Syria: A Humanitarian Catastrophe

Natalie Chu

In the middle of March this year Syria entered its eighth year of conflict. At this point the crisis has outlasted the second world war by more than 2 years and continues to escalate with ever-growing ferocity. For millions of Syrians, daily life has become a marathon of unparalleled suffering.

 

A Brief History

Syria’s civil war has been long and complex, but can be traced back to a series of peaceful anti-governmental protests in 2011 that first started in Deraa but soon erupted in various other cities after national security forces responded with unflinching brutality.

Syria has since descended into chaos with various pro-government and resistance groups battling one another for control over different parts of the country. The opposition which once shared a common objective of rebelling against an authoritarian regime has fragmented into various Islamist networks and radical groups, such as al-Nusra and ISIS.

The conflict has also metastasized as international and regional actors become drawn to the war. These include Russia and Iran – the government’s key supporters – as well as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who aid the opposition. The US, UK, France and other western powers have also been involved in backing the rebels. Syria has been described by James Mattis, US Secretary of Defence, as “one of the most complex battlefields you could ever imagine.”

Diplomatic efforts in the international arena have been protracted and ineffective for the most part, aside from a prominent deal driven by Russia and the US to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. Until present day, there has been no political consensus reached on how to end the war. There has been a number of failed UN-facilitated talks in Geneva involving major powers such as Russia and the US, and meetings in Astana between Syrian government representatives and opposition groups, supported by Russia and Turkey respectively.

At the latest meeting held in Astana in May 2018, parties present agreed to maintain the de-escalation areas (DEAs). However, since the start of this year, pro-Assad forces have launched offensive attacks in these zones – for example, in Eastern Ghouta and southwest Syria – and have retaken large swathes of land from rebel groups.

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Source: Al Jazeera, ‘Syrian Civil War Map: Who Controls What?’, 7 September 2018

The Syrian conflict continues to persist and develop rapidly, with no end in sight to the ongoing violence that has completely devastated the country.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, as of August 2018, more than half a million people have been killed or are missing.

 

The Struggle Today

As a consequence of the chaos that has endured over the past 8 years, Syria now faces a humanitarian crisis on an unimaginable scale. Last year, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) established that there are over 13 million people in Syria in need of humanitarian assistance. The UNOCHA describes them as being “caught in a protection crisis, defined by indiscriminate, disproportional and unrestrained attacks that inflict extensive hardship and destruction upon the civilian population.”

The reduction of violence in certain areas, particularly where DEAs have been established or local agreements reached, may have been significant but were short-lived. The level of hostilities experienced by Syrians at large has, in fact, intensified in many regions, as the geographic focus of the conflict continues to evolve.

In September last year, Russia resumed air strikes against insurgents in the northwestern Idlib province. UN officials warned that such an attack would put thousands of civilian lives at high risk. It was also reported that during the offensive to reclaim the city of Raqqa in October last year, US-led coalition forces had launched thousands of air strikes which, according to Amnesty International, resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths. The blatant disregard for the security and well-being of the innocent in these regions is unforgivable. Atrocities have not only been committed by extremist groups such as ISIS, who capture most of the media attention, but also by state actors, who carry out persistent aerial bombardments that have aggravated the displacement of Syrians and worsened the humanitarian crisis.

Displacement within and from Syria has been extreme as a result of the violence. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates there are 6.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and over 5.6 million registered Syrian refugees. These numbers are only growing by the day.

The relentless destruction of life-sustaining civilian infrastructure has made it intolerable for those with limited or no access to basic services, such as food, water, electricity and healthcare. Early this year, it was reported that medical facilities in eastern Ghouta were on the brink of collapse. Hospitals and clinics were systematically attacked by airstrikes carried out by the government and its allies.

Dr Ghanem Tayara, the chairman of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, described those in Ghouta who are cut off from receiving aid as being ‘condemned to a slow and painful death’.

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Man rescues a child following a reported government air strike in eastern Ghouta; Source: Sky News, February 2018

Such widespread damage has been a driving force of displacement. In April 2018, it was reported that nearly 150,000 people from eastern Ghoutta were displaced . More than 44,000 of these were forced to relocate to overcrowded IDP sites in Damascus. Almost 50,000 others have been evacuated to Idlib and Aleppo, where the humanitarian response has already been stretched beyond breaking point. Idlib is situated in a key region of mass displacement itself: between December 2017 and February 2018, there were nearly 400,000 displacements in northwest Syria due to continuing hostilities between the government and non-state armed groups.

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A displaced child in the Idlib province; Source: Yahya Nemah/EPA, January 2018

IDPs in Syria are particularly vulnerable and in need of serious protection. They are in proximity to the violence and are less likely to receive substantive international humanitarian aid. This is the case even in official camps as the absorption capacity has nearly been exhausted. Rape and sexual violence committed against both men and women, recruitment of child soldiers, detention and executions of civilians remain widespread and continue to inflict irreversible trauma on survivors.

There is also clear link between internal displacement and the mass exodus of Syrians who have fled across the borders over the past few years. Many of the refugees arriving in neighbouring countries have previously been displaced multiple times inside Syria. The number of registered Syrian refugees is the highest in Turkey – at 3.3. million, whilst in Lebanon and Jordan there are more than 1.6 million refugees. This never-ending influx of refugees has overwhelmed host communities.

The displaced are often living in abysmal conditions and only a small proportion of them – less than 10% – are living in formal refugee camps. The majority are struggling to seek shelter in unfamiliar urban and rural locations.

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Source: UNOCHA, Humanitarian Needs Overview 2018: Syria, 20 November 2017

There have been disturbing accounts detailing the tragic fate of those who are compelled but unable to flee. Civilians have been deliberately killed by Syrian military forces while attempting to leave the country. Thousands have been stranded at the Syrian-Jordan border awaiting entry.

 

What Lies Ahead

It is clear that the humanitarian needs of those living in Syria or who have/ are attempting to escape will only balloon this year. It is predicted that at least 1.5 million Syrians will be newly displaced in 2018. Although a number of displaced Syrians are likely to return to their homes this year, and politicians are claiming that the country is safe to return to, there are serious doubts. It is unclear how many parts of Syria have been completely ravaged by the war and how many can provide safety and stability to returning Syrians. Refugees themselves are convinced that upon return they will once again face the persecution and death they had so desperately tried to escape from.

In the absence of any prospects for an end to the conflict, the acute need to provide immediate assistance to those displaced in Syria remains to be addressed.

The UNHCR is calling for urgent funding for Syrian refugees and IDPs for the remainder of 2018, in particular to ensure that they receive winterization support in anticipation of the harsh winter that is approaching. Other humanitarian organisations, such as Mercy Corps, critically need financial contributions to sustain operations aimed at alleviating the suffering of Syrian families.  

The international community must not forget that it is still far from formulating an adequate response to the worst humanitarian disaster of modern times. We must call for a revival of concerted efforts to fund the aid response, resettle refugee populations, halt the supply and use of arms and ammunition and actively work towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Ultimately, it is the dignity of millions of Syrians that needs to be protected at all costs. A better future for Syria and the rest of humanity awaits.

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