Syria’s civil war has created a humanitarian crisis of horrendous proportions. With most media comment focused on the struggle against Islamic State and the consequent gains and losses on the battlefield, far too little attention has been paid to the immeasurable suffering the conflict has inflicted on huge numbers of the Syrian people.
Civilian deaths as a result of the fighting and from poison gas attacks in the course of combat have been estimated at some 300,000. That, indeed, is a massive toll of innocent life. But the truly staggering statistics relate to the living.
The country’s pre-war population was some 21 million. UN figures show that at the last count, on 28 September 2017, well over half the population – something approaching 12 million Syrians – had been displaced from their homes. Some 6.3 million are homeless within Syria, but no less than 5.2 million have fled the country and are now refugees – over half of them, it has been estimated, under the age of 18. This figure includes 2 million Syrians registered by UNHCR in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, over 3 million registered by Turkey, and more than 30,000 Syrian refugees registered in North Africa.
All this translates into a humanitarian tragedy that ought to be attracting global attention. As far as the media is concerned, it seems to have been buried under competing news stories of more immediate public interest. In the political arena, however, something more sinister seems to be happening. As Bashar al-Assad’s forces, empowered by Russian and Iranian military support, wrest increasing amounts of territory from Islamic State, and as the regime reasserts authority over it, the prospect of the president remaining in power, at least for a transitional period, seems to be gaining acceptance. Reports back in March indicated that US diplomatic policy is “no longer focused on making the war-torn country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, leave power.”
This shift in sentiment could only be enhanced by signs of a return to normality within Syria, such as a flow of returning displaced civilians. The International Organization for Migration said in August that some 600,000 displaced Syrians had returned to their homes in 2017. When Andrej Mahecic of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spoke of the trend, he felt bound to add that the number of those coming back was a “fraction” of the estimated 12 million displaced Syrians.
Turkey, host to by far the largest number of Syrian refugees, offered them a major concession in 2017, perhaps in the hope of trimming the numbers. It gave formal permission to all Syrian refugees to return temporarily to their country to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which began on June 25. Those taking advantage of the offer had to register on a dedicated website and were required to return to Turkey by a given date, different depending on which crossing they chose to use. Otherwise they would be treated as new arrivals and subject to the regular immigration process.
Missing the due date would indeed have constituted an obstacle of major proportions. Turkey has sealed off its Syrian border with fences, minefields, ditches and a massive security wall aimed at stemming the refugee flow into the country. There are reports of Turkish border guards shooting at Syrian refugees trying to cross the border without going through the formal registration process. Media reports indicated that most Syrians taking advantage of the Eid al-Fitr concession intended to return to Turkey, but that some 9,000 opted to stay.
The concession was renewed a few weeks later to mark the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, Eid al-Adha. The main border crossing between Turkey and Syria opened on August 15, and five days later around 12,000 refugees had passed into Syria. They were allowed back into Turkey as from September 5, and the crossing closes on October 15.
Meanwhile the snail-pace UN-backed peace negotiations crawl on. Seven previous rounds have failed to persuade the adversaries to hold face-to-face talks, let alone make progress. Nonetheless the persistent UN Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, said in mid-August 2017 that the United Nations hopes for a “serious negotiation” between the government and a still-to-be-formed unified Syrian opposition in October or November. He expected a unified position to emerge after the three opposition delegations took “stock of the realities on the ground”, at a meeting in October.
Progress towards meaningful discussions on ending Syria’s civil war and planning a viable future for the country has been frustrated by the failure of the opposition parties to agree a common approach. The main opposition is the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which is totally opposed to Bashar al-Assad retaining power of any sort in a reconstituted Syria. The two other dissident groupings, the “Moscow” and “Cairo” platforms, are much less opposed to Assad being associated in some way in a post-war arrangement, perhaps for a “transition period”.
Unsurprisingly, the Syrian government team has refused to engage with the HNC, and would be likely to do so with a united opposition only if the HNC’s hard line had somehow been softened.
Ever optimistic, de Mistura has said, “Regarding the (Syrian) government, we are counting very much on Russia, on Iran, on anyone who has got major influence, and on the government of Syria to be ready finally to initiate, when they are invited to Geneva, a genuine, direct negotiation with whatever (opposition) platform comes out.”
Clearly a long, difficult diplomatic process stretches out ahead. Meanwhile Syria remains a battlefield, civilians are still being killed, thousands are fleeing their country, and 12 million displaced Syrians struggle to live anything approaching a decent life.
The Vatican recently published a 20-point plan on refugees which encourages countries to introduce community sponsorship legislation such as Canada’s system, which allows concerned citizens to organize and raise money to bring refugees to their country and help them towards citizenship. Now other governments, such as Ireland and New Zealand, are exploring the possibilities of allowing citizens to take action through such schemes. Last year the UK actually introduced legislation to make community sponsorship possible. Such people-powered initiatives enable ordinary citizens to demonstrate the humanity that has been conspicuous by its absence in the responses of world leaders.