Thursday marks the eighth anniversary of the Syrian crisis. Seven years of horrific war that has forcibly displaced millions and killed nearly 500,000. On past anniversaries, rallies and candlelight vigils were held, but this year is marked by a feeling of hopelessness for many following the conflict. For others, it may only be a dim reminder of continued violence that seems ever more intractable, ever more complex.
As bombs continue to fall on the men, women and children trapped in besieged territories like Eastern Ghouta, one thing has become apparent: Syria has taught us there is no shame anymore.
In the words of Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Time and again, my office and I have brought to the attention of the international community violations of human rights which should have served as a trigger for preventive action. Time and again, there has been minimal action.”
In February, the U.N. adopted a resolution calling for a nationwide ceasefire to allow for aid deliveries, including in Eastern Ghouta. Yet the shelling continued as aid workers tried to get life-saving aid in. Vital medical supplies were removed from convoys. Shameless.
Diplomats and aid agencies will meet in Brussels next month to take stock of the humanitarian and political response to the crisis. To ask, what can be done? And what have we learned from the past seven years? While aid cannot stop bombs from falling, the decisions made in Brussels can impact the protection of civilians in four ways.
Firstly, some officials hinted that the conference might lay the groundwork for refugee returns to Syria. The conference must make clear that aid will not promote returns as long as violence persists and the safety, dignity and human rights of returnees cannot be guaranteed.
Secondly, diplomatic support for humanitarian access will be evaluated to ensure it is not merely a fig leaf. Medical evacuations are needed in the besieged areas, but only if safety guarantees are put in place for those evacuated. Likewise, diplomatic pressure in support of aid deliveries is helpful, but not if life-saving goods are plundered or banned. If only non-essential goods get in, then diplomacy gets unwittingly co-opted by siege and starve tactics.
Thirdly, western donors have taken welcome steps to provide multi-year, flexible funding, without which it would be very hard to support grassroots community-led groups delivering medicine and other essential supplies, establishing underground clinics, or creating safe spaces for women and children displaced by the fighting. But, in a war zone, perpetrators of the violence inevitably try to manipulate and obstruct that assistance. Parties to the Brussels Conference must sustain their commitment to working with Syrian civil society and consult with them on ways to mitigate the risks. At the moment, for example, there is no consistent approach to funding insurance for local aid workers, or compensation for their families if their lives are lost on the job.
Lastly, aid to countries neighboring Syria will be reviewed. Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey host the vast majority of Syrian refugees, putting most Western governments to shame for their failure in sharing that responsibility. Western governments have promised increased, longer-term funds to benefit both the local population and refugees. In exchange, the governments of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey were expected to give refugees access to basic services, like health and education, and livelihoods opportunities.
Heading into the Brussels conference, the outlook for the refugee response is a mixed one. Last week, the government of Jordan announced it would no longer subsidize refugee healthcare fees, after a study revealed chronic underfunding from international donors. Higher fees can force families to postpone treatment or deprive them of it, risking the deterioration of medical conditions. High costs can also lead to spiralling debt and/or increasing protection risks, such as child labour or early marriage.
The Jordanian government has previously played a leading role in advocating for better health responses to crises, for example it spearheaded a global declaration on reproductive health in emergencies back in 2016 from other governments and U.N. agencies. These inconsistencies must be ironed out in Brussels to ensure that Syrian women and girls can access the healthcare they need.
Economic factors also expose both Syrians and vulnerable members of local communities in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to various forms of exploitation and abuse. Reports of unscrupulous landlords and employers are frequent.
Women and children are especially vulnerable, and social stigmas and deprivation prevent them from reporting abuses. Consequently, many Syrian women prefer to work from home, but Jordanian policy on this remains unclear. We hope the government’s new policy on home-based livelihoods for Jordanian nationals can be extended to Syrian refugees. By June 2017, 52,906 refugees had received work permits compared to only 5,000 in 2015. Yet only 5 percent had gone to Syrian women. The Brussels Conference must help accelerate this progress.
The highest priority, however, should be ending this cruel war and starting a political process that tackles its root causes. The benchmarks for any political process must include space for independent civil society to work safely, protection of human rights and an end to violence against civilians.
Eight years into this crisis, let us be clear that aid can’t substitute for political action. But we must also not let aid become complicit in the war, or a fig-leaf for political inaction. Write to your elected officials and challenge them. Ask them, what are you doing while Ghouta burns?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.