Ten years of Syria Conflict
March 2011 was a busy time. When the world was still digesting the news on the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on 11 March, another crisis broke out on the other side of the world, in Syria.
Friday, 15 March 2011: the start of a dark age
At first, Syrian civilians took to the streets peacefully to protest against the regime. Drawing inspiration from ‘Arab Spring’ protests across the region, they called for an end to high unemployment and corruption. However, the Syrian government responded with deadly force, triggering more nation-wide protests demanding the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. The unrest continued and crackdown intensified, soon escalating into a civil war with many parties. In time, global and regional powers began to take sides, either backing Assad’s regime (like Russia, China and Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan) or opposition forces (like the West, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel). Syria also became a magnet for foreign militants and jihadist groups. The conflict had become very complex indeed.
Within a short period, Syria was thrown into chaos, and has remained so ever since. To escape from aerial bombs, chemical weapons attacks, modern-day sieges and the loss of their livelihoods, over 13 million Syrians fled their homes, either within Syria or across its border. There are currently 6.7 million internally displaced persons and 6.6 million Syrian refugees worldwide. Turkey hosts the most Syrian refugees (3.7 million), but when it comes to the proportion of Syrian refugees to the whole population, Lebanon (21.8%) and Jordan (10.7%) ranked above Turkey (5.1%) as the top two refugee-receiving countries.
What has the international community done to help Syrians in the past decade?
The international community attempted to solve the root of the crisis through diplomatic dialogue, but it is never easy to disentangle a proxy war among state and non-state actors. A lack of unity at this international level has not helped: Russia and China have consistently vetoed action against the Assad regime in the United Nations (UN) Security Council, including proposed sanctions under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter back in 2012 and, just last year, permission for humanitarian aid to be delivered across two border crossings from Turkey that are under rebel control. Even condemnation of Syria’s violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention has been slow.
On the other hand, the international community has assembled one of the largest humanitarian operations in history over the past decade. In 2020, international donors (mostly European nations, but also Japan, Australia, Korea, Brazil, Canada, USA and Qatar) contributed USD 5 billion in grants to Syria and the region. Yet funding continues to fall short of needs in all sectors. Despite donor generosity, the Syria Humanitarian Response Plan and the Regional Refugee and Resilience plan are funded at 43% and 28% respectively. In 2019, the Syria crisis was the world’s largest humanitarian appeal, with total requests of USD 5.4 billion.
There have been numerous international initiatives to support Syria and neighbouring countries. In 2016, the leaders of Germany, Kuwait, Norway, the UK and the UN hosted the “Supporting Syria and the Region 2016” Conference in London, bringing together over 60 countries and international organisations, together with business, civil society, Syrians and other people affected by the conflict, to agree a comprehensive new approach on how to respond to this protracted crisis. The conference led to the Jordan and Lebanon Compacts: historic agreements between refugee-hosting countries and the international communities that gave refugees increased access to public services and economic opportunities, in exchange for substantial international support. These commitments have been augmented each year at annual follow-up events in Brussels. Last year, at the Brussels IV conference, representatives of 84 delegations – 57 states, 10 regional organisations and International Financial Institutions (e.g. the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) as well as 17 UN agencies attended. The fifth Brussels Conference has just taken place, on 29 and 30 March.
The Jordan and Syria Compacts and the Brussels conferences led to dozens of commitments by the two host governments and international partners on support for Syrian refugees and host communities. Yet with no monitoring system in place, mutual accountability was lacking. In 2019 and 2020, Agulhas was therefore commissioned by the EU to serve as Independent Monitor of the commitments. Working through the many pledges, we produced a monitoring framework reflecting the essence of the agreement, organised under four pillars: economic (livelihoods, trade and investment), social (education, health, social protection), protection (status of refugees), and partnership (financial support, aid quality and effectiveness). Our reports can be found here: Jordan 2019 and 2020; Lebanon 2020.
15 March 2021, tenth ‘anniversary’
The word ‘anniversary’ is slightly unsettling when used to refer to a decade-long civil war and one of the longest humanitarian crises in modern history. On 15 March, the UK government issued a joint statement with USA, France, German and Italy expressing their support for the UN Special Envoy for Syria to deliver on all aspects of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 – which calls for ceasefire and political settlement. In its Integrated Review of UK foreign policy, the UK reiterates its commitment to striving for a durable political solution, including through support to Jordan and Lebanon.
At the fifth Brussels Conference, donors pledged another USD 4.4 billion for humanitarian activities in 2021. Yet after ten years, there is growing concern that ‘compassion fatigue’ is setting in. In the decade since March 2011, many other crises have emerged, including Yemen’s civil war, a new Ebola outbreak and the Rohingya crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge setback for Syria and for Syrian refugees around the region, but it has also resulted in reduced global aid flows and unprecedented levels of global humanitarian need.
With Syria in desperate need of resources to fund for its reconstruction, it will be tempted to look for new partners, beyond the usual humanitarian donors. Last year, China donated USD 14 million dollars (out of USD 60 million planned aid since 2019) to the Syrian authorities for urgent humanitarian needs. Beyond emergency relief, Damascus welcomes the prospect of China’s Belt and Road Initiative playing an active role in Syria’s reconstruction in the coming years. By contrast, Western countries and oil-rich Arab monarchies have repeatedly refused to pay to rebuild Syria if president Bashar al-Assad remains in power (likewise, Damascus has shown no interest in Western support of any kind). In the absence of regime change, and with other Assad allies such as Russia and Iran under international sanctions, China stands out as the only country willing and able to bankroll the rebuilding of Syria. With Bashar al-Assad determined to run for a third presidential term, there is no political solution in sight.
Darkest hours: the current pandemic
The current COVID-19 pandemic comes at the worst of times. Even before the pandemic, the war had left almost 90% of the population living below the poverty line. The value of the Syrian pound had collapsed: 4,000 SYP to the USD on the black market, compared to 50 SYP in 2011. The continuing economic crisis has created fuel and power shortages. With COVID-19 disrupting markets and delaying aid deliveries, food security has become a major challenge. The UN reports that 80% of households are now using negative coping mechanisms to survive, with over 70% of Syrians taking on new debt and average household expenses now exceeding income by around 20%. More children are being pulled out of school and working to make ends meet. With three quarters of Syrian IDPs and refugees already displaying PTSD symptoms, the pandemic is creating even more stress.
The latest Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2020 maps the Syria crisis against vulnerability to the pandemic. It assesses that the health and humanitarian impacts of COVID-19 could soon overwhelm national response capacity. While Jordan is assessed as medium risk, Lebanon is labelled ‘highly vulnerable’ to COVID-19. The scope of the COVID-19 outbreak in Syria is unknown due to underreporting, limited testing capacity and entrenched stigmas associated with the virus. Many health workers fled the country since the crisis began, and more have done so since the pandemic.
With vaccination programmes now gearing up in the region, it is encouraging that both Jordan and Lebanon are including Syrian refugees in their vaccination campaigns. In Jordan, Zaatari refugee camp set up vaccination centres in February this year. Syria has procured vaccines from COVAX, and it is anticipated that the Ministry of Health will receive the first delivery of vaccines in April. Russian and Chinese vaccines are also expected to arrive in Syria around the same time. However, the challenges of rolling out a mass vaccination campaign across a destroyed country are formidable. There are also fears that ‘vaccine diplomacy’ will become another arena of competition between supporters and opponents of the regime.
Ten years into the crisis, no one can really tell if Syria’s darkest hours have passed, and nobody could predict how the situation will unfold in the coming years. With Bashar al-Assad still firmly in power, a political solution does not appear in sight. Until one is found, Syria’s long-suffering population will have little to hope for beyond continued humanitarian aid.
 Geo-Politics of Reconstruction: Who Will Rebuild Syria and Pay for It?, Julien Barnes-Dacey, Chapter 3, Rebuilding Syria, The Middle East’s Next Power Game, ISPI, 2019, link; Funding Syria’s Reconstruction Could upset China’s Other Ties in the Middle East, Kyle Haddad-Fonda, World Politics Review, July 2018, link.
Photo credit: Basma (2013)