A sniper's bullet paralyzed 12-year old Misar from the waist down in her village in Idlib. Misar's mother told me, "She already had difficulty speaking after her father was killed... and now Assad has destroyed her life forever." Another girl, 8-year-old Amani, from Aleppo told me, from her hospital bed, "I want to go back to school. I like to write." But Amani's writing arm was shorn off by a rocket attack while she was standing in line to buy food with her parents. Misar will likely never walk and Amani will never use her right arm.
While nations are focused on the specter of chemical weapons in Syria, the lives of Misar and Amani will be forever marked by war. Over 80,000 people have been killed since peaceful protests against the rule of Bashar al-Assad began in 2011. The bombardment of cities, firing on civilians, shelling, sniping in civilian areas, and use of cluster munitions to kill, maim, and terrorize civilians have spared no one including the elderly and children.
When I visited villages under opposition control in Idlib governorate this April, I saw people trying to rebuild after their homes and shops were destroyed and burnt by government forces and the Shabeeah -- a pro-government militia. However, even their efforts to return to normalcy were brutally interrupted. Three days before I visited the village of Hazano, regime fighter jets released rockets with cluster munitions. One of the rockets landed in a tree-lined field where children were playing. I talked to the family of 15-year-old Batool who was killed. I visited the field where the rocket landed and saw unexploded Soviet-made munitions buried under the mud, lying in wait for more civilians to walk across them and trigger an explosion. I saw no military target, such as an opposition army base or a weapons depot, in the immediate vicinity to support a military attack like this. A Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigade member, wearing a flak jacket, was trying to clear the field, but he was a barber until two years ago and has no training on safely disposing of these deadly munitions.
Cluster munitions have been banned by most nations because they're inherently indiscriminate. When they fail to explode upon initial impact leaving "duds" they act like landmines and explode when handled. A local resident Adnan told me, "We were punished last year when the regime army burnt homes and killed the people of Hazano. Now Assad has sent these bombs that will kill our children today and tomorrow."
The conflict in Syria has evolved into a war of attrition where civilians are in a direct line of fire. When I asked defected fighters why they left Assad's army, at great risk to themselves and their families, they explained how they had been ordered to shoot directly at unarmed civilians. They refused. While a disproportionate level of war crimes is attributable to the Syrian government, Syrians acknowledge to their dismay that members of the armed opposition have also been involved in kidnapping, looting, ill treatment of detainees, and summary executions of government supporters.
While trying to flee from rockets and bullets, millions of Syrians have also been displaced and civilians are suffering from acute shortages of food, water, and medicine due to Syrian government restrictions on humanitarian groups seeking to operate inside Syria.
Syrians told me, again and again, that they feel abandoned by the international community. But as world capitals debate on whether to change strategies on Syria, there are things they could be doing right now to help Syrians. For a start, despite restrictions, some aid agencies and donor countries are providing flour, medicine, and sanitation, but robust cross-border aid to opposition-held areas is lacking. Pledged financial assistance needs to be made real as only a portion of the funds promised has actually come through and arrangements to ensure delivery of cross-border aid needs to be facilitated.
The international community should immediately underwrite an awareness campaign through media outlets alerting Syrians to the dangers of handling munitions and begin planning and funding for a demining strategy. Donor nations should also provide training to the armed opposition on safely handling and disposing of munitions.
Syrians have a strong sense of history and national identity, which is being ripped apart as the conflict enters its third year. Many civilians told me that sectarian differences are antithetical to Syria, but that the prolonged conflict is exacerbating tensions and that outside groups and countries are fermenting the divisions. As Syrians cope with the horrific tolls of the war -- with no concrete measures domestically and internationally to stop the bloodshed -- reprisal attacks against regime loyalists should be anticipated.
This situation is preventable if all Syrian losses are acknowledged, responsible institutions are established to rebuild communities, and mechanisms, including referrals to the international criminal court, are created and supported to hold those accountable for crimes committed by all sides.
Finally -- as governments ponder new strategies on Syria, including lethal aid assistance to the armed opposition -- a word of caution: Any lethal aid assistance should be conditioned on the opposition receiving training on the laws of war, tactical best practices on civilian protection, and the establishment of internal accountability mechanisms for civilian harm. Any plans for lethal aid should also include robust mechanisms to track weapons, to vet end-users, and to promptly disarm fighters post-conflict, so as to prevent transfer of weapons to other conflicts and to minimize harm to civilians.
For Syrians like Misar and Amani, it's time for the international community to take, at least, these meaningful steps to stem the carnage in Syria and help civilians who've already suffered so much.