Every time we think the humanitarian situation in Syria bottomed out, it gets even worse.
More than 160,000 Syrians have been displaced so far in the new chapter of this crisis, and many more are expected to suffer. President Donald Trump’s abrupt and capricious decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria is not the first betrayal of Syrians by our policymakers. Nor is it the first strategic blunder.
As a physician and humanitarian who has spent nine years providing health care in Syria and other disaster zones, I witnessed firsthand the impact of our policies, or lack of them, on the ground. My organization, MedGlobal, partners with local organizations in disaster zones, treating refugees and victims of war.
As I traveled from my world-class hospital in Chicago on medical missions, I witnessed the betrayal of our ideals on the faces of the countless Syrian refugees trapped in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, Greece and Lebanon.
Dema was one of them. I treated her in a poorly equipped clinic run by a local nongovernmental organization in a small refugee camp in Lebanon. Dema is 11 and has severe asthma. She spoke Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. She, like millions of Syrian refugees, felt abandoned, suffering silently from her disease in her tent. She is unable to go to school.
This spring, I went on a medical mission to Idlib, a province in northern Syria near the Turkish border that is home to 3.5 million Syrians, nearly half of them displaced from other cities bombed and besieged by President Bashar Assad. I visited hospitals built in caves and bombed frequently by the regime and Russia. Idlib is landlocked, and people are trapped. I witnessed thousands of Syrian families displaced by bombings, with no shelter, staying for weeks under olive trees in the open fields. Women and children suffered because there were no facilities or clean water.
Syrian medical workers feel betrayed too. More than 583 hospitals have been bombed, mostly by the Syrian government and Russia, according to Physicians for Human Rights. I think often of my Syrian colleagues like Dr. Hasan al-Araj, a cardiologist from Hama, whose last operating room was inside the “Central Cave Hospital,” dug into the heart of a mountain for protection. He was killed by an airstrike in his van on the way to work. More than 916 medical workers have been killed just because they are discharging their duty. This is a crime against humanity and clear violation of Geneva Conventions.
Since the early peaceful demonstrations of the Arab Spring in 2011, half of the population of Syria has been displaced. The crisis is still causing biblical suffering after nine years of global apathy and failure of the United Nations to protect civilians. Syrians feel betrayed as “never again” became “again and again and again.”
How many of us connect the dots between Syria and the global refugee crisis, the rise of xenophobia, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe and the United States, the destabilization of the European Union, and the ascension of hate groups and populist parties? My guess is only a few.
What is going on now in Syria is not only the betrayal of a particular ally. It is the betrayal of our ideals and the abandonment of a whole people who once believed in our ideals too. It is about the betrayal of millions of human beings trapped between the games of nations and the apathy of our policymakers. It may come back to haunt us.
Dr. Zaher Sahloul is a critical care specialist from Chicago and president of MedGlobal and Syria Faith Initiative.