Children have become one of the main victims of the Syrian civil war and will be increasingly vulnerable as Russia increases its involvement in the conflict, humanitarian groups told a congressional committee on Thursday.
Representatives for the aid groups said the four-year Syrian war had engendered the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II, with children being forced to leave their schools and homes. Four million children are internally displaced in Syria while more than 2 million have fled to the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq.
Assaults led by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad—backed by Russia, Iran, and the terrorist group Hezbollah—against opposition-held areas have killed more than 11,000 children throughout the war, they said. More than 250,000 people overall have died in the conflict.
David Ray, vice president of advocacy for the group CARE USA, said he had seen estimates that as many as 95 percent of the deaths were caused by the Assad regime and its use of shrapnel-filled barrel bombs.
"Syria is ground zero for a global proxy war where the primary casualties are innocent civilians," said Mark Smith, senior director at World Vision U.S., at the hearing held by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.
Hundreds of thousands of children have been forced to flee and forgo their education after their schools were targeted or coopted by armed groups. Bernice Romero, senior director at Save the Children, said her group had documented 51 incidents of attacks on or military use of schools in the Aleppo, Idlib, and Hama regions—all opposition-held areas that have been targeted by Assad. Those attacks included 32 airstrikes and shootings and threats against teachers and students.
During one attack in April at a Save the Children partner school in Aleppo, 700 children were evacuated when the regime dropped a barrel bomb. Five children were killed at another Syrian school in March when two missiles struck the facility.
Additionally, "More than 1,000 schools inside Syria have been used as temporary bases, military staging grounds or detention or torture centers," Romero said in her testimony.
Among those children who have fled Syria, more than half have no access to schooling, Smith said. Many have to work multiple jobs to support their families, and young girls often marry early, under financial pressure.
Nasreet, a Syrian mother who escaped to Jordan with her three sons in 2013, recently told CARE that she sought refuge after a piece of shrapnel injured her 6-year-old son, Ray said. "What choice did I have but to leave?" she said, according to Ray’s testimony. Her other sons, 9 and 13, are now out of school so they can earn money.
Russia’s recent intervention in the Syrian war in support of Assad, including missile strikes by Russian planes and ships, will likely exacerbate the humanitarian crisis for children and families, the aid workers said. While the Kremlin says it is attacking terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and the Nusra Front that have also been targeted by the United States, U.S. officials say most of the attacks have been directed against rebel groups that include U.S.-backed fighters.
"We are already seeing concerning reports of increased numbers of civilian casualties in the areas impacted by the Russian strikes from civil society groups like the White Helmets, the Syrian Civil Defense," said Michael Bowers, vice president of Mercy Corps. "If this intensity of strikes continues, we will prepare for the possibilities of significant redistribution of internally displaced persons."
All of the humanitarian officials urged the Obama administration and international community to focus more on the protection of civilians in their efforts to address the Syrian crisis. However, President Obama has long resisted calls to establish no-fly zones in northern Syria that could host refugees and training centers for U.S.-backed rebels. The presence of Russian warplanes in the region—which Turkey has accused of violating its airspace—now makes the creation of such zones more difficult and raises the risk of conflict between the major powers.
Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, assailed Obama in a statement on Thursday for failing to develop a strategy to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The president said during a press conference last week that his critics have only offered "half-baked ideas" and "mumbo jumbo" to stem the violence.
"Putin has taken more action in two weeks in Syria than Obama has in two years," Royce said.
"Our defense secretary is criticizing the Russian strategy, but where is ours?" he added. "The American people, Congress, and our allies are waiting. Brutalized Syrians are waiting."
Published under: Syria