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Syrian Conflict Takes a Toll on Refugees — and the Military

Two Syrians mourn the death of their father after he was killed by tank fire in Idlib province, Syria. Photo by Tracey Shelton/GlobalPost

While fighting rages between government and rebel forces in Syria, and the international community debates what to do about the conflict, Syrian refugees are just trying to survive and make their lives as normal as possible away from home.

Many refugees are less consumed by thoughts of regime change than of more immediate concerns of finding housing, paying rent and feeding their families, said Michael Shaikh, Syria country director at the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict.

The privately funded nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., seeks to make warring parties more responsible to civilians, before, during and after conflict, and to limit the harm to them on the battlefield.

In Syria, because the warring parties — the government under President Bashar al-Assad and a loosely knit opposition known as the Free Syrian Army — are unresponsive, CIVIC must look to other means to protect civilians.

“We don’t have any leverage with either of these warring parties right now, but there are still a variety of civilian protection issues that the Lebanese, Jordanian or Turkish governments can impact, Washington can impact though pressuring its allies, the Group of Friends of Syria with money, and political advocacy can do in terms of pressuring Damascus for access to the International Committee of the Red Cross,” said Shaikh. “We’re trying to expand the space for others that can impact civilian lives in a positive way.”

Toward that goal of influencing those who can make a difference, Shaikh spent seven weeks in June and July interviewing Syrians, armed opposition, demonstrators, aid agencies, and government officials in Jordon, Turkey and Lebanon about the needs of Syrians and how they could be addressed.

Michael Shaikh speaks with one of the Syrian refugees. Photo by Nicole Tung/CIVIC

The needs, he found, were great. Not only were refugees trying to adjust to life in another country and meet the daily needs of their families, they often were suffering from the trauma of escaping shelling in their hometowns. “If you’ve ever lived through that, it’s an incredibly profound and frightening thing,” said Shaikh (pictured above). “Particularly the people in Homs who experienced this for nearly a month, it really can break someone mentally, and these people needed psychological attention.”

Are they getting it? In some cases yes, but in most cases no, he said. “Some international aid agencies in Lebanon and now Jordan are stepping up to answer those needs, but there’s still a huge gap in what is needed and what it provided.”

The United Nations has asked for about $200 million to meet Syrians’ basic needs, but only about one-quarter has been funded by the international community, said Shaikh.

The State Department on Thursday released a breakdown of the $76 million the United States is spending to help Syrians inside and outside the country.

Reporters and aid agencies are having difficulty gaining permission to enter Syria, but information coming from refugees paints a stark picture of what is happening inside the country.

It appears hospitals and medical staff are targets of the regime, said Shaikh. Hospitals are being destroyed or occupied for military purposes, and those with injuries are denied treatment, he said. “We got the general impression that anyone who had a war wound in Syria was perceived by the government as being loyal to the opposition and thus were being denied medical attention.”

He said some doctors and medical staff he interviewed described threats to their lives or colleagues they knew who were killed or arrested because the government perceived them as supporting the opposition.

Shaikh said he has briefed State Department, U.N. agencies and other officials with his findings.

Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees in a refugee camp in Kilis, Turkey, near the Syria border. Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Refugees also are suffering from idleness, whether they are confined to camps or simply can’t find jobs. “People just want to work, and the vast majority of these people just have nothing to do,” he added. “It doesn’t do much for the body and soul. They want to work, even if it’s menial labor. It’s giving people a purpose even just for a few days or weeks.”

The conflict is taking a toll on the members of the Syrian army, too, said Shaikh. Military defectors told him some Syrian soldiers would break the chain of command and refuse to fire a weapon when told to, purposefully sabotage weapons, or slow down operations to give civilians time to move. “They didn’t want to fire on their own people.”

When their superiors found out, they were either executed on the spot or arrested and tortured, the defectors told him. He said he also heard that high-ranking Syrian military members would tell soldiers if you’re going to defect, make sure you take your family with you or they’ll be in trouble, which would work as a deterrent.

“That’s not to excuse the brutal actions of the Syrian military, but it highlights some of the real human and complex decisions that people are making to try to protect civilians, in a way.”

In some cases, he said, members of the military would defect — sometimes because they were ordered to go to battle in their hometowns — and they would return to fight as opposition in their neighborhood. “It’s really local in that sense,” he added.

Shaikh, who was born in Ohio of Pakistani parents, said even though he’s researched troubled nations for a decade, the situation in Syria was different. “I was kind of worried I was getting numb to this stuff because I was doing it so long, but for some reason Syria knocked something loose,” he said.

“It’s not the numbers of people who are dying in this war. Don’t get me wrong, it’s shocking. If the numbers are right, 20,000 is pretty shocking on so many different levels. But in Syria it’s the way people are dying — the disproportionate shelling, the targeting of medical staff, the denial of medical care, it’s the sniper fire that we’ve heard so much of — random in its targets but exact in its execution. War is always dreadful, but for some reason this seems particularly dreadful to me.”

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