Winter is coming, and the humanitarian situation in Syria has never been so dire, with more than 3 million refugees abroad and some 6.5 million internally displaced—nearly half of the country’s population.
According to UN figures, more than 10 million Syrians now need outside aid to survive, nearly half of them stuck in areas under siege or otherwise hard to access. The power infrastructure and agricultural sector are breaking down due to the strains of war and a lack of upkeep. Across Syria, the prices of fuel, food, and everyday goods are skyrocketing due to systemic failures in the power supply structure, war, and bombings. Millions of Syrians are left to face the winter cold in appalling conditions, at a time when wealthy Western and Arab nations spend billions on counterterrorism and renewed rebel training missions.
This is not simply callous neglect. Even if the Syrian conflict were to be viewed solely through a security prism, the international community’s tepid response to this humanitarian crisis is clearly counterproductive. The spiralling poverty, social breakdown, and despair is precisely what has paved the way for extremist sectarian militias, not only inside Syria but also among refugees scattered in countries like Lebanon and Jordan, and there is little hope for a solution for as long as the humanitarian crisis persists.
Yet while funds are readily available for military interventions of last resort—such as “Operation Inherent Resolve,” the U.S.-led coalition striking jihadi targets in Syria and Iraq—the international community remains unwilling to summon up a humanitarian coalition to get Syrians through the winter.
Underfunded aid organs
In mid-September, the World Food Program (WFP) warned that it had not been able to secure funding for food packages to Syrians in need. Deliveries would continue through October and November, although with major cuts to the rations delivered, and the group warned that it had no money left for December. WFP had by then already cut school feeding programs for some 12,000 Syrian refugee children in Iraq.
“To cut back on food rations, the most basic thing, is absolutely heartbreaking,” said a WFP spokesperson.
Even though billions were then being spent on military preparations and international leaders spoke of an urgent necessity to save civilian lives (with military means), the UN’s humanitarian distress call was more or less ignored. A month later, the WFP has “completely run out of funds” and is $352 million short until year’s end. “Yes, we have already started” to cut supplies to some 4.2 million people inside Syria, the WFP’s assistant executive director recently told Agence France Presse. “We decided that because of the funding shortfall, we will provide food to everybody but... cut [the supply] down to 60 percent of the normal basket.”
Syrians in Lebanon will now have to make do with 20–30 percent less food assistance while those who have gathered in refugee camps in southern Turkey will face a complete stop of deliveries, on the assumption that Turkish and other charities can fill the gap.
And it’s not just the WFP. Other UN organs and nongovernmental charities are being forced to make similar cuts. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has only been able to collect about half of the required funds for 2014. And by September, the Turkish government had received only a quarter of the international assistance it had called for to help host Syrian refugees on its territory.
Syria’s neighbors are being severely destabilized by the war, with Iraq already collapsed into civil war and Lebanon set to follow. All over the region, there is a growing popular backlash against the refugees. Aid agencies recently sounded the alarm about growing restrictions in Jordan. In Lebanon, where one in four inhabitants is now a Syrian, border regulations are also quietly being tightened. As the economic situation worsens, Syrians in Lebanon are increasingly drawn into the armed conflict raging along the country’s border. They’ve been branded a security threat and exposed to retaliation and racist assault by Lebanese groups. The growing alienation from host communities feeds despair and radicalization among the Syrian refugees, contributing to a downward spiral of violence and resentment which will eventually push Lebanon over the brink into civil war.
A question of priorities
Europe, the United States, Russia, Iran, and the Arab world have all proven stubbornly reluctant to resettle refugees in any significant numbers, ignoring even the UNHCR’s modest calls for a few tens of thousand Syrians to be airlifted out of Lebanon. While there is a greater willingness to fund refugee aid in Syria and the surrounding countries, it is far from enough and already subject to donor fatigue, despite the fact that this problem will remain for years and decades to come. If anything, the humanitarian crisis is likely to grow significantly worse in the coming period, since Lebanon is now also being slowly pulled under by its untreated refugee crisis.
At its root, this is simply a question of priorities. The money is there, available for spending on crises in the Middle East—just not on the humanitarian side. For example, while the WFP is desperately calling for $0.35 billion to feed Syrian civilians, the cost of U.S. military operations in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State was recently estimated at some $2.4 billion–$6.8 billion per year. In fact, in the three and a half years since the Syrian conflict began, the U.S. government has only spent about $1.4 billion on addressing the refugee crisis,. While this is still enough to make Washington the conflict’s top donor in absolute terms (and a lot more than humanitarian freeloaders like France or Russia), it is a pittance considering the size of the U.S. economy and the importance attached by the White House to the Syrian conflict.
It neatly illustrates a perennial paradox in international policy: there never seems to be enough money to spend on the humanitarian projects that could avert a social collapse—but there’s always enough to fund a military response once violence becomes inevitable.