The Middle East Channel

The humanitarian crisis in Syria: What more can be done?

We are facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent decades, if not the worst since the Balkans war and Rwanda. Syria is becoming a field of ruins with millions of people, mainly women and children, affected. According to the latest gruesome statistics, more than 115,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the conflict.

And what about the survivors, those who deserve the attention and support of the humanitarian community? A quarter of the Syrian population is internally displaced while more than 2.1 million are refugees in the neighboring countries, mainly Lebanon and Jordan. This means that a third of the population has been forced to leave behind home, land, and work. 

Consider also the terrifying escalation of this crisis. In one year the number of people killed has quadrupled; the number of people in need of assistance inside Syria has tripled; and the number of refugees has multiplied eight times.

Women and children are paying the heaviest price. At least 6,500 children have been killed. More than a million are refugees. Thousands of schools have been destroyed or pressed into use as shelters for internally displaced people. School dropout is on the rise.  If we do not take rapid action, the most dramatic effect of the Syrian crisis will be the loss of an entire generation who, when this war finally ends, are exactly those who can rebuild their country.

A fifth of all the country's health centers have been destroyed and a third of the country's hospitals too. Many doctors and health staff, targeted by combatants, have fled. The water and sanitation systems are less and less reliable. As a direct consequence waterborne diseases are on the rise. Access to food is a growing concern. The 2013 harvest is the worst in 30 years because people are not cultivating the land and food stocks are running out.

The situation of Syrians trapped in cities under siege is particularly urgent. UNICEF is now reporting cases of malnutrition for children who are living in these besieged cities. According to "Save the Children," one in 20 children in rural Damascus is "severely malnourished," while one in five families endures over seven days each month without food at home.

Despite the generosity of host countries, the situation of the refugees remains dire. We have all heard of the sprawling Zaatari camp, which has mushroomed in size to a population of 120,000 to become the equivalent of Jordan's fourth largest city. I have visited the camp several times, witnessing its expansion and deepening hardships due to over-crowding, violence, and a lack of employment prospects.

The presence of such large numbers of refugees puts pressure on the host countries whose economies and social fabric are already fragile. The struggle for basic services such as water, electricity, health, and education, as well as competition for land (to be used for shelter) and employment exacerbates tensions with local populations.

Against this background, what more can be done?

First, we need to continue to be generous in providing humanitarian assistance. At a pledging conference for Syria in Kuwait in January 2013, I was pleased to announce a pledge of $370 million on behalf of the European Union -- the European Commission and its member states. Nine months on, we have multiplied this figure by seven to $2.7 billion to help Syrians and to help their neighbors.

The way we are spending it defines our strategy: 1) emphasis on Syrian civilian victims of the conflict and 2) help for countries directly affected by the crisis. Forty percent of our assistance has been spent on food, shelter, and medicines inside Syria. I strongly believe that we need to continue to increase our presence inside Syria and deliver assistance through all possible channels, in spite of the huge constraints.

Another 40 percent of our assistance goes toward refugee populations, with a strong focus on Lebanon and Jordan, the most fragile host states. Twenty percent goes to host communities for the provision of public services, such as electricity and water, to refugees.

I see a moral imperative to continue pushing for more funding.

In this regard, the EU is the largest humanitarian donor in this crisis and the United States is the largest single-donor country. While I am committed to continuing our efforts, other donors need to show their generosity too.

Second, as this crisis is now a protracted one, we need to develop a comprehensive approach for the host countries, one that combines development, macro-financing, and humanitarian assistance. This was one of the key operational conclusions of the ministerial meeting I co-chaired with Jordan's minister of foreign affairs during the last U.N. General Assembly.

Third, the international community needs to prioritize resolving problems of humanitarian access. The October 2 Presidential Statement on humanitarian issues on Syria adopted by the U.N. Security Council is the first positive step since the conflict began. It recalls the need for all parties to the conflict to protect civilians and relief workers and to permit unimpeded humanitarian assistance. We now have to make sure that these recommendations are implemented on the ground, through more visas for international NGOs and less obstruction in authorizing convoys and deliveries.

The government of Syria has thus far cooperated with U.N. chemical weapons inspections. But violations of international humanitarian law continue unabated. There is a risk that the focus on chemical weapons and the renewed hope of a Geneva II political conference may well overshadow the deepening human crisis in Syria. We, as humanitarians, need to make sure that civilian humanitarian needs do not disappear from the agenda of world leaders and from the media.

In particular, we must prevent the creation of a lost generation of Syrian children. This week, I was delighted to launch a concerted initiative with Britain and UNICEF to reach out and save Syria's children from the oblivion of war.

