With $10 billion pledged for the Syrian refugee crisis and peace talks in limbo, humanitarian organizations are more eager than ever to bring much-needed relief to those suffering in and around Syria.
But with no clear diplomatic solution, aid remains locked out. Just before peace talks were due to begin in Geneva, Switzerland — the third attempt since 2012 — leaders of humanitarian organizations and United Nations agencies called on governments and citizens around the world “to raise their voice and urge that all parties reach agreement on a ceasefire and a path to peace.”
The appeal urges “those with the ability to stop the suffering” to take action now and ensure unimpeded and sustained access for humanitarian organizations inside Syria. It also advocates for unconditional, monitored cease-fires to allow food and other urgent assistance to be delivered to civilians, a cessation of attacks on civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, freedom of movement for all civilians, and the immediate lifting of all sieges by all parties.
Urging unfettered access
The biggest obstacle to achieving unimpeded access of humanitarian assistance is warring parties blocking access routes in large swathes of Syrian territory.
“Every part of this conflict has taken any measure [possible] to stop people from reaching humanitarian supplies, and we don’t have unimpeded access on a regular basis to the community,” Abeer Etefa, World Food Program's senior regional communications officer for the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, told Devex.
The Syria donors conference was an attempt to shift the aid needle toward longer-term development in war-torn Syria. If donors follow through, last week’s approach could mark a sea change in the humanitarian and development disconnect.
“There is no practical reason these actions could not be implemented if there is the will to do so,” she continued. “When we have the access we’re able to deliver the assistance; we have the supplies, the expertise and the experience on the ground.”
The continued bloodshed in Syria is entering into its sixth year. Today, some 13.5 million people inside Syria need humanitarian assistance. According to the United Nations, 400,000 people live in areas encircled by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, by rebels or by jihadists — areas where there is often no food and where humanitarian agencies are denied access.
“We, as humanitarian agencies, have come out and say enough’s enough,” Etefa said. “The people who are in the sieged areas and cut [off] from assistance are really suffering. We have close to half a million people inside Syria who are really in a desperate situation, when food and other supplies are only a few kilometers away from them.”
Education to break the ‘cycle of violence’
In addition to food and medicine, people also lack basic services — such as electricity and education — in these areas.
“To break the cycle of violence and prevent further escalation in the future, education must become a priority,” said Unni Krishnan, head of disaster preparedness and response at Plan International. “A good antidote to violence and war is education. Education will also help to have a safer, better and lasting future for children. Education is a fundamental right which must not be forgotten.”
The unique focus of last week’s Syria donors conference in London on returning refugee children to school resulted in a promising commitment: donors pledged to get 1 million kids in the region back to school by the end of this academic school year. The strategy — if it’s followed through — could serve to expand education infrastructure in neighboring host countries’ already overburdened schools.
But will it be enough to accommodate the refugee communities’ unique needs?
“Specialist services must be put in place for those suffering from trauma and injury caused by the war,” Krishnan said. “Many have been left with a disability as a result of the violence. Now they are invisible and too often ignored. Their needs must be addressed too.”
With few options for a better future, some 4.6 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries and beyond — where many face further hardship.
“For refugees from Syria […] one of the biggest obstacles is lack of support and services available to refugees who are on the run,” Krishnan explained. “This results in further displacement, as they are unable to stay in one place […] Adequate social services need to be made available in countries receiving refugees. This is essential, along with lifesaving support. Refugees have rights and they must be respected.”
Calls to action
“Numerous U.N. Security Council Resolutions, unanimously passed — the most recent, UNSC 2258, was passed on Dec. 22 — explicitly call for unimpeded and sustained access for humanitarian assistance inside Syria,” said Blake Selzer, CARE’s advocacy director for the Syria crisis.
Other humanitarian organizations have echoed this call for the international community to place urgent pressure on all parties to the conflict, and immediately end the blockade on urgently needed humanitarian assistance.
In the longer term, of course, a diplomatic solution is needed to end the conflict in Syria. Indeed, a successful outcome to the Geneva negotiations would have seen a nationwide cease-fire agreement and a transitional government draft a new constitution and hold elections within 18 months.
But with peace talks suspended only three days after they began — and Syria's government and the opposition blaming each other for the suspension — negotiations remain fragile and a successful outcome remains to be seen.
Will the talks be salvaged?
It is a “temporary pause,” said Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for the Syria crisis, in a statement. “It is not the end and it is not the failure of the talks,” adding that they are scheduled to resume on Feb. 25.
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