Opinion: Haunting images of Aleppo and Madaya are why Syrians still need help

International donors have pledged aid to Syria as the conflict there enters its ninth year. Marianne Gasser, former head of the Red Cross delegation in Syria, knows how vital immediate help is from personal experience.
Marianne Gasser

The children in the streets were so malnourished that they hardly noticed our arrival.

Conflicts | 11.05.2018

Skeletal children are a haunting image. But our aid trip to the Syrian city of Madaya in the cold of January 2016 left me with an even grimmer memory: A dark basement filled with hollow-faced children and catatonic elders, all of them cold, ill and hungry. Limp bodies lay on blue blankets on the floor of a makeshift subterranean clinic, hiding from aerial bombardment.

Syria is reeling from its eight-year conflict. Every single family in the country has lost a relative. No family has survived unscathed, whether by displacement, injury, death or disappearance. So many houses, hospitals, schools, and electricity/water facilities have been damaged or destroyed.

Syria needs help now. I would know. During the past eight years, most of them as head of delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross, I saw the country traverse the seemingly thin line between pleasant peace and deadly destruction.

A return to wider war is possible, maybe even likely, without a political breakthrough and a plan to rebuild the broken, both buildings and people. Answers must be given for the likely hundreds of thousands who have gone missing, separated families must be put back together, and those suffering from psychological wounds must be supported before healing can take place.

Read more: Syrian detainee No. 72's tales of torture

Marianne Gasser visits a patient at the Al Tal hospital in Damascus

In short, Syria's people must figure out how to co-exist. As aid workers, we can help in the short and medium term; I hope that the international community will make the commitments needed for a peaceful long term.

The trauma of Madaya is seared into my mind. During our visit, a mother of six whispered in my ear: "I just lost my eldest son. He was 17. Please help me to keep the remaining five alive.”

Another woman, smiling, leaned close and said: "You know what you have done, you people from the outside? By talking to us, by remembering us, you brought us back something else: our dignity. Thank you."

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

War with no end

Syria has been engulfed in a devastating civil war since 2011 after Syrian President Bashar Assad lost control over large parts of the country to multiple revolutionary groups. The conflict has since drawn in foreign powers and brought misery and death to Syrians.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The dictator

Syria's army, officially known as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), is loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is fighting to restore the president's rule over the entire country. The SAA has been fighting alongside a number of pro-Assad militias such as the National Defense Force and has cooperated with military advisors from Russia and Iran, which back Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The northern watchman

Turkey, which is also part of the US-led coalition against IS, has actively supported rebels opposed to Assad. It has a tense relationship with its American allies over US cooperation with Kurdish fighters, who Ankara says are linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighting in Turkey. The Turkish military has intervened alongside rebels in northern Aleppo, Afrin and Idlib province.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The eastern guardian

The Kremlin has proven to be a powerful friend to Assad. Russian air power and ground troops officially joined the fight in September 2015 after years of supplying the Syrian army. Moscow has come under fire from the international community for the high number of civilian casualties during its airstrikes. However, Russia's intervention turned the tide in war in favor of Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The western allies

A US-led coalition of more than 50 countries, including Germany, began targeting IS and other terrorist targets with airstrikes in late 2014. The anti-IS coalition has dealt major setbacks to the militant group. The US has more than a thousand special forces in the country backing the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The rebels

The Free Syrian Army grew out of protests against the Assad regime that eventually turned violent. Along with other non-jihadist rebel groups, it seeks the ouster of President Assad and democratic elections. After suffering a number of defeats, many of its members defected to hardline militant groups. It garnered some support from the US and Turkey, but its strength has been greatly diminished.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The resistance

Fighting between Syrian Kurds and Islamists has become its own conflict. The US-led coalition against the "Islamic State" has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias. The Kurdish YPG militia is the main component of the SDF. The Kurds have had a tacit understanding with Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The new jihadists

"Islamic State" (IS) took advantage of regional chaos to capture vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Seeking to establish its own "caliphate," IS has become infamous for its fundamentalist brand of Islam and its mass atrocities. IS is on the brink of defeat after the US and Russia led separate military campaigns against the militant group.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The old jihadists

IS is not the only terrorist group that has ravaged Syria. A number of jihadist militant groups are fighting in the conflict, warring against various rebel factions and the Assad regime. One of the main jihadist factions is Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of Idlib province and has ties with al-Qaeda.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The Persian shadow

Iran has supported Syria, its only Arab ally, for decades. Eager to maintain its ally, Tehran has provided Damascus with strategic assistance, military training and ground troops when the conflict emerged in 2011. The Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah also supports the Assad regime, fighting alongside Iranian forces and paramilitary groups in the country.

Damascus was modern, vibrant and beautiful when I began as ICRC's head of delegation in 2009. No one knew Syria was careening toward misery. In mid-March 2011, violence started in a town called Deraa an hour outside the capital. One year later fighting had spread throughout the country. 

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The devastation and numbers of people killed, injured and displaced were heart-breaking. Farmlands became frontlines. Olives became a dietary staple. Millions of people were displaced, half of Syria's population. Millions.

Read more: Kurds see their dreams go up in smoke in Syria

Marianne Gasser at the Mahalej collective shelter in Aleppo

For children, school became a distant memory. Mathematics, history and science were replaced by lessons of war: run, hide, grieve and survive. So many children under the age of eight have known nothing else.

Years of fighting have left some of the country's vital services extremely fragile, including schools, health facilities, electrical systems, irrigation channels and water services. More than 11.5 million people are in need of assistance, now living in dire conditions.

Even when apartment buildings, houses or shops are left standing, the areas are still often contaminated with explosive remnants, putting families, particularly children, at serious risk. Remnants of war — including those in agricultural fields  must now be safely disposed of.

Aleppo. Does the name remind you of indescribable destruction and suffering? It does for me.

In late 2016 the shelling in Aleppo had been incessant, with mortars launched on residential districts. The battle ripped the heart out of the city and drained it of its soul.

With the temperature hovering at freezing, ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent teams crossed the frontline into a sea of rubble. We got out of the car to wave the flag of the Red Cross, so everyone knew who we were.

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It was there I saw one of the most moving sights I've ever witnessed: thousands of people  —  mainly women and children —  waiting to be evacuated. Many wore rags and carried old bags. Exhaustion, fear, anxiety, hope were etched into their faces. Destruction loomed.

There were so many children, and hardly any of them had warm clothes. They were silent, no sound, not a smile. Their faces held no expression.

This is the image you get when life is consumed by violence. This is the reason Syria must rebuild its buildings and souls. Madaya, Aleppo, death, destruction  it's a world Syria must not return to.

Marianne Gasser served as the ICRC's head of delegation in Syria from 2009-13 and 2015-19.

Syria's cultural heritage before and after the war

Rubble around the Citadel of Aleppo

The ancient Citadel of Aleppo, which rose to its peak during the 12th and 13th centuries, is one of the oldest fortresses in the world and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. The war destroyed the surroundings and parts of the citadel. In the meantime, however, it can be visited again.

Syria's cultural heritage before and after the war

Former glory

This photo shows the intact surroundings of the celebrated citadel complex — with origins going back to the 3rd millenium BC — before the war. The mosque complex dating from the 13th century, which is located directly in front of the Citadel of Aleppo, was heavily damaged when the Syrian Army used it as a military base.

Syria's cultural heritage before and after the war

One of the most ancient mosques in the world

The Umayyad Mosque of Damascus is one of the oldest mosques in the world, having been built at the beginning of the 8th century. The mosque is located in the historic Old Town, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980.

Syria's cultural heritage before and after the war

Aleppo's world-famous bazaar

With more than 1,000 small shops, Aleppo's old bazaar, or souk, was the heart of the storied Syrian city — the largest by population in the country before the civil war began. But the Syrian conflict destroyed much of the old city where the bazaar is located, and large parts of the labyrinthine structure remain devastated today.

Syria's cultural heritage before and after the war

The ancient Temple of Bel

The more than 2,000-year-old temple that was consecrated in honor of the Mesopotamian god Bel was a highly preserved ruin in the oasis town of Palmyra before the war. However its central building, the cella, and its sanctuaries were blown up by the so-called Islamic State in 2015.

Syria's cultural heritage before and after the war

Palmyra's Valley of the Tombs

Since the ancient cultural and trading city of Palmyra became a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1980, its primary temple became a major archaeological site. The reliefs and architectural elements pictured above are from a temple tomb excavated between 1981 and 1985 in a cooperation between the German Archaeological Institute and the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities.

Syria's cultural heritage before and after the war

Aleppo before the war

A photo taken in 2001, when no one suspected the suffering and destruction the city would experience barely a decade later. It shows Aleppo's citadel peacefully overlooking the Old Town bathed in a golden light. At the time, the minaret of the Great Mosque had just been scaffolded for renovation.

Syria's cultural heritage before and after the war

The ruins of the conflict

Aleppo has become a symbol of Syria's civil war. Large parts of the once flourishing metropolis, Syria's former economic powerhouse, are no longer recognizable. The large Waqf complex of the Abshir Pasha mosque (left), and the Behramiyah mosque (right) in the historic Al-Jdayde district suffered catastrophic damage during the conflict.

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