest in democracy. They want to stop the war and feed themselves. They’re looking for answers and they’re not getting it from the government, the US or any of the foreign powers there,” Atran said, describing a situation ripe for radicalisation and unrest.

“The radical groups, they offer purpose and a means of achieving it,” Atran said. Turning to the children left behind by war, he asked, “What else are they going to do?”