Skip to main content

Syria's children suffer, and the world just shrugs

January 1, 2014 -- Updated 1444 GMT (2244 HKT)
A Syrian woman carries children following airstrikes on Aleppo on December 15.
A Syrian woman carries children following airstrikes on Aleppo on December 15.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gayle Lemmon: Nations have tried to secure Syria's chemical weapons but not to help children
  • Lemmon: Children suffer from starvation and polio, killed by airstrikes and bombs
  • She says chemical weapons close to being secured, but not conventional weapons
  • Children pay the price, she says. The world has turned its back on them

Editor's note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She wrote "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," a book that tells the story of an Afghan girl whose business created jobs and hope during the Taliban years.

(CNN) -- The world has devoted a great deal of diplomatic energy to securing Syria's chemical weapons. It has yet to do the same for securing Syria's children.

Their future is as important for international security and stability, even if the consequences of inaction will take far longer to be seen and felt.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

The war in Syria between the government of Bashar al-Assad and forces opposed to him has ground on for more than two years and claims new victims each day. More than 100,000 have been killed. Starvation has become a gruesome reality, with a religious leader now saying it is OK to eat cats and dogs given the lack of much of anything else.

Polio, likely brought by foreign fighters, has resurfaced to claim tiny victims younger than 2. In the past two weeks, barrel bombs -- drums filled with shrapnel and explosives -- are reported to have killed more than 500 people in the city of Aleppo.

A Syrian girl plays in the city of Aleppo, bombed two days after this photo was taken on December 13.\n
A Syrian girl plays in the city of Aleppo, bombed two days after this photo was taken on December 13.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group with links to Syrian opposition, children accounted for more than 150 of the dead.

Refugees fleeing the conflict, most to Syria's overwhelmed neighbors Jordan and Lebanon, top a whopping 2 million. Some U.N. officials expect that number to climb as high as 4 million in 2014. More than 1.1 million of these refugees are younger than 18. Indeed, Syria's youngest citizens are paying dearly for a war they did not create, one that is laying waste to their present and their future.

Three out of four Syrian children "have lost a close friend or family member in their country's ongoing conflict" and "many have witnessed violence," notes the International Rescue Committee. Charities such as IRC and Mercy Corps working with Syria's children tell of young people isolated, lonely and struggling with the impossible task of coming to terms with all that they have seen and lost.

"If we do not act quickly, a generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in November when releasing a report on the grim future facing Syria's children.

"A grave consequence of the conflict is that a generation is growing up without a formal education," the report said. "More than half of all school-aged Syrian children in Jordan and Lebanon are not in school. In Lebanon, it is estimated that some 200,000 school-aged Syrian refugee children could remain out of school at the end of the year." They join 25 million kids of primary-school-age around the world out of school because of war.

Syria in review
Rocket strike kills at least 25 in Aleppo
UNICEF: Syria largest humanitarian crisis

These numbers matter and well beyond Syria's borders.

As U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has often noted, security and education are bound together: Low educational attainment is among the strongest predictors of violence. Anyone hoping for a safer, more secure world had better start with educating children.

And yet until now, the international community's reaction to the escalating death count and the rising number of hungry, homeless and displaced children has fallen somewhere between a shrug and a sigh. Although U.N. agencies have released a slew of dire warnings about the situation's urgency and its gravity, it is unclear anyone is listening, let alone ready to act to change the calculus on the ground.

In September, a round of feverish and focused diplomacy unfolded between Russia and the United States to reach a deal with the Assad regime on its chemical weapons.

No nations have engaged in such fully concentrated diplomacy to open and secure humanitarian corridors and bring supplies to cities being starved and cut off from the rest of the world -- and to make sure Syria's children don't go hungry. Although chemical weapons may be close to being secured, conventional weapons face no such limitations and are being used to kill, injure and maim with impunity.

This leaves children to pay the price. And so will the rest of us, eventually, if nothing is done to help a lost generation find a way to a more secure future.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT