Reflections on the Humanitarian Crisis in Syria (Part 1)

By Rupen Das

This post is based on a plenary presentation made at the ACCORD Annual meeting in North Carolina on Oct. 25, 2016 by Rupen Das to the 70+ Christian US relief and development member NGOs. It is presented here in two parts.

I was asked to share my perspective on the Syrian conflict and the humanitarian crisis and where I see it going.

There are times in history when because of the horrors of the events, the international community is forced to take stock. In recent history, the Biafran crisis of the late 1960s was one such time, out of which Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) was formed and a new way of responding to humanitarian crises began to take shape. The Rwandan genocide was another such time. Our collective failure resulted in the Red Cross Code of Conduct and the Sphere Standards.

With the Syrian crisis, I sense we are approaching another such time, when we will need to ask ourselves – is there another way of doing things. However, we are not there yet, and probably won’t be for another few years, because the brutality of this conflict has not seeped into our consciousness yet.

I want to share four observations on the present crisis and where it is going and then I’ll conclude with a couple of comments.

  1. Present Reality

The Syrian crisis and its overflow into Iraq and the surrounding countries is THE defining humanitarian crisis in the world today. It will enter the vocabulary of humanitarian workers on par with the Biafran crisis, the Ethiopian famine, the Rwandan genocide, Cambodia, the Balkan conflicts, Sierra Leon, Liberia, and many others. Since the Rwandan and the Balkan crises, this is the largest displacement of people with 4.7 million known refugees, and at least 13.5 million inside Syria needing humanitarian aid – many of them having been internally displaced. At least 400,000 have been killed, 1/3rd of them civilians. Eastern Aleppo today is being compared with Sarajevo, as the place where the international community lost all credibility and its moral conscience as a result.

It is not just about the numbers. The stories of the refugees and the IDPs are horrifying at the best. Last month in an informal settlement in Adana in Turkey I met refugee children with burn scars and shrapnel wounds from bombings and rocket attacks. In Lebanon I heard stories of children witnessing family members and friends being killed. A whole generation of children have no access to education, and most of them are on the streets begging or working so that the family would have enough to live on. We’ve seen this before in Cambodia and Rwanda, where a whole generation is a lost – this time it is the children who lose out, not just the lost opportunities, but tens of thousands have been traumatized by the war.

The crisis is no longer limited to the neighboring hosting countries, the camps and the settlements. The refugee influx into Europe is stretching the social fabric of countries in Europe with the rise in xenophobia and racism, fear of terrorism, and questions about what does it mean to European, German, Dutch, or Swede. The possibilities of extreme right wing xenophobic politics influencing governments are growing.

The human impact of this conflict will be felt for generations.

  1. Complexity of the Syrian Crisis

The first issue is that this is not just another war. The Syrian crisis is one of the most complex politically. Logistically, it is one of the most challenging to implement. BBC in a recent report based on interviews with numerous experts stated that the conflict could last at least another ten years. This is in line with all the research on civil wars since WWII. The research shows that if a civil war is not resolved within the first two years, they will then drag on. The data indicates that half of all civil wars lasted at least for 15 years or more, while others averaged about 7 years. The Lebanese civil war lasted for 15 years. We are now only into the 5th year of the Syrian conflict. Despite recent moves, there remains little political will to end this conflict, as all the parties are deeply entrenched in their positions. The complexity of having the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Iran and the Shiites, Turkey, the Kurds, Europe, and now China involved – each with their own agenda, does not allow for much common ground. Each of these countries or groups are either directly engaged in combat or are funding and arming proxy militias. At last count, there are at least a 1,000 militias operating inside Syria.

The challenge for humanitarian agencies is to figure out how to fund the humanitarian response over this length of time and deal with donor fatigue, when so many other emergencies get the media headlines and political priorities of donor agencies. Our existing mechanism of project funding – some of which can be multi-year – meaning 2-3 years, does not even begin to address the challenges. The UN agencies repeatedly show that they are significantly underfunded – which then translates into fewer beneficiaries and less aid to those who receive assistance. We are now seeing the impact of that. There are increasing number of cases of chronic malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies – which we all know has a significant long-term impact on children and their well-being. More and more mothers are reporting that they are unable to breastfeed because of the stress and trauma they experience.

The second issue on complexity is understanding the dynamics of this conflict. Early in the crisis I had written an analysis which stated that the conflict was being fought in three theatres.

There is the military conflict – which we all know about and follow with varying degrees of understanding.

The second theatre where the conflict is being fought is in the media. Early in the crisis, groups of opposition members were being trained in Turkey by western governments to become journalists who would provide an alternate version of the conflict to what was being provided by the regime.

This conflict is intense and yet subtle, with manipulations of stories, images, and half-truths. Language and words are critical. When do civilians who are killed become a war crime, and when is it collateral damage? Somewhere in the legal jargon of trying to differentiate between the two and justify our actions, we have lost our humanity.

One of the reasons journalists are being denied access to the war zones is so that each party would have the freedom to portray reality as they would like it to be. The objective is to sway public opinion and political decisions. It takes tremendous wisdom and discernment to know what is behind the stories and images and what the truth is.

The third theatre the conflict is being fought in is the humanitarian sector. Agencies in government controlled areas have to have approval from the regime and are then restricted in what they can do and where they can go. Those operating in rebel controlled areas either have to negotiate access with the rebels under very strict restrictions, or have to hand over the humanitarian supplies to the rebels to distribute.

The regime will often deny aid agencies to operate in rebel held areas to force people to move into government controlled areas, so that the government would be perceived as the protector of its citizens. All the large rebel groups have humanitarian departments that run bakeries, ensure supplies of food, cooking gas and other basic essentials. They want to be perceived as being able to govern.

It is extremely hard to be neutral in this conflict and to use “do no harm” principles. If we abide by the Red Cross Code of Conduct and believe that the humanitarian imperative comes first, does that override the fact that by doing so I will need to affirm the legitimacy of a rebel group or of the regime?

I remember once speaking with a USAID official and he asked if we could access the least serviced areas inside Syria – which are the rebel controlled areas. And at the same time he emphasized that we were not to have any contact with deemed terrorist organizations. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the request, but had the wisdom not to.

We made a decision in the first year of the conflict that we would not align ourselves with any of the parties in the conflict. The loophole we found was that local churches inside Syria did not have to get government approval to provide humanitarian aid. So we set up an underground operation of getting funds into Syria, training people, doing assessments, and ensuring accountability for funds and supplies. In the very early days it was only us and Oxfam who could operate like this. Today there are still only a handful of agencies that have maintained their neutrality inside Syria.

But this has huge risks. The same standards for procurement, accounting and audit, and verification of data for assessments and monitoring cannot be maintained. Evaluation is rarely possible. Our traditional models of funding and project design are not relevant in such highly insecure environments with populations that are mobile. This is not to mention issue of protection of staff and partners, and trying to implement the People in Aid Code.

Please return next week for Part 2, wherein Dr. Das will share his third and fourth observations as well as offers some final reflections.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on the Humanitarian Crisis in Syria (Part 1)

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