Internally displaced Syrian children walk in mud near tents at a camp in northern Aleppo near the Syrian-Turkish border.
Internally displaced Syrian children walk in mud near tents at a camp in northern Aleppo near the Syrian-Turkish border.

As Syria approaches the 10-year mark in its civil war next month, the United Nations says the nation’s youngest generation is suffering most, as millions of children suffer malnourishment, stunted growth, and a lack of schooling.

“More than half a million children under 5 in Syria suffer from stunting as a result of chronic malnutrition, according to our latest assessments,” U.N. Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock said Thursday in his monthly briefing to the Security Council on the situation.

“We fear this number will increase,” he said.

FILE - In this Tuesday, March 10, 2020 file photo, migrants wait in line for a distribution of blankets close to the Turkish-Greek border near Pazarkule, Edirne region, Turkey.

Lowcock said stunting is especially bad in the northwest and the northeast of the country, where data show that in some areas, up to one in three children suffers from impaired growth and development due to poor nutrition and recurrent illnesses. The effects of stunting are irreversible.

Last week, Lowcock spoke with a group of Syrian doctors. At one pediatric hospital, the physicians said malnourished children occupy half of the facility’s 80 beds. In the past two months, five children have died from malnutrition.

“Another pediatrician told me that she diagnoses malnutrition in up to 20 children a day,” Lowcock said. “But parents are bringing their children to her for completely different reasons, unaware that they are suffering from malnutrition. Malnutrition, she said, has become so normal that parents cannot spot the signs in their own children.”

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Robbed of childhoods

In a decade of war, Syria’s youngest citizens have known nothing but conflict and suffering. They are among the millions of internally displaced and refugees; young girls have been married off in their teens, and boys have been recruited to fight. Children have been physically and psychologically wounded from the violence of war — both perpetrated on them and in front of them. Thousands have been killed.

“Around half of Syria’s children are now growing up having known nothing but conflict, which has permeated all aspects of their lives and robbed them of their childhoods,” Sonia Khush, Syria response director for Save the Children, told council members.

She said there is an “unprecedented education crisis” affecting millions of Syrian children that will hurt the country’s future.

“The combination of conflict, displacement, poverty, and now COVID-19, has created the conditions in which millions of children are missing out on an education,” said Khush.

She said schools should be safe places where children can flourish, but in Syria, many schools are attacked, used by armed groups and are littered with unexploded devices.

Syria has been in steep economic decline, with its currency — the Syrian pound — plummeting in value since 2019 as inflation soars. Khush said that has led many children to leave school to work and help support their families. They are at risk of never returning to the classroom.

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Cross border aid fight brewing

In northwest Syria, which is outside government control, critical humanitarian assistance is brought in entirely through a single cross-border checkpoint from Turkey. The U.N.’s Lowcock said those supplies help 2.4 million people monthly.

“Without the cross-border operation, doctors in northwest Syria, like some of those I spoke to, would not be able to provide those children the care that they need to survive,” he said. “They would not have the resources and supplies to carry on within quite a short period of time, they said. The situation would go from terrible to catastrophic.”

In the past 13 months, the United Nations has lost three of the four border crossings it used to bring humanitarian assistance into Syria from neighboring countries. Due to objections and obstruction from Russia and China on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government at the Security Council, authorizations for those crossings were not renewed.

Damascus prefers all aid to originate internally, but such cross-line deliveries have been insufficient and open the door to regime interference on where the aid goes.

The only remaining crossing point, Bab al-Hawa, is up for renewal in July. But it appears Russia has not changed its stance and may seek to block authorization with its veto.

“There is no doubt that keeping the cross-border mechanism will also mean keeping supporting terrorists, who are living on what they have extorted and also on how they are controlling smuggling,” Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the council.

“If we all had to make a decision on the extension of the cross-border mechanism tomorrow, I fear that we would not have any convincing grounds to do so,” he added.

The U.N. said conditions in the northwest are worse now than when the council took up the issue last July.

“A failure to extend the authorization in the future would trigger suffering and loss of life potentially on a very large scale,” Lowcock said.