Last but not least, we call on Syria's neighbors to keep their borders open to incoming refugees. The European Union and others must do the same. Solidarity with people in dire need is a core European value, shared by Americans and others. I trust that we can all put it into practice at this time when so many innocent Syrians are suffering. To do this requires more attention to the civilian dimension of the conflict and a continued commitment to keep our pockets, our hearts, and borders open.

Dr. Kristalina Georgieva is the European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid, and Crisis Response.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

New report accuses Syrian rebel groups of war crimes

A new report accuses Syrian rebel forces of systematically killing at least 190 unarmed civilians and abducting over 200 in a series of attacks along the western coastal province of Latakia on August 4. The 105-page report, authored by the New York-based Human Rights Watch and based on an earlier visit to the area, labels the coordinated attacks against civilians in over twelve cities "war crimes" and possibly crimes against humanity. Extremist and al-Qaeda linked factions -- namely the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and two other Islamist factions -- were the main entities charged with perpetrating the atrocities. The report reinforces the West's concern that Syria's rebel forces are composed heavily of extremist elements and jihadist fighters, often from abroad. While some groups were affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, none belonged to the Western-backed Supreme Military Council led by General Salim Idris. Meanwhile, Syrian government forces, assisted by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, recaptured the two Damascus suburbs of al-Thiabiya and Husseiniya on Friday. Syrian opposition activists said the military operation killed at least 70 people. In Syria's northern Kurdish region, rebels killed five members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard and injured two others during an armed confrontation, according to Iran's official Fars News Agency.

Headlines

  • A former Israeli army officer was assaulted and killed outside of his home in the West Bank settlement of Brosh Habika late Thursday night.
  • The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the U.N.-backed group tasked with overseeing the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, received the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.
  • The Iraqi Justice Ministry announced that Iraq has executed 42 prisoners this week found guilty of terrorism-related charges, including "crimes aimed at destabilizing the country, causing chaos and spreading horror."
  • Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan accused "a political party" that "wants to overthrow the government by any means" of his abduction on Thursday.
  • A car bomb detonated outside the Swedish consulate in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi, causing structural damage but no casualties.

Arguments and Analysis

'The Narrative Plot Against Syria' (Barak Barfi, Project Syndicate)

"Indoctrination in Syria begins at a young age. From the first day of school, Syrians are taught that America and its ally, Israel, are mortal enemies seeking to keep Syria weak. According to the ruling Ba'ath Party's dogma, Syria is being targeted because it will not capitulate, remaining steadfast to the Arab and Palestinian cause. It is the last line of defense holding back a US-Israeli stampede over Arab rights.

When Assad declared in a recent speech that, ‘Western powers sent Al Qaeda terrorists to turn Syria into a land of jihad...to weaken Syria,' Westerners chuckled incredulously. But such talk resonates with Syrians, who have been taught to see a foreign plot behind every move.

It is a game that the regime plays when its back is against the wall. When the government's mea culpa and promise of reform failed to quell an Islamist rebellion in 1980, it shifted tack, portraying its opponents as the fruit of an Iraqi-Jordanian conspiracy. After the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 led the international community to finger Syria as the culprit, Assad stonewalled a United Nations tribunal investigating the matter and silenced domestic critics by once again conjuring foreign bogeymen scheming to weaken the country. The US, which had hoped to use the episode to pressure Assad, was forced to relent, eventually offering him an olive branch."

'Iranian Aftershocks: Washington And Tehran Face An Uncertain Diplomatic Landscape' (Suzanne Maloney, Brookings Institution)

"By the standards of Iranian politics, the blowback from the president's ground-breaking U.S. visit has been so mild as to suggest that it almost seems pro forma: a few agitators around his arrival motorcade, various sharp-elbowed commentaries in the country's famously rabble-rousing press, muted public criticism from military and clerical hardliners emphasizing the perfidious nature of the American adversary. All the while Rouhani and his senior lieutenants, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have stayed on message and have continued their careful abatement of the polarization and repression that dominated Iran for most of the past eight years (including the release of a prominent imprisoned journalist and an agreement to upgrade diplomatic ties with Britain).

The clearest signal, of course, is the wary backing for Rouhani's overtures that was offered publicly a few days ago by Khamenei. The Supreme Leader doubled down on his curious endorsement of ‘heroic flexibility' prior to the New York trip with a speech declaring his support for the new government's diplomacy. His approval was hardly unconditional -- he described some of what was undertaken in New York as ‘not proper' and reiterated his longstanding antipathy toward and suspicion of Washington. But contrast all this with the furor and rapid backtracking that has accompanied far less grandiose Iranian overtures in the past, and it's not difficult to appreciate why most scholars of Iran are convinced that we are witnessing a real and significant effort by Tehran to dial back its confrontation with the world over the nuclear issue."

-- Joshua Haber

Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images