What Lies Ahead: The Next Chapter of Syria Humanitarian Policy

The Path Forward is a CSIS Humanitarian Agenda series of reflections from humanitarian organizations on the challenges in food security, disrupted health systems, humanitarian access, civilian protection, and, ultimately, recovery for the Syrian people.

Inspired by the Arab Spring movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, the first large protests in Syria began in March 2011. From that eventful month until today, Syrians have gone through profound and seismic economic and social changes unseen since Syria gained independence from France in 1946. No one could have imagined the level of misery and destruction that the people of Syria would face in 10 years. Today, Syrians are hungry and malnourished, poor and abused, displaced and exhausted. It has been 10 years of horror—from chemical weapons attacks to the targeting of hospitals as a weapon of war. Even today, it is shockingly normal for children in Syria to go without fruit for months.

To make things worse, humanitarian aid has become politicized, including in the UN Security Council, and weaponized by the Syrian government and its allies in modern-era sieges. On July 10, 2021, the UN Security Council will convene for the eighth time in seven years to decide the fate of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2533, which allows millions of Syrians access to humanitarian aid provided by the United Nations agencies in non-government-controlled areas. For the eighth time, politics may decide the survivability of people in northwest and northeast Syria, with a highly anticipated veto from Russia and China that would deny UN agencies supplies and support to move across the last border crossing (Bab Al-Hawa) to reach the civilians in all northwest Syria. This time, the stakes are even higher; the resolution’s failure could hinder the delivery of vaccines and equipment provided by the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), World Health Organization, and UNICEF to Syrian NGOs and local authorities in the fight against Covid-19 inside Syria.

On top of this, grave human rights violations by Syrian government forces and other parties to the conflict continue unabated. This includes torture, executions, arbitrary detention, and forced disappearance, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other international organizations remain unable to reach detainees. Four years ago, the previous United Nations human rights chief summarized the Syrian crisis as “the worst man-made disaster the world has seen since World War II.”

Among this complexity, the needs of Syrian civilians should be the compass that guides any assistance provided by the international community. Syrians and Syrian NGOs, both inside Syria and in the diaspora, are the ones who will continue carrying the burden and take responsibility for the 11 million in need of humanitarian assistance, including health workers on the front lines of the Covid-19 response, educators teaching in tents in harsh conditions, and rescue workers leading health education campaigns. The United States should reinforce its leadership of the international community by supporting the ongoing work of Syrian civil society. The Biden administration should work with other donors and countries, in consultation with Syrian NGOs, to continue to ensure flexible multiyear funding for response efforts in Syria in a manner that supports accountability and transparency and reaches civilians in need in the most direct way.

Alongside humanitarian assistance, the first steps for healthy resiliency and early recovery should be supported to reduce dependency on aid and allow for a stable economy to flourish. Syrians have shown great adaptability and ingenuity to create local councils, health directorates, education directorates, and other local governance structures in the northwest and northeast parts of Syria. These councils have served the needs of the population and provided social services in coordination with Syrian NGOs and Syrian grassroots organizations. Despite taking such enormous responsibility, Syrian NGOs and local governance structures received only 0.07 percent of direct funding in the 2018 Syria Regional Resilience and Response Plan. Stabilization efforts need to be maintained and expanded to allow for more coordination between these local structures in order to foster effective and functional service provision and build the capacity of local governance bodies, which are best suited to create the policies and initiatives needed to prepare for future threats, such as epidemics and droughts.

The Syria crisis at its core is a protection and human rights crisis. It is imperative that the United States make sure that addressing these issues is at the center of all humanitarian aid, resilience building, early recovery efforts, durable solutions for refugees, and later development and reconstruction operations in Syria, lest all sacrifices made by the Syrian people in the past decade be in vain. Furthermore, it is critical that the knowledge and experience of local civil society organizations, Syrian NGOs and diaspora organizations, and local governance structures in the past 10 years be conserved and incorporated in the anticipated representative, legitimate, and pluralistic Syrian government. In the end, all humanitarian and development solutions will remain insufficient without an inclusive and real political and peace process based on UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254 that enables transitional justice and national reconciliation efforts.

Hazem Rihawi is the senior programs manager at the American Relief Coalition for Syria in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Hazem Rihawi

Senior Programs Manager, American Relief Coalition for Syria