- The Syrian war is making headlines now for its immense geopolitical complexity
- But for Syrians themselves, the suffering continues regardless of how complex the conflict is
- Inside Syria, Assad regularly blocks aid shipments and heavily monitors what civilians are allowed to receive
- Around Syria, NGOs continue to struggle with an ever-growing population of Syrian refuges in need
By Ty Joplin
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, after re-taking all of Eastern Ghouta, has begun a campaign to re-take rebel-held areas around Homs. After witnessing the dissipation of any formidable rebel opposition to Assad and the fall of ISIS, Assad is now on a quest to eliminate the remaining pockets of rebels.
But as the war drags on and international actors get involved, it has begun mutating.
It is now less a civil war and more a regional launchpad to project power and stake out interests. Iran, Russia and Turkey are all working to cement their respective positions in the country as a way of expanding their reach, and this process is the one grabbing headlines and captivating audiences.
For many Syrians on the ground however, the situation is more dire than ever even if major media outlets have all but lost their interest in the human dimension of the war.
There’s reason to believe that Assad’s rise, which is presumed to bring about the end of violence, may actually worsen the humanitarian situation in some parts of the country. Meanwhile, Syrian refugees in and outside of their country risk being forgotten as the world moves on from the conflict, assuming that it’s all but over.
What Assad’s Emergent 'Victory' Means for Syrians
A wounded man is carried following an air strike on the rebel-held town of Erbin in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus on January 2, 2018 (AFP/FILE)
When Assad’s forces besieged Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, his strategy of aid deprivation and relentless bombing made international headlines.
In about a week, Medecine Sans Frontières (MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders) reported 700 civilian deaths counted just at their hospitals in the area. In addition, Assad blocked crucial aid shipments from reaching besieged Syrians, and when he did let them in, he struck vulnerable areas with artillery, which forced aid convoys to stop and turn back.
When aid convoys did eventually reach people, regime forces had vital supplies stripped from them. “In the last offensive in Eastern Ghouta… some medical supplies [were] removed such as trauma kits, surgical supplies, anesthetics, insulin,” and equipment for dialysis treatments, according to a humanitarian worker with knowledge of the situation inside Syria, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitive of the information being relayed.
As Assad sets his sights on southern Syria to take back the rest of Deraa and Quneitra, he will likely replicate his strategy of choking off aid shipments. And when he eventually wins on that front, he may impose tight controls of what kinds of humanitarian aid reaches civilians; a power he may use as a form of collective punishment. Rebels, for their part, often block in civilians, preventing them from leaving and thus exacerbating the crisis further.
Recent artillery exchanges between opposition and regime forces hint at a new regime offensive that may submerge most of southern Syria, an area of about a million people including over 300,000 internally displaced Syrians, in another humanitarian crisis.
Part of Assad’s siege strategy has included depriving areas under rebel control of vital supplies until the opposition groups have surrendered or are killed. After his eventual victory in southern Syria, aid workers are worried that he may continue restricting aid flow to vulnerable civilians.
Such aid shipments "could be difficult in the coming days depending on the political decision and a potential offensive of Syrian government taking more territory,” said an anonymous humanitarian worker involved in the region.
If Assad re-takes control of southern Syria, then aid shipments will be monitored by Damascus who “will have [a] hand on the supply and therefore can decide to restrict some items such as the example given for Eastern Ghouta,” the source added.
In other words, even an end to the conflict will not mean an end to the suffering for many Syrians. If Assad decides to tightly control aid shipments, thousands will likely remain on the brink, struggling to stay alive even after the violence subsides.
A Desperate Situation Inside Syria
Children in Deraa (AFP/FILE)
“That the need for humanitarian assistance is far from over. It's even more acute than ever before,” said Minhaj Hassan, a spokesperson for Islamic Relief USA, which has helped over 4 million Syrians so far.
On top of that, Hassan adds that it is extremely difficult to actually reach populations inside Syria. This reality was echoed by Tamara Kummer, a spokesperson UNICEF’s MENA office:
“Humanitarian access to hard-to-reach or besieged areas remains extremely challenging. The ability of humanitarian partners to deliver assistance to people in need is hampered by multiple factors including security concerns, administrative delays and restrictions on the delivery of medicines and medical equipment.”
The scale of the Syrian war too, continues to expand as the conflict slowly breaks the country from the inside out:
“In Syria and neighboring countries nearly 8.5 million children need humanitarian assistance. Entire families have had to flee violence leaving behind all of their belongings – some multiple times. Nearly 5.5 million children have been displaced inside Syria or into bordering countries,” Kummer stated.
Strained Resources Outside Syria
A UNHCR Refugee Camp for Syrians (AFP/FILE)
“Humanitarian needs continue to grow by the day inside Syria and in neighbouring countries, while pressure on generous host communities is seriously jeopardizing their ability to make ends meet,” Kummer continued, stating that UNICEF is chronically underfunded and has, to date, only received about half of the money for which it has asked.
Inside Jordan, which has hosted over two million Syrian refugees since the start of the war, local NGOs are struggling to cope with the sheer amount of need.
One organization called the Collateral Repair Project (CRP), has been trying to provide health and educational services to refugees from several regional conflicts.
“Many still can't legally work here, and very few will ever find resettlement in the West,” said Judy Oldfield-Wilson of CRP. “They can't go home.”
To finding a modicum of wellbeing in their host countries, many refugees struggle with economic and social integration, something that NGOs may be increasingly unable to handle. “There always is the fear that war in a particular country or regions become normalized in people's minds and the worst case scenario is that donor fatigue sets in,” said Hassan of Islamic Relief USA.
This donor fatigue is becoming a more pressing concern as news turns about Syria turns away from the humanitarian dimension. Oldfield-Wilson lamented the fact that when Syria is out of the news cycle, people seem to forget about the situation entirely, and when it is in the news, it actually crowds out other humanitarian crises such as the one in Sudan or Somalia.
Whether or not Syria is in the news, millions of Syrians themselves appear to be in a no-win situation, due to the fact that they cannot return home but cannot truly live comfortably in host countries.
In particular, “children with disabilities affected by the conflict in Syria are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” Kummer of UNICEF continued. “These children face a very real risk of being forgotten as the unrelenting conflict continues.”
To this, one anonymous humanitarian worker urged people to go beyond reading statistics on total number of civilian casualties, and work to actually understand the humanity of the Syrians who find themselves in a world without a country; a people without a place.
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