By Matthew Timmerman
Now well into its fourth year, the crisis in Syria stands as the world’s worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide exactly 20 years ago. It’s believed a variety of Syria-specific circumstances have resulted in the scope of the disaster witnessed, the most notable being the nature of the stalemate. Not just any stalemate, Syria’s standoff pits one of the most iron-fisted regimes in the world today against, among others, insurgents linked to the world’s most notorious terrorist organisation. Has international pessimism towards this situation, reinforced by the media, trickled into the global attitude towards aid? There’s strong evidence to suggest that the crisis in Syria is as much a result of the stand-off itself as the lack of international engagement to help those caught in the cross-fire.
As New York Times correspondent Anne Barnard documented in March, the relief organisation Mercy Corp received $20m in private donations within weeks of the earthquake in Haiti. Over three years into the Syrian War—comparable to Haiti in its death toll—the organisation had received a modest $2m in support. While the Syrian humanitarian effort has sputtered in many facets thus far, from low levels of giving—particularly among private donors—to a lack of coordination between the UN and NGOs operating in the country, there is reason to remain hopeful in the broader relief effort.
Improvement begins with increasing the amount of aid provided; committed funding for 2015 currently stands at below 2014 giving levels. During the recent House Subcommittee hearing on Syria, the panel of witnesses representing the aid community brought attention to this point. While the United States government has the capacity to give more, it should be noted how much has already been provided. As the Congressional Research Service notes, the United States government is committed to provide 51% of all country-level giving to Syria in 2014. It’s a generous contribution from a nation constantly maligned for its policies in the region. China and Russia—two countries who for political reasons have thus far refrained from donating on a level that matches their capacity to give—should be encouraged to provide more.
The amount the international community is prepared to give to Syria is of high significance; however, the access of such aid represents the most challenging issue. While the United States has thus far failed to reach an agreement with Russia regarding a political approach to Syria, a simpler and no less significant first-step, is to come to terms on an effective humanitarian response. Specifically, this means encouraging the Russians to pressure Assad on 1) increased aid access and 2) safe conditions for humanitarian workers.
Medical relief in particular stands out as the most dire component of the broader aid effort. A recent report by Save the Children estimated that 60% of hospitals and 38% of primary healthcare facilities in Syria are damaged or destroyed. Lack of medication is equally problematic, the same report estimated a decrease in drug production of 70% in the country, a fact which explains why at some hospitals doctors have resorted to striking patients over the head with metal rods prior to surgery due to a lack of anesthesia. Equally noteworthy is what is causing Syrians to die. A top European aid official recently estimated that twice as many people are killed by treatable diseases the crippled healthcare system can no longer address than those who die from combat injuries. It’s a statistic that clearly indicates the Syrian crisis is as much about the robustness of the humanitarian response in addressing the people’s most basic needs as it is about the war itself.
While the tactics of warfare explain why the conflict has been so deadly (e.g., indiscriminate use of weaponry in densely populated areas, sieges, and targeting of civilians as a mechanism of fear), barring military intervention, it’s far more difficult for the international community to eliminate these practices than it is to improve the provision of relief. Measures as simple as mobile medical equipment that allow doctors to stabilise trauma patients until they can reach a hospital have the potential to save numerous lives. The international community is right to remain hopeful regarding a political solution to the conflict. Nonetheless, it is equally crucial that the world ensures ordinary Syrians receive treatment, medication, food, and water until that point is reached—regardless of how positive or discouraging conditions on the ground prove. The effort must be to reduce the rate at which Syrians die as the fighting continues.
Matthew Timmerman is a Syria relief professional in Washington DC