AMMAN, JORDAN—Syrian civilians are at greater risk of death, injury, displacement, and trauma in the coming days, both inside the country and beyond its borders, warns CIVIC, an advocacy group for civilians in armed conflict. After interviewing refugees at the Syrian borders of Jordan and Lebanon, the organization is pressing world leaders meeting in Geneva tomorrow to step up efforts to help Syrian civilians bearing the brunt of the conflict. With the suspension of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), escalating violence within Syria, and heightened tensions between Damascus and its neighbors, the situation for civilians is dire.“From what I’ve heard here in Jordan and in Lebanon from Syrian refugees, Syria’s civil—and increasingly sectarian—war is crossing an alarming threshold for civilian safety,” said director of country operations Michael Shaikh.  “Every day there’s another horrific story that you thought unimaginable the day before.”

CIVIC’s interviews with Syrian refugees highlight the near-complete lack of access to medical care inside Syria, particularly life-saving treatment. Aid workers and refugees detailed how wounded civilians are denied care at regime-controlled hospitals by Syrian forces, who consider conflict injuries indications of support for opposition fighters. Other options for medical care are also diminished: according to CIVIC’s interviews at least seven major civilian hospitals and tens of smaller clinics in Homs have been destroyed, looted, or occupied for military purposes. Consequently, most civilians rely on makeshift, under-supplied “field hospitals” for urgent care.

Syrian doctors and medical workers who recently fled to Lebanon and Jordan told CIVIC that security forces and militias are arresting, torturing, and sometimes killing civilians with medical training. According to one doctor from Damascus, “The regime seems to be pursuing rebels and doctors with equal ferocity.” CIVIC notes that not only is targeting civilian doctors illegal, but civilians who desperately need medical care—both the war wounded and the general population—will increasingly suffer.

For civilians interviewed by the team, escape from Syria was hazardous. The Syrian military has mined long stretches of its borders with Lebanon and Turkey, forcing civilians, particularly those from Homs and many with severe war wounds in need of life-saving care, to either remain in Syria (where lack of medical service means survival is a roll of the dice) or to make the long trip south to the mine-free, but illegal, crossings in the Bekaa Valley. Some civilians risk going farther south to Jordan, where smugglers have learned to negotiate the mine fields planted prior to the current conflict. Whatever the route, the crucial hours the mines add to an already treacherous and slow journey means that many injured civilians may be dying before they reach safety. Refugees CIVIC interviewed believe the mines were planted, in part, to contain civilians and hide the true scale of conflict. The longer these weapons remain in the ground, the harder they are to find and remove. As is often case in other conflicts, the mines are likely to remain a threat to civilian life long after the cessation of the violence.

Many Syrian civilian victims of war from a variety of backgrounds conveyed to CIVIC sentiments of abandonment by the international community, both in not ending the most egregious forms of violence and in not providing enough refugee assistance. UNSMIS’s suspension could compound these sentiments. For some interviewees, including members of the armed opposition, the only international solidarity they saw inside Syria were a handful foreign fighters from the region coming to their aid, some with a rigid sectarian worldview. Moreover, CIVIC found perceptions of increasing radicalization of the opposition, which in other conflicts has led directly to greater civilian harm.

“The Syrian regime is applying a vice grip—destroying critical medical infrastructure, both human and physical, and obstructing access to life-saving treatment in neighboring countries—and literally squeezing the life out of the civilian population,” said Shaikh.

CIVIC does not advocate a particular solution to ending the conflict in Syria. However, there are a number of immediate steps the international community should take to increase protections for vulnerable civilians. CIVIC urges world leaders convening in Geneva tomorrow for an emergency conference on Syria to:

  • Call on the Syrian government to immediately stop the harassment of civilian medical personnel, and allow the ICRC access to medical staff in government custody;
  • Call on the Syrian government to immediately stop the destruction and occupation of civilian medical facilities; allow civilians to regain control of hospital administration; and, allow unfettered access to those in urgent need of medical attention;
  • Call on the Syrian military, as well as the armed opposition, to immediately grant access to Homs City so the ICRC may evacuate wounded civilians in need of critical medical care;
  • Call on the Syrian government to immediately cease use of antipersonnel landmines, a weapon banned by the majority of the world due to its devastating humanitarian impact on civilians, and further provide maps of recently planted mines fields to ensure civilians can avoid them;
  • Continue to support Syria’s neighbors in keeping their borders open for refugees seeking asylum and protection, and urge against refugees’ forcible return to Syria.  Support should include financial assistance from host governments, UNHCR, local and international NGOs to support vital refugee services, as well as assistance to families hosting

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Notes to editors:

Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)’s mission is to improve protection for civilians caught in conflicts around the world. We call on and advise international organizations, governments, militaries, and armed non-state actors to adopt and implement policies to prevent civilian harm. When civilians are harmed we advocate for the provision of amends and post-harm assistance. We bring the voices of civilians themselves to those making decisions affecting their lives.

For more information, contact Christopher Allbritton at +1 (917) 310-4785 or chris@civiliansinconflict.org.

 

Image courtesy of Nicole Tung
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