Reflections on the Humanitarian Crisis in Syria (Part 2)

By Rupen Das

This week and last week’s posts are 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. Presented in two parts, Dr. Das previously described two observations regarding the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, exploring the contemporary state of the conflict as well as the conflict’s overwhelming complexity and the manner by which it has been fought simultaneously on three different fronts – via the military, the media, and the humanitarian sector.

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. 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.

Having shared two observations on the present crisis and where it is going, I wish to offer two additional observations and then conclude with a number of reflections.

3.  The Role of International Humanitarian Law and the Rules of War

Since the 2003 Iraq war, international humanitarian law and the rules of war have almost ceased to be a consideration by combatants in the region. With the Syrian conflict, simple issues of humanitarian access, humanitarian space, protection of humanitarian workers, of civilians and non-combatants, protection of places of religious worship and hospitals, the issue of conditionality of aid and so much more are ignored by all parties in the conflict. Having observed this first hand, in 2009 I wrote about humanitarian space in unconventional or asymmetric warfare. The rules of war – the Geneva Conventions – were drafted to mitigate the human impact in wars fought between nation states. All the conflicts today are either between non-state actors, or between a government and a non-state actor. As a result, it is very easy to justify that the rules of war do not apply to these conflicts. So we justify torture, summary executions, forcible eviction of civilians from their homes, using civilians as human shields, starvation and rape as weapons of war.

Recently, the International Committee of the Red Cross tried to contact ISIS in Mosul to ensure protection of civilians, but failed.

Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined says that the times have improved and that fewer people are dying from conflicts today than they have previously. However, in the conflicts that are still ongoing, the brutality has not diminished and the way we fight the wars has taken a step back.

4. The Religious Dimension of this Conflict

As humanitarians we do not like to speak about religion because we treat people on the basis of need and not because of race, ethnicity or religion. Yet this crisis has a religious dimension that few previous emergencies have had. Our reading of history is a secular one and we interpret geopolitics on the basis of power and greed, and do not understand the deep undercurrents of religion in the Syrian crisis. Regardless of what some analysts say, one major dimension of the conflict is the Sunni-Shia struggle dating back to 680 AD and the battle of Karbala. Many of you may have noted that the senior most Saudi cleric a few months ago proclaimed that the Shias and the Iranians were not Muslims and should not be allowed to go on the Hajj.

We all are aware of the anti-Muslim sentiments across Europe, Australia, and in North America. These are specifically targeted at refugees and migrants, most of whom are Muslims.

Religion is an integral part of life in the Middle East. Everybody has their religion printed on their ID cards. Politics and elections take place on the basis of religion and not issues. It is not enough to say that we operate on humanitarian principles and do not take religion into consideration when assessing need. The very foundations of society in the Middle East are based on the fact that each tribe takes care of their own. Ibn Khaldun in the 14thcentury wrote about the way tribes survive in the desert is by taking care of their own. They are really not concerned with other tribes. This attitude is still very prevalent in the Middle East today.

In our humanitarian aid program, we cannot be blind to the religious dimensions. Christians helping Muslims has a huge impact, when it is assumed that Christians will only help Christians. On the flip side, a question that many Arab Christians are asking is if the Christian humanitarian agencies are also concerned about Christians in need – or are the agencies going overboard to help Muslims, and Yazidis to make a point that they are not being biased. Not an easy question, nor are there easy answers.

Some Concluding Comments:

  1. This conflict has no sign of ending soon. Despite recent moves, there remains little political will in the short term to end this crisis. As humanitarian agencies we will need to ask what our commitment is to this crisis and how we will fund our response.
  2. We need to find our voice again and as a humanitarian community speak about issues of protection and holding our governments and their allies, at least, to the rules of war and international humanitarian law. Until now we have been completely silent.
  3. The refugee crisis in Europe has been temporarily contained because the Balkans route has been blocked other than to people smugglers. This has resulted in a backlog of refugees in Turkey and Greece. Turkey hosts 2.7 million Syrian refugees, and Greece over 60,000. The ACT Alliance reported that in Serbia, the number of refugees in just this past month increased from 4,000 to 5,000. Turkey has said that if the EU does not release the promised funds and give Turks visa free travel to Europe, they will open their borders with Greece and Bulgaria and let the refugees proceed towards Europe – creating a crisis again in the transit Eastern European countries, who are against the refugees. There are increasing numbers of refugees now starting in Egypt and trying to reach Italy, with more drowning in the Mediterranean. Yet so few humanitarian agencies are responding.

Yet there are rays of hope in the midst of what seems a very discouraging scenario. For the first time in a long while, we are seeing local churches in a conflict as major humanitarian actors. Churches in Europe are speaking about being prophetic in the face of racism and xenophobia and demonstrating what the Kingdom of God looks like, that it is a place of compassion. We are seeing churches in Europe and the Middle East being transformed as a result. Finally, we are seeing increasing cooperation between Christian and Islamic NGOs and community organizations in Europe and the Middle East in helping the refugees – showing that just maybe we can live in peace.

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