“Do not forget Aleppo!” These were the words shouted by an assassin as he gunned down the Russian ambassador to Turkey this past December.
The words that accompanied the shocking murder were striking reminder to the Western world to not overlook the suffering occurring in the then-besieged Syrian city. Indeed, what was once an economic, cultural and historical hub of Syria has now been reduced to a city best known for the humanitarian crisis that has existed within it for nearly five years.
In many ways, the situation in Aleppo mirrors that in Syria as a whole: rampaging violence, cynicism, destruction, and desperation. What began as a single anti-government protest in 2011 has degenerated into a massive conflict before blowing up into a civil war that has drawn in hundreds of different groups, including opposition forces, foreign powers, and terrorist groups. Entire cities have been turned into war zones, putting families and civilians in the crossfire of the conflict and disrupting daily life. Aerial bombardment has turned city blocks into rubble, destroying homes and businesses and leaving terror and despair to fill the empty streets.
The civil war and the rise of numerous terrorist organizations has created conditions ripe for human rights violations. These occur not only from rebel groups, but also from government forces. According to Human Rights Watch, “government forces and their allies carried out deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians,” while “armed groups opposing the government have attacked civilians, used child soldiers, kidnapped, and tortured.” More extreme groups such as ISIS or Jabhat Al-Sham are guilty of “targeting civilians, kidnappings, and executions.”
The urban violence that has scarred the country has prompted millions to leave their homes. Most often, they seek refuge in Turkey or Lebanon, or attempt the dangerous sea voyage across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Yet, even if Syrians escape the grasp of the violence mars their homeland, they still face many challenges. In Lebanon, formal refugee camps are not allowed, forcing Syrians to live in plastic tents. The large refugee population has also strained the country’s infrastructure, causing a shift in political and popular opinion against the refugees amongst the Lebanese. In Europe, thousands of refugees wait in holding camps, many of which are overcrowded and pushing the limits of their resources. Some European countries, such as Macedonia and Hungary, have closed their borders from refugees trying to move through Europe. The EU has attempted to implement a quota program which would distribute refugees throughout the continent, but the initiative has largely failed. Asylum requests have been taking months, and once refugees are allowed into the country, they face the challenges of assimilating to host countries cultures and are often subject to racism and poverty. Indeed, the recent rise of xenophobic right-wing nationalist parties across Europe likely has at least some root in the large influx of Syrian refugees since the onset of the conflict.
According to UNHCR, over 5 million Syrians have had to flee the country, over 1 million of which are children, while 6.3 million have been internally displaced since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in 2011. In short, the situation cannot be characterized as anything less than a humanitarian crisis.