This week, a Syrian woman set herself on fire.
Mariam al-Khawli was desperate, her children going hungry, after they fled their native Homs for Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli. She described waiting in “queues of humiliation” for any ounce of aid. Her husband said that hardship broke her.
The incident revived a debate around what the world owes Syria’s refugees, and how they will be cared for in the months or years of displacement ahead. The U.N. is facing serious funding shortfalls in Syria, meaning less food to go around, and more frustration for women like Mariam al-Khawli. As the international community faces the limits of what it can do, aid can’t meet the scale of demand: more than 9.3 million Syrians now need some form of help. Syrian mothers see that translated into very basic terms: whether or not their children can eat.
There’s an equally dire dynamic when it comes to access to medical aid. One symptom: the persistent and rising incidence of polio. Health experts say the disease could spread across the Middle East this summer, fueled by rising temperatures and disintegrating sanitation.
Lest we forget, there is no grand solution in play. This week the U.N. and Arab League Special Envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said a revival of peace talks was “out of the question” for now. The U.S. conceded that efforts to negotiate a diplomatic solution have “largely failed.”
If there is no diplomatic solution, that leaves only the military outcome on the ground. By and large, that has favored President Bashar al-Assad. Even while fierce battles stretch his military bandwidth, there are strategic reasons why regional analysts say Assad is stronger than ever. In the fight between his army and a diffuse array of rebel fighters, Assad is up by enough to feel confident enough to run for re-election, setting up an election in the coming months that would seal his rule for another seven-year term. Russia’s strong hand in Crimea has bolstered Assad’s confidence, by showing how far Moscow is willing to go to back its allies and interests.
Assad has lost ground in the coastal province of Latakia, where fighting killed his cousin, Hilal al-Assad this week. Rebel groups captured the Christian Armenian town of Kessab, strategically nestled between the coast and the Turkish border. One eyewitness told the BBC that Islamist fighters poured into Kessab, prompting panicked residents to flee. That sparked fears for the fate of Kessab and the plight of Syrian Christians at large.
Rebel groups tried to allay those fears with YouTube videos professing their respect for local churches. But those clips will do little to assure minorities, who are convinced that rebels waging jihad want to end their way of life. They also fail to address the strategic consequences of the town’s takeover – now that Jabhat al-Nusra, and by association, al-Qaida, have a beachhead on Mediterranean shores.