Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis Is a Trauma on the World’s Conscience
The 10-year old war in Syria has gone far beyond tragic mass devastation. The body and soul of two Syrian generations have been crushed. Their hopes and dreams are shattered. Their dignity and pride have been robbed. Millions of refugees and internally displaced persons are now left in utter despair, living in a hellish nightmare.
Meanwhile, the world has grown contentedly numb and mercilessly apathetic, making a mockery of the vow to learn the lessons of World War II, and other recent tragedies like those in Rwanda and Darfur.
There are a score of different entities whose inimitable interests in the country do not align with one another. This includes seven ethnic groups — Sunnis Muslims (the largest at 74 percent), Ismailis, Shiites, Alawites, Druze, Christians, and Kurds — and more than half a dozen jihadist groups, among them Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS.
On top of that, Syria is virtually occupied by Iran, Turkey, and Russia, the latter which wants to assert total control. Other countries have their own unique interests in Syria: Saudi Arabia supports the Sunnis; Israel is battling Iran on Syrian territory; the US has a nominal military presence; and, of course, Assad himself has his own political agenda.
Thus, to suggest that a political solution can still be fashioned at this juncture is illusionary at best. But to work toward that end, we must begin by urgently addressing the nightmarish humanitarian crises that the country is experiencing and gradually pave the way for a political settlement that most of the players can accept.
To understand the magnitude of the crisis, perhaps a few statistics can rattle our conscience.
Just imagine — hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children have been killed, and half the population of 22 million have become refugees or internally displaced. The World Food Program (WFP) reports that since the civil war started in 2011, the number of Syrians who lack access to sufficient food has reached a record of 12.4 million.
The WFP further estimates that the number of those who are food insecure and cannot survive without assistance has doubled in the past year to 1.3 million, and another 1.8 are at risk unless urgent action is taken.
Women are selling their hair and bodies to earn some money to feed their ravenous children. The healthcare system has virtually collapsed. Unemployment is staggering, the educational infrastructure is largely in shambles, ethnic groups are at each other’s throats, the corruption in the government and the private sector is beyond control, the police forces are on the take, the domestic intelligence terrifies the public, petty crimes such as theft, extortion, blackmailing, and exploitation are pervasive, and the judiciary is anything but fair and just.
Assad may have technically won the war with the support of Russia and Iran — which helped him indiscriminately bomb and gas his own people — but recovering from the war’s horrifying consequences will prove to be exceedingly more difficult.
Neither Russia nor Iran, and as of late Turkey, have the financial resources to assist Assad in coping with the financial crisis he faces. In fact, all three countries are financially struggling themselves and unable to meet their own budgetary needs. The US, the EU, and the oil-rich Arab countries are not prepared to come to Assad’s rescue and fix what Russia, Iran, and Assad’s military have destroyed.
The WFP is in dire need of immediate financial assistance to the tune of $375 million in order to provide food for many of those who are on the verge of starvation. For the next 12 months, they need to raise at least one billion dollars to prevent mass starvation and minimize the spread of the coronavirus, especially in the province of Idlib which remains the hub of resistance to the Assad regime.
Addressing the humanitarian crisis is the one area where potentially all the conflicting parties may agree. The countries that have the financial means, especially Western and some Arab states, must not shirk their moral responsibility to act, and act now. After all, as Gandhi observed, “The greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane.”
Innocent children, women, and men should not die from starvation when their only crime is being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.