Will it ever again be a unified country?
I just spent a day in this northeast Syrian town. It was terrifying,but not because we were threatened in any way by the Free Syrian Army soldiers who took us around,or by the Islamist Jabhet al-Nusra fighters who stayed hidden in the shadows. It was the local school that shook me up.
As we were driving back to the Turkish border,I noticed a school and asked the driver to turn around so I could explore it. It was empty of students. But war refugees had occupied the classrooms and little kids shirts and pants were drying on a line strung across the playground. The basketball backboard was rusted,and a local parent volunteered to give me a tour of the bathrooms,which he described as disgusting. Classes had not been held in two years. And that is what terrified me. Men with guns Im used to. But kids without books,teachers or classes for a long time thats trouble. Big trouble.
They grow up to be teenagers with too many guns and too much free time,and I saw a lot of them in Tel Abyad. They are the law of the land here now,but no two of them wear the same uniform,and many are just in jeans. These boys bravely joined the adults of their town to liberate it from the murderous tyranny of Bashar al-Assad,but now the war has ground to a stalemate,so here,as in so many towns across Syria,life is frozen in a no-mans land between order and chaos.
Syria as a whole is slowly bleeding to death of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. You cant help but ask whether it will ever be a unified country again and what kind of human disaster will play out here if a whole generation grows up without school.
This is the agony of Syria today. You cant imagine the war here continuing for another year,let alone five. But when you feel the depth of the rage against the Assad government and contemplate the sporadic but barbaric sect-on-sect violence,you cant imagine any peace deal happening or holding not without international peacekeepers on the ground to enforce it.
This Syrian disaster is like a superstorm. Its what happens when an extreme weather event,the worst drought in Syrias modern history,combines with a fast-growing population and a repressive and corrupt regime and unleashes extreme sectarian and religious passions,fuelled by money from rival outside powers Iran and Hezbollah on one side,Saudi Arabia,Turkey and Qatar on the other,each of which have an extreme interest in its Syrian allies defeating the others allies all at a time when America is extremely wary of getting involved.
Because of the population explosion that started here in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to better health care,those leaving the countryside came with huge families and settled in towns around cities like Aleppo. The government failed to provide proper schools,jobs or services for the youth bulge,which hit its teens and 20s right when the revolution erupted.
Then,between 2006 and 2011,some 60 per cent of Syrias land mass was ravaged by the drought and,with the water table already too low and river irrigation shrunken,it wiped out the livelihoods of 800,000 Syrian farmers and herders,the UN reported. And with Assad doing nothing to help the drought refugees,a lot of very simple farmers and their kids got politicised. Young people and farmers starved for jobs were a prescription for revolution.
The New York Times