At a meeting in Kuwait today, the United Nations (UN) sought increased aid to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria. The site of a bloody civil war dating back to 2011, the crisis in Syria has become the focus of the largest foreign aid drive dedicated to a single issue ever conducted by the UN.
The goal of the meeting in Kuwait was to secure a total of $6.5 billion for the year of 2014. To date only $2.4 billion has been pledged, which includes $380 million in new aid from the United States. The total contribution of the U.S. is more than $1.7 billion according to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. This includes aid not only to Syria itself, but to neighboring countries hosting Syrian refugees such as Lebanon and Jordan. Secretary Kerry went on to call the Syrian situation and the tepid international response an “outrage” and accused the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad of blocking aid from reaching the civilian population. He stopped short of demanding the removal of Assad however.
The humanitarian consequences of the Syrian civil war have been high. Specific estimates on the casualties vary, but it is thought that between 100,000 and 150,000 people have been killed in Syria since 2011, including combatants and civilians. In addition to these deaths, at least eight million Syrians have been forced from their homes by the fighting. Approximately six million of these are considered “internally displaced,” that is, forced from their homes but still living within Syria. Another 2 to 2.5 million have fled the country, becoming refugees in neighboring countries. Nearly one million of these refugees have sought sanctuary in Lebanon, a country of only 4.5 million people itself and already carrying the burden of a large population of Palestinian refugees.
The situation is no better for those Syrians who have not been forced from their homes either. It is estimated that more than 10 million Syrians are “food insecure” and that over one million children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition. Nearly half the population of Syria has no access to drinking water and nine million have no access to health care. To put these numbers in context, the total population of Syria was estimated at approximately 23 million in 2013. Faced with a humanitarian crisis of this scope, the UN continues its effort to secure increased aid to address the situation in Syria.
But the situation within Syria remains complicated. President Bashar Al-Assad is accused of blocking what aid is available from reaching civilians. Essentially using hunger and disease as weapons, his regime obstructs aid shipments and harasses those groups attempting to distribute relief packages within the country. In addition, Assad is believed to have deployed chemical weapons against the civilian population on at least one occasion. This nearly resulted in a U.S. led military intervention, but a deal brokered by Russia averted that possibility.
The rebel groups opposing Assad are not blameless either. While lacking the resources of the Syrian army and the Assad regime, they have demonstrated a high level of brutality against cities and towns loyal to Assad. This is due to the sectarian aspect of the conflict. President Assad represents a group known as the Alawites. This Shi’ite Muslim sect has ruled Syria since 1971 when Hafez Al-Assad took power. However this group is a minority within Syria ruling over the Sunni majority. It is this Sunni majority that represents the Syrian rebels and is a key factor in their aggression toward Assad loyalists, even civilians.
In addition, there are segments of the Syrian rebel groups that are known to be associated with terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda. This would include segments of the more moderate Free Syrian Army as well as radical groups such as the Al-Nursa Front. This possible association of known terrorist groups with the Syrian resistance is one factor that has complicated the international response. So while many international groups continue to call for Assad to step down, it is unknown whether his removal would actually lead to a more stable or friendly regime in the country. Concerns range from a Sunni majority government turning its power against the Alawite minority to Syria becoming another “safe haven” for terrorist organizations much as Afghanistan was prior to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the conflict, there is little doubt that the ongoing crisis is a tragedy for the Syrian people. President Assad remains committed to staying in power and the rebel groups remain committed to ending his regime. With the international community divided in terms of negotiating a diplomatic resolution, the prospects of a peaceful end to the conflict remain uncertain. In the meantime, it will fall to groups such as the UN to continue to seek increased aid for Syria to address this humanitarian crisis.
By Christopher V. Spencer
Bloomberg Business Week