Humanitarian Action Runs into Dismal Reality for Syria and Its Neighbours

Syrians try to rescue people buried in collapsed buildings in Aleppo on 31 January 2016. Photo by Getty Images.
Syrians try to rescue people buried in collapsed buildings in Aleppo on 31 January 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

Support for Syria’s neighbouring states in tackling the long-term challenges posed by the spillover of the conflict is welcome. Yet, funding pledges for humanitarian support − like those at this week’s donor conference in London − are being fundamentally undermined by developments on the battlefield and the fraying political situation in neighbouring countries. The breakdown of talks in Geneva indicates that the situation will get worse before it gets better.

Political progress difficult to see

The divide between the humanitarian and the political is painfully apparent in the contrast between the hope espoused by leaders at the London donor conference and the acrimony expressed by those at the talks in Geneva. Following a Russian-backed regime assault on rebel positions in Aleppo province yesterday, regime-aligned forces severed rebel supply lines to forces in the north of the city, prompting the opposition negotiators to walk out of the peace talks. The opposition has stuck to its refusal to enter talks without an end to the bombing and the granting of unfettered humanitarian access as called for in UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

Yet, it is difficult to see how progress can be made on either of these fronts ahead of the scheduled resumption of talks on 25 February.  In fact, if events on the ground are anything to go by, they are likely to get worse. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that he sees no reason why Russia’s strikes should be stopped, and there is scant indication that the US will be able or willing to compel Russia to do so. The regime, buoyed by Russian support and a perceived weakening in support for the opposition, is in the ascendancy and will see less and less incentive to grant meaningful concessions. While UN-brokered peace talks remain the most likely route to a peaceful solution, it is increasingly looking like the peace terms on the table will do little to address the demands of the opposition.

Humanitarian challenges

The London donor conference is, however, an important measure of international support for Syria’s neighbours Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Recent statements by David Cameron, Philip Hammond and other Western dignitaries have indicated that for the first time, donors are looking at ways to provide long-term financing for Syria’s neighbours, and not just yearly aid pledges. International banks are working to open up grants, loans and investments to help these countries meet their own needs as well as to turn their refugee crises into development opportunities. This is a welcome step for which the international aid community has long been calling.

Nonetheless, there will also be complications making it harder for aid for Syrian refugees and host communities to have the desired impact. In both Turkey and Jordan, around 80 per cent of Syrian refugees are living not in camps but in cities, towns and villages – meaning that municipalities, alongside aid workers, are the ones trying to provide for refugees’ needs as well as manage the crisis’ impact on local populations. Both countries are highly centralized political systems, which means that aid delivered to both governments too often gets held up in bureaucratic processes or mismanaged. Local officials and community leaders in these countries regularly attest to this.

In Lebanon, the central government is far less strong, but its longstanding political paralysis has meant that crucial decisions with respect to refugees have not been taken. Rather, Lebanon is struggling with the strongest domestic political outcry against the refugees − 1 in 4 persons in Lebanon is a Syrian, and this has led to a uniquely prohibitive legal and political environment.

More aid funding and longer-term international financing for the host governments will certainly contribute to a better situation for refugees and local communities in these countries – particularly if, in exchange for funding, the governments grant refugees more work permits or residency rights. But it will not avoid these significant problems.

‘Ball and chain’

While world leaders gather in London to pledge support for the humanitarian response to the Syria crisis, their efforts are being critically undermined by realities on the ground. If the escalation in Russian strikes and regime advances continues, then scaling up aid for education and livelihoods – two of the London donor conference’s three core themes – will face even more obstacles from the bombing of schools, community centres and commercial buildings. On Wednesday, David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, told an audience at Chatham House that divisions in the UN Security Council between the regime’s backers and those of the opposition have acted as a ‘ball and chain’ around the leg of the humanitarian community. It is a ‘tragedy that the humanitarian track and the political track on Syria have been so divorced,’ he added.  The prospects for aligning the two tracks remain bleak.

Doris Carrion joined the Middle East and North Africa programme in 2012, first as project coordinator for the Yemen Forum, and then as research assistant since 2013.
Tim Eaton is project manager for Middle East and North Africa Programme’s Syria and its Neighbours Policy Initiative, which aims to support a coordinated and holistic policy response to the conflict in Syria.

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