BEIRUT – After spending just three days with refugees and aid workers in Lebanon and Turkey, the apocalyptic nature of the Syria crisis is all too apparent: more than 100,000 deaths, nine million people displaced, two million children out of school, diseases like polio resurfacing, and neighboring countries struggling to cope with waves of refugees.
Countless heartrending stories of lost husbands, wives, siblings, and children, to say nothing of homes and livelihoods destroyed, provide yet more troubling evidence of how Syria’s civil war has become a regional conflict (as the bombing of Iran’s Beirut embassy suggests). Anti-Assad rebels are now fighting each other, as jihadists make gains. Experts no longer talk of the conflict lasting months; they speak in terms of years, or even decades.
Despite heroic efforts by aid agencies like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to save lives and bring hope to the region, the terrible truth is that it is not possible to protect civilians, especially from snipers and stray missiles, never mind hunger and homelessness. Warring factions do not even recognize the notion of unaffiliated noncombatants, and flout international norms of war. In addition to the use of chemical weapons, the United Nations estimates that 2.5 million civilians lack food, water, and medicines, because some towns and villages are too hard to reach, with an estimated 250,000 people completely cut off from outside help.
Syria’s neighbors have been overwhelmed by calls for help. Lebanon is trying to accommodate nearly one million refugees. In Turkey, an estimated 200,000 refugees are in official camps, but at least twice that number are struggling alone in towns and cities. Support from around the world is fitful: only 60% of aid pledges have come in, with only a fraction actually reaching the intended beneficiaries. Although some agencies have been able to get aid supplies across national borders, they cannot get through the frontlines of the fighting to reach those caught in the crossfire.
International diplomatic efforts must therefore focus on achieving temporary ceasefires to bring in the most urgently needed help, such as polio vaccines for children. Aid should not be a mere side show to the seemingly endless peace talks taking place in Geneva; as United Nations emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos insisted, it must be central to those negotiations.
But, with the conflict and its impact expected to drag on for years, agencies must also plan for the longer term. This includes building capacity in neighboring states, as the World Bank is doing in Jordan and Lebanon, to provide services for refugees.
This can be done in creative ways. The IRC, for example, is involved in three areas:
· Innovative education: Mainstream school systems in neighboring countries cannot cope with the refugee influx; and, with more than 80% of refugees living in urban areas rather than in camps, there is little point to focusing on camp-based models of teaching. Instead, a more informal system, supported by networks of local and refugee teachers – a model that was successfully pioneered in Congo and Afghanistan – can provide accredited learning.
· Exploiting technology: Syrians are generally literate, numerate, and technologically sophisticated. A pioneering social-networking platform called Tawasul (“Connection”), established by the IRC and the non-profit news organization Internews, has been set up to help refugees help one another through the exchange of information and advice.
· Doing business: Syrian refugees are accustomed to working in a market economy, so programs that allow them to trade, and therefore support themselves, should be encouraged. The IRC is investing in “cash for work” programs that will help refugees (and their hosts) build businesses.
If we are to lessen the horrors of the Syrian conflict and its consequences, we must think not only about emergency action to save lives, but also about meeting longer-term needs that make those lives worth living. Bringing medical aid into conflict zones, setting up water and sanitation facilities, and protecting victims during harsh winters are crucial to saving lives; but we must also think about how to safeguard the education and livelihoods of those who survive.