How Much Can the Syrian People Endure?

The humanitarian problem keeps getting worse.

The continuing Syrian civil war has inflicted a huge unrelenting disaster on the people of that country. Bashar al-Assad may be tottering, but we still don’t know when he will go or how many more people will be added to the displaced and exiled before he does. Nor does getting rid of Assad, however desirable, necessarily mean that the disaster befalling Syria will end soon. Whatever the endless speculation, no one knows what a post-Assad Syria will look like and what warring peoples end up doing to each other. The UN, in any event, expects the numbers of internally displaced and refugees will increase enormously this coming year.

For the last two years, the West has daily thundered against the Assad government but has done little to end his rule and stop Syria’s pervasive war. That endless violence has also contributed to sectarian fighting and increased its potential as war continues. Nor have Western countries been generous in helping the 15 percent of the Syrian people who are displaced or refugees. International appeals over the past year have provided so far only half of the 400 million dollars requested.

The United States satisfies its misgivings by repeated declarations that it gives more money than any other country. But the humanitarian problem keeps getting worse and the level of aid is increasingly deficient. The West and wealthy Arab countries keep leaving the burden of some 500,000 refugees mostly to Syria’s not particularly wealthy neighbors: Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. Turkey itself has already spent some 500 million dollars on refugees. Worse, getting enough sustenance to the huge and growing numbers of displaced within Syria is difficult, especially in the winter months, in turn likely generating more displaced persons. Increasing refugee numbers can spell political disaster for weak countries like Jordan and Lebanon, and we could find refugees increasingly turned away at borders.

The biggest concern if Assad falls is the difficulty of establishing a new, minimally functioning government to provide basic services while deterring violence within the Sunni Muslim community and against Syria’s large minority population, which has mostly supported the Assad government. The presence of foreign jihadists adds to the potential of more violence and could well limit the construction of a modicum of a functioning government.

The U.S. government and its allies are obviously deeply aware of the problem of creating some sort of broad-based coalition government to take over the state machinery that will still exist once Assad goes—not a promising inheritance after so much death and destruction, but essential. Compounding the problem is that some important allies have different sectarian champions they want to see controlling any new government. Efforts have also been under way with UN negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi and the Russians to see whether a political process can be created that will better provide for the establishment of some sort of government. But that hardly looks promising because of the obvious difficulty of putting together any negotiations between Assad and his opposition. The problem of establishing some sort of a workable government may heavily depend on when and where Assad goes.

While hopefully we will see a transition soon take place with a functioning government established, counting on it can be very dangerous for the Syrian people. Given the uncertainties of what emerges after Assad, we have to consider the real possibility of state failure and how to best protect the Syrian people in dire circumstances. That will not be politically easy. Governments do not like to focus on uncertain situations and prepare for what could be a deepening humanitarian emergency. Even more difficult is to make a political decision in such circumstances. Better to wait and see what happens.

Which brings us back to the question of money. The UN, however the internal Syrian scene develops, last week called for another 1.5 billion dollars to take care of the expected increases in numbers of refugees and displaced persons over the next year. Fat chance, when they could not raise another 200 million for humanitarian aid after almost a year. Yet hope springs eternal. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon will host a one-day high-level pledging conference in Kuwait to generate the necessary pledges, and maybe the rich Gulf states can be pressured to really help out.

But the United States is hardly flush with foreign-aid funds at this point and Europe is not much better. Neither appears much seized of the problem, particularly when conditions are so uncertain. It will require serious high-level international arm twisting to get the pledges and even more to secure the monies once pledged. Right now only the countries receiving refugees appear much interested in the dilemma. As usual we will likely end up hoping for the best. The Syrians have America’s good wishes.

Mort Abramowitz, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a former American ambassador to Turkey, recently visited Turkey to look at the Syrian refugee problem there.

Image: Flickr/Michael Dawes