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The Wreckage of Syria's Civil War Is More Dire Than Ever — and the UN Isn't Helping

An exceedingly bleak humanitarian catastrophe shows signs of worsening as the conflict between Syrian government forces and rebel factions enters its fifth year.

by Samuel Oakford
Mar 12 2015, 9:25pm

Photo via Freedom House

The devastation that has unfolded in Syria over the course of its unremitting civil war is difficult to comprehend. 

Some 220,000 people have died since President Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in March 2011 ignited open rebellion in the country. Roughly half of Syria's pre-war population has been displaced, including more than four million who have sought refuge in neighboring countries. More than 212,000 people remain besieged in areas of intense fighting, often without access to food, electricity, or medical supplies.

An exceedingly bleak humanitarian catastrophe shows signs of worsening as the conflict between Assad's forces and rebel factions enters its fifth year. The United Nations Security Council, meanwhile, has utterly failed to enforce resolutions aimed at alleviating the plight of the war's victims, according to a report issued by aid agencies Thursday.

Despite two resolutions passed last year authorizing UN aid convoys to enter Syria without permission from the government in Damascus, the report found that the number of people reached by such efforts has fallen by 63 percent compared to 2013.

Syrian children outside of their temporary home in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. (Photo via Flickr)

"There are almost twice as many people living in hard to reach areas," Noah Gottschalk, senior policy adviser at Oxfam America, one of the groups that issued the report, told VICE News. "The first thing the Council can do is start ensuring there are consequences for those that obstruct aid."

"We've seen that despite these resolutions there's actually been a deteriorating," he added. "The starting point is to implement what they've already passed."

International efforts to broker even temporary ceasefires have amounted to little amid mutual recrimination between world powers aligned with the government and its opposition. A hard-fought proposal coordinated by the UN's special envoy for Syria to "freeze" fighting in the city of Aleppo alone has been discussed since the fall but is yet to be actualized.

Related: Syrian Refugees Are Freezing to Death as Snow Blankets the Region

As bleak as circumstances are within the country, Syria's beleaguered refugees abroad have also found it difficult to escape the desperation. In Lebanon, where more than one million Syrians are being sheltered in threadbare camps — boosting Lebanon's pre-war population by about a quarter — conditions are deteriorating due to a chronic shortage of aid financing.

"Humanitarian programs are underfunded and we're having to prioritize more and more," Dana Sleiman, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency's program in Lebanon, told VICE News. "Refugee resources are dwindling, and some are even having to resort to survival sex, child labor, and other measures to make ends meet."

In order for Syrians to renew their residency permits, Lebanese authorities require them to sign a pledge promising not to enter the country's labor force. This compels them to rely on handouts from international agencies or risk arrest by working illegally.

The refugees in Lebanon include some 400,000 school-age children, fewer than 20 percent of whom are attending classes. The government in Beirut has announced plans to incorporate the remaining children by next year, but its fulfillment of this task is far from certain.

Related: UN Security Council Condemns Chlorine Weapons in Syria, but Doesn't Blame Assad

The Security Council last year also targeted the use of illegal barrel bombs by Assad's forces, but they continue to fall in rebel-controlled areas. Western powers accuse the government of attaching chlorine gas canisters to the bombs to compound their damage — a violation of the UN's Chemical Weapons Treaty.

While council members are quick to condemn atrocities committed by the Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusrah Front, they haven't displayed unity when addressing the situation in Syria. Russia, one of Assad's stalwart supporters, has denied the government's use of chemical weapons, and last year vetoed a resolution that would have referred the conflict to the International Criminal Court.

On Thursday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the Security Council to "take determined measures" to end the fighting.

"The lack of accountability in Syria has led to an exponential rise in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations," Ban said in a statement.

In December, Western countries pledged to help take in some of the overflowing refugee population, but have so far committed to resettle only 3,000 of those currently in Lebanon, according to the UN.

"Lebanon has done so much and it's really overstretching its capacity," said Sleiman. "Public services and infrastructure that were fragile even before the crisis are under severe strain. Seventy percent of the refugees depend on humanitarian agencies to meet their minimum daily food requirements."

Related: German Teenager Dies Fighting the Islamic State in Syria

The US has accepted fewer than 600 Syrian refugees during the entirety of the conflict, and this number includes individuals who had applied prior to 2011.

"The process is slow and long because the US government hasn't made common sense reforms," said Gottschalk. He pointed out that the UN's refugee agency does not even refer many Syrians to the US due to American concerns over their possible terrorist ties — which in many cases are questionable. "The bar is so low for involvement that you could have someone who sold a falafel sandwich to someone associated with a rebel group, and they aren't allowed in."

Aid agencies will meet with representatives from the Security Council's membership next week, but improving the circumstances of Syrians within and without the country — to say nothing of ending the conflict itself — remains a daunting challenge.

"Syrians I talk to feel like their country has become a chessboard where the great games of international politics are being played out," Gottschalk remarked. "We have a responsibility to end that game, remembering that this started as a peaceful uprising for democracy."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford
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