From the moment ISIS captured Mosul to the ongoing battle over the besieged town of Khobane, the media and political attention has shifted away from the Syrian civil war. Whilst the eyes of the world are watching the fighting between ISIS and the rest of the world in towns across Iraq and Northern Syria, the internal battle between the Assad government and the opposition rebels continues to rage on. As a result, our political priorities may have changed but the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Syria hasn’t.
Since the outbreak of the war, millions of Syrian’s have fled their homes in fear for their lives, whilst the even more unfortunate ones remain stranded inside, unable to escape and desperately trying to survive.
According to Human Care Syria, a charity working in the region, since the break out of war in 2011, almost 200,000 people have been killed and 6.8 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance, with 4.6 million of these living in besieged or hard to access towns.
4.25 million people have been internally displaced, whilst a further 2.14 million have fled to neighbouring countries Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey.
These countries, at best, have limited resources to offer, and at worst are facing similar crises of their own. Egypt is but two years out of a revolution that overturned the last 30 years of the political and religious structures and left behind a fledgling country that has yet to find its feet again. Lebanon has never fully recovered from decades of internal instability and war. Jordan is already one of the most water-starved countries in the world and well, one doesn’t even need to mention Iraq.
That said; the governments of these countries have provided assistance and aid to the most vulnerable refugees. The people have welcomed the refugees into their communities and supported the work of the various international aid agencies and NGO’s to help them deliver the vital services.
Syrian refugees now make up over 1/3 of Lebanon’s entire population. If the US were to take in the equivalent proportion of refugees as Jordan has, they would in effect be absorbing the entire population of the United Kingdom. By default, due to their immediate geographic proximity to Syria, these countries have become the largest humanitarian donors.
Compare this to the UK, who has only accepted 100 of the 500 refugees it agreed to resettle under the Vulnerable Person Relocation Scheme (VPR).
But these countries infrastructures and their economies are already stretched to the limit and the biggest factor that is hindering the crisis further is that these countries will not be able to cope for much longer at the current level of demand. As a result, their authorities are now having to restrict the flow of refugees, serving only those deemed to be most vulnerable and at risk, namely children, who make up 50% of the entire refugee populations. This leaves many hundreds of thousands trapped between the borders with only a bitterly cold winter ahead.
The international community cannot rely solely on these countries. Speaking to The Independent, Antonio Guterres; the High Commissioner of the UNHCR stated the crisis “needs a much stronger international response than we have seen so far.”
In an open letter to David Cameron, a coalition of more than 30 aid groups and charities have deemed the UK’s response to the humanitarian tragedy as “woefully inadequate”. He has been urged to take the lead in providing humanitarian assistance to those most vulnerable.
With a general election less than six months away, and recent figures showing that UK net migration is up to 260,000, meaning Cameron has failed to make good on a promise to cut net migration down to the tens of thousands, there is a fear that British domestic policy is overshadowing the crisis in Syria.
That’s not to say that the UK has done nothing to help the Syrians. A Downing Street Spokesman has stated that the country has pledged £700 million providing food, medicine and relief to over one million refugees both inside Syria and in camps in neighbouring countries.
While international governments have shown a great willingness to send monetary aid to Syria, actual donations, as opposed to pledges have fallen short and money just isn’t enough, more needs to be done to help remove people, especially those most vulnerable and at risk, out of the situation they find themselves through no fault of their own. Maurice Wren; Chief Executive of the Refugee Council has said “Syria’s story is one of death, destruction and displacement” and “unable to return home, these people’s lives depend on the compassion and generosity of countries like ours…We must not turn our backs on the Syrian refugees.”
The West and other Arab countries have all remained steadfast in their reluctance to resettle refugees in any substantial amounts. There are of course a few exceptions, like Germany and Austria, but the larger countries have even neglected the UNHCR’s request to resettle just 100,00 people over the next two years.
This paradox is ever present in international foreign policy: there is never enough government will power or money to put towards funding humanitarian aid projects that may avert the social and political collapse of a country or region—but there’s always enough for a military response following the break out of the inevitable violent power struggles.
No one knew at the start of the conflict in 2011 that it was anything different from the other revolutions that were spreading across the Middle East, nor that would it escalate to a full civil war. More importantly, no one knew of the ISIS crisis that would result in another Western military campaign in the Middle East.
The civil war caused the already fragile country to spiral into a cycle of poverty and despair that helped pave the way for extremists both internally and in neighbouring countries to plant their roots, take advantage of the impoverished population and spread, so there is little hope of us defeating groups such as ISIS as long as the humanitarian crisis continues.
We’re at a point now where our governments are arming the Assad regime to help the fight against ISIS, which only further confounds the situation. In effect this means we are, on one hand arming the government with weapons, and also dealing with the fallout when they use them for reasons other than intended.
A Case for Humanitarian Intervention?
Chapter VII of the UN Charter allows the Security Council to take action in situations where there is a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or an act of aggression both externally and internally. The concept of humanitarian intervention remains a highly contested and controversial proposition seen to be at odds with the principle of state sovereignty established by the Treaty of Westphalia. With its supporters and critics using the Charter as the foundation principles of their arguments, it’s hard to find a single legal definition which would be supported if it was applied to Syria.
The principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) seeks to establish a clearer code of conduct for humanitarian intervention, advocating a greater reliance on non-military measures. This is more widely supported across the international community. In the case of Syria, this is a better fit than traditional humanitarian intervention, because allies are unable to send military personnel to fight on the ground when they’re already fighting Islamic militants by air. What’s most needed is humanitarian aid and relief, not another bombing campaign.
However for this to succeed, the decision of states to apply the principles of R2P to help those most in need, is however equally dependent on their political will to do so, which as we’ve seen echoed in countries around the world, for whatever reasons, just isn’t there.