Depression, addiction, divorce: The hidden cost of Syria’s war

Almost everyone has suffered in some form as a result of what the UN human rights chief described as ‘the worst man-made disaster since World War II.’ AFP
Updated 16 June 2018

Depression, addiction, divorce: The hidden cost of Syria’s war

  • 60 percent of children surveyed had symptoms of depression, 45 percent showed signs of PTSD and 65 percent had serious “psychosomatic symptoms
  • Since the civil war began in 2011, an estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed and millions more displaced

DAMASCUS: Rawan, a 22-year-old medical student at Damascus University, confided in her aunt about her depression, but was shocked at the response.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” the aunt replied. “A true believer never gets depressed. Don’t speak of this to anyone or they will call you crazy and no one will marry you or even trust you as a physician.”
Like many other Syrians, Rawan decided to keep her depression to herself rather than have her “faith judged and be labeled insane.”
Since the civil war began in 2011, an estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed and millions more displaced, but the toll the conflict has taken on the mental health of people remains largely unquantifiable.
Even in the relatively liberal and cosmopolitan confines of Damascus, conservative attitudes toward post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression hold sway. Few Syrians talk openly about how the bloodshed has affected them psychologically.
This has led to experts both inside and outside Syria warning that the country will face a wide range of social problems — from substance addiction to suicide — for years to come as generations of Syrians struggle to live with the consequences of what they have seen.
Unable to ask her family for help, Rawan’s depression left her convinced that her work as a medical student was pointless.
“Why should I go to college and study hard when I know this war isn’t likely to end soon and there will be no future for me here?” she told Arab News.
Last year, Mazen Hedar, president of the Syrian Association of Psychiatry, told a local newspaper there were only 70 mental health specialists in the country. He claimed 4 percent of the people in Syria suffer from “severe mental illnesses,” while 20-40 percent “suffer from moderate illnesses.”
But with even basic health services left in ruins by the war and fighting still taking place in many areas, the real numbers are impossible to know.
Almost everyone has suffered in some form as a result of what the UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein described as “the worst man-made disaster since World War II” and an “immense tidal wave of bloodshed and atrocity.”
While Damascus has escaped the worst of the violence and much of the city is now relatively safe, people still feel shocked at the way their country has descended into chaos and are anxious about the future.
Layla, a 26-year-old computer engineer based in the city, told Arab News that her family do not trust Syrian health workers.
“Botched surgeries go unpunished and carelessness goes unnoticed — do you think I would trust a psychologist in a culture that still believes he’s a doctor to the crazy and that those with chronic depression, PTSD or schizophrenia belong in a straitjacket? Sorry, no,” she said.
A study of Syrian refugee children in Turkey during late 2012 and early 2013 found that 74 percent “had experienced the death of somebody they cared strongly about.”
The study, conducted by researchers at Bahcesehir University in Turkey, New York University and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, found 60 percent of children surveyed had symptoms of depression, 45 percent showed signs of PTSD and 65 percent had serious “psychosomatic symptoms.”
Dr. Wael Al-Delaimy of the University of California told Arab News that PTSD can lead to social problems including divorce, unemployment and crime.
He said the level of trauma experienced by people in Damascus could not be compared to the suffering of people elsewhere in the country, where “there is bombing, terrorizing and killing of civilians on a daily basis.”
Al-Delaimy called for Syrian health professionals to adopt a different approach to mental illness, “focusing on prevention and early detection.”


Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

Updated 17 September 2019

Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

  • The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq

BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is putting increased pressure on the nation’s armed factions, including Shiite-dominated paramilitary troops and Kurdish guerrillas, in an attempt to tighten his control over them, Iraqi military commanders and analysts said on Monday.

Military commanders have been stripped of some of their most important powers as part of the efforts to prevent them from being drawn into local or regional conflicts.

The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq. 

Each side has dozens of allied armed groups in the country, which has been one of the biggest battlegrounds for the two countries since 2003. 

Attempting to control these armed factions and military leaders is one of the biggest challenges facing the Iraqi government as it works to keep the country out of the conflict.

On Sunday, Abdul Mahdi dissolved the leadership of the joint military operations. 

They will be replaced by a new one, under his chairmanship, that includes representatives of the ministries of defense and interior, the military and security services, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and the Ministry of Peshmerga, which controls the military forces of the autonomous Kurdistan region.

According to the prime minister’s decree, the main tasks of the new command structure are to “lead and manage joint operations at the strategic and operational level,” “repel all internal and external threats and dangers as directed by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces,” “manage and coordinate the intelligence work of all intelligence and security agencies,” and “coordinate with international bodies that support Iraq in the areas of training and logistical and air support.”

“This decree will significantly and effectively contribute to controlling the activities of all combat troops, not just the PMU,” said a senior military commander, who declined to be named. 

“This will block any troops associated with any local political party, regional or international” in an attempt to ensure troops serve only the government’s goals and the good of the country. 

“This is explicit and unequivocal,” he added.

Since 2003, the political process in Iraq has been based on political power-sharing system. This means that each parliamentary bloc gets a share of top government positions, including the military, proportionate to its number of seats in Parliament. Iran, the US and a number of regional countries secure their interests and ensure influence by supporting Iraqi political factions financially and morally.

This influence has been reflected in the loyalties and performance of the majority of Iraqi officials appointed by local, regional and international parties, including the commanders of combat troops.

To ensure more government control, the decree also stripped the ministers of defense and interior, and leaders of the counterterrorism, intelligence and national security authorities, and the PMU, from appointing, promoting or transferring commanders. This power is now held exclusively by Abdul Mahdi.

“The decree is theoretically positive as it will prevent local, regional and international parties from controlling the commanders,” said another military commander. 

“This means that Abdul Mahdi will be responsible to everyone inside and outside Iraq for the movement of these forces and their activities.

“The question now is whether Abdul Mahdi will actually be able to implement these instructions or will it be, like others, just ink on paper?”

The PMU is a government umbrella organization established by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki in June 2014 to encompass the armed factions and volunteers who fought Daesh alongside the Iraqi government. Iranian-backed factions such as Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah represent the backbone of the forces.

The US, one of Iraq’s most important allies in the region and the world, believes Iran is using its influence within the PMU to destabilize and threaten Iraq and the region. Abdul Mahdi is under huge external and internal pressure to abolish the PMU and demobilize its fighters, who do not report or answer to the Iraqi government.

The prime minister aims to ease tensions between the playmakers in Iraq, especially the US and Iran, by preventing their allies from clashing on the ground or striking against each other’s interests.

“Abdul Mahdi seeks to satisfy Washington and reassure them that the (armed) factions of the PMU will not move against the will of the Iraqi government,” said Abdullwahid Tuama, an Iraqi analyst.

The prime minister is attempting a tricky balancing act by aiming to protect the PMU, satisfy the Iranians and prove to the Americans that no one is outside the authority of the state, he added.