This latest humanitarian disaster offers a stark illustration of how deeply the Syrian people have been betrayed by aid agencies and the international community
As children starve and hope dwindles, the crisis of the Rukban refugee camp is chillingly familiar
News of a fresh humanitarian catastrophe in Syria has broken. Civilians in the Rukban camp, a desolate piece of desert just across the border from Jordan, are starving to death.
Rukban is home to approximately 55,000 internal refugees, yet no aid has been allowed in since January. Huda Raslan, a four-month-old baby, and one-year-old Munaf Al Mahmoud both died in October as a result of malnutrition and lack of medical care. In total, 15 people have died this month – not from guns and bullets, but because of a blockade by forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad, who swept through southern Syria earlier this year and reclaimed control over borders occupied by Jordan and Israel.
The pattern of this crisis is familiar. Impotent outrage will be expressed, nothing will be done, and we will all move on. Syrians will again be left to face their fate, alleviating their suffering only via surrender to the regime.
The saga of Rukban is only the latest sad episode in a long and persistent process through which humanitarian aid has been wielded as a weapon of war in order to force the submission of the Syrian people. That process has played out on two fronts: one inside Syria, with civilians besieged or starved by the Assad regime in order to force their capitulation; one outside, which has exposed millions of refugees to the hostility of right-wing politicians and nationalist movements.
In both cases, Syrians have been betrayed by the international community.
Let’s start inside Syria, where the Assad regime has carried out starvation sieges on a scale unparalleled in recent conflicts. Until the battle to reclaim Aleppo in 2016, estimates of civilians living in besieged or hard-to-reach parts of the country numbered close to a million, with most being blockaded by government troops. Many were forced to pick leaves from trees and slaughter stray animals for food.
The Assad regime routinely blocked requests for passage by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross, despite rare unanimous agreement in the Security Council on the unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid. By the very nature of the conflict, those bodies were compelled to operate in tandem with local authorities, but the weaponisation of aid led to distrust, accusations of collaboration with the government, and a pervasive sense that the organisations in charge of delivering it were hostage to the will of the regime.
This was made worse by credible allegations that the UN had partnered with organisations directly linked to the regime. These included its support of the defence ministry’s blood bank, which was likely used for the treatment of regime soldiers, and charities set up by Syria’s first lady Asma Al Assad and the businessman Rami Makhlouf, a close associate of the Assad family.
The regime’s strategy of exerting control over humanitarian aid led to limits on cross-border efforts by a UN wary of antagonising a government that controlled its access elsewhere. This meant that Mr Al Assad could veto even innocuous UN efforts, such as a multimillion-dollar demining program that was scrapped in 2016 after the government threatened to treat its teams as enemy combatants. The overall purpose was to execute a starve or surrender strategy, forcing civilians and fighters to agree to “reconciliation” deals that slowly led to an effective military victory on the battlefield. The reclamation of eastern Ghouta, Aleppo, Homs and other parts of the country took place as a direct consequence of sieges, which the learned helplessness of the UN and other aid agencies helped to fuel.
Much of the humanitarian aid to opposition territories was directed by the US and the UK, and it flowed through corporations that were contracted to implement the programmes along with