Syria five years on: hope in the darkness

Oxfam Conflict, Humanitarian, In the news


Five years into the Syria conflict, good news has been a rare commodity for millions of people affected by that catastrophic war. Is there any hope? Shaheen Chughtai weighs up the gravity of the situation against the progress being made through a temporary ceasefire, attempted peace talks and a recent donor conference.

Over 250,000 people have been killed, 1.2 million injured. At least 13.5 million people need humanitarian assistance inside Syria alone. Over 4.5 million refugees from Syria have fled to neighbouring countries particularly Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Many have died trying to reach a Fortress Europe where too many leaders have made a dire situation worse by building walls instead of safe, legal routes for asylum seekers. In short, the humanitarian situation is worse than ever.

The Syrian government and its allies, as well as armed opposition and extremist groups, are primarily and directly responsible for the horrific reality that Syria’s civilians face daily. They have targeted civilians, laid siege to urban areas, and denied access to life-saving assistance. UN Security Council Resolutions have been repeatedly flouted by parties to the Syria conflict in Syria over the past year.

Moreover, their international backers, including permanent members of the UN Security Council, are not only failing to ensure the implementation of resolutions designed to protect and assist civilians. Through inadequate diplomatic pressure, political and military support to their allies, and direct military action,
France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States have to varying degrees poured fuel on the fire of the Syria conflict – a key finding in a new report from 30 international and local aid organisations including Oxfam.

But in the darkness of the conflict, there are a few faint glimmers of hope.

A partial ceasefire sponsored by the US and Russia began on 27th February. It excludes certain “extremist” armed groups and has seen some violations, including attacks on civilians. But so far, it seems to have resulted in a significant reduction in violence in Syria and permitted humanitarian aid to reach some besieged areas.

Building on this tentative progress, the UN is working to restart peace talks that collapsed last month. The resumption of talks faces immense challenges that have so far derailed all previous attempts to sustain a peace process. It is crucial that the international community – especially those permanent members of the UN Security Council most involved in the conflict – prioritise supporting the task of building a just and lasting peace over all other political and military objectives in Syria.

Other glimmers of hope were also visible last month. Government officials and leaders from over 60 countries, international organisations, business leaders, and representatives of civil society gathered at the Supporting Syria and the Region conference in London on 4th February. It was accompanied by various related events that week, including a civil society conference and a private sector gathering.

 for the first time since the conflict began, governments and the UN had invited representatives from Syrian civil society The aim was not only to raise humanitarian funds but also to create education and economic opportunities to help rebuild the lives of refugees and support the neighbouring countries hosting them.

By the time the main conference had concluded, at least two remarkable achievements had taken place. Firstly, the conference raised over US$ 11 billion in donor aid pledges – $5.8 billion for 2016 and a further $5.4 billion for 2017-20. This is the largest amount of aid ever pledged on a single day for a single crisis. If those promises are kept, it would make a huge difference to the lives of millions of children, women, and men.

Secondly, for the first time since the conflict began, governments and the UN had invited representatives from Syrian civil society to participate in international discussions about their country. If future talks on aid and peace for Syria allow Syrian civil society women and men to participate meaningfully, those processes will benefit from their unique connections, legitimacy and expertise.

Admittedly, each of those promising achievements also testified to the catastrophic failures of recent years. The need to raise such enormous sums is driven by the astronomical cost of the war in terms of lives and communities destroyed. Even if the entire $5.8 billion pledge for this year is provided – far from certain when some governments repeatedly fail to keep their promises – it remains $3.5 billion short of the combined funding needs of the UN, regional governments and other relief organisations. As of last week, barely three percent of the UN appeals for 2016 were
– a shamefully low figure.

And the belated involvement of women and men from Syrian civil society, although a welcome step in the right direction, must be given much more meaningful support and space to make the most of their contributions. Rouba Mhaissen was one of three Syrian civil society representatives given two minutes to address the conference. She told the gathered world leaders and officials:

“Thank you for inviting us. The invitation has been last minute. A lot couldn’t make it because of fortress Europe and the visa issues. Our presence here has been a token presence at an ad hoc event at which the priorities have been predetermined without our involvement.”

Making sure Syrian civil society has a meaningful place at the table matters. There is growing evidence from around the world that peace processes are more likely to succeed when men and women from civil society take part. So, continuing to exclude such people from the latest Syria peace talks not only continues a failed approach: it wastes crucial opportunities to end a horrendous war.

Real leadership means finding the resolve to stop treading on the path of failed approaches and contradictory policies. Doing so could allow those recent glimmers of hope to shine a little more brightly.

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Author: Shaheen Chughtai
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.