Syria: The War That Defined A Generation

By Micah McIntyre

From his freshman year in high school until after he graduated college, my father watched as the Soviet Union violently overthrew the established government in Afghanistan and imposed its will on the Afghan people. After 10 years of war, over 6 million people had fled to Iraq and Pakistan and thousands had been killed. This conflict shaped his generation’s view of the world as they were left to pick up the pieces of this horrendous war. When my father’s generation looks back on their middle school, high school and college years, they will remember the war in Afghanistan as the conflict that defined their young lives.

For our generation, that conflict is the Syrian Civil War.

A People Ravaged by War

What once started as a peaceful protest against a brutal, inhumane regime has devolved into one of the worst conflicts of the 21st century. Seven years of fighting have devastated the nation of Syria and its people. Of the 25 million citizens in 2011, 6 million have been internally displaced, 5.5 million have fled the country and over 500,000 are dead.

The world has watched in horror as the Bashar al-Assad and ISIS used sarin and chlorine gas on villages full of civilians. The West was powerless as Russia targeted schools and hospitals labeled as “terrorist threats”. And now we watch as the Syrian people and opposition have been forced into the overcrowded province of Idlib, awaiting what could be the bloodiest battle of the war.

The Last Stand

Since being declared a “demilitarized zone” in May of 2017, the Idlib province has seen a massive influx of internally displaced Syrians. Just under half of the civilian population is made up of people who have already had to flee from violence in other parts of the country—110,000 of the civilians are from Aleppo alone.

Now, the Idlib province in Northern Syria is the last rebel stronghold in the country, meaning that it is also the last national safe haven for those seeking refuge from Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government. For the 2.9 million people in Idlib, there is nowhere else to go. To the north, Turkey has closed its borders after taking in over 3 million refugees since the war began in 2011. To the south and east, they face political persecution, torture and even death at the hands of pro-Assad forces.

On September 17, a deal was brokered between Russia and Turkey to create a demilitarized buffer around the Idlib province. The deal has not saved the people of Idlib, but it has at least postponed what could be the bloodiest battle of this devastating war. It is yet to be seen whether or not the rebel and extremist groups in the province will comply, but all parties understand that an all-out assault would result in a bloodbath and prove disastrous for the international community.

Regardless of whether or not the peace deal holds, it looks as though this is the twilight of the Syrian Civil War. The conflict is far from over, but the Syrian opposition cannot remain a military power for much longer. But as any war comes to a close, there are questions that must be asked and problems that must be addressed. Perhaps the most important question at the end of this war is when will people be able to return to their homes and how will the next generation of Syrians rebuild what has been lost.

A Future of Uncertainty

The future for the Syrian people is as uncertain as the future of the Idlib province. Russia is encouraging refugees to return to their homes in the government-controlled cities and provinces. Thousands have begun their journey home, but millions see that as impossible.

In speaking with some of my Syrian friends at home in Northern Virginia, they made it abundantly clear that as long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power, there can be no resolution to the conflict—there is no going home. The government that forced them to seek political asylum here in the U.S. is still as corrupt as the day they left.

The majority of refugees around the world are looking to start their lives again elsewhere because they cannot be certain they won’t be detained or killed upon their return. Russia tries to guarantee that they will be treated fairly, but 50 years of oppression and corruption has taught the Syrian people otherwise.

The Education of War

The future is not uncertain simply because of the fragile political situation. It is uncertain because the majority of the next generation of Syrians were primarily educated by war. Two generations of young people in Syria were raised by war and had violence as their teacher.

About 40 percent of the 2.8 million children who have been out of school for the past 7 years are between ages 15 and 17. Their lack of a basic education makes them especially susceptible to extremist philosophies and social exploitation. In Lebanon, the UN reported that over 180,000 children have been forced into child labor.

“It’s all some of them think about and know,” says child psychologist, Harith Hassan, regarding children who grew up during the Second Gulf War. “The dangers are they will internalize the violence and then reproduce it later.” The same holds true for the children of Syria.

Just as in Afghanistan and Iraq, this young generation of Syrians has been traumatized by the horrors of war for seven years. The opposition is at its breaking point and their war is drawing to a close. But for the next generation, the conflict is far from over. The generation that has been defined by this war is responsible for rebuilding what is left of their homeland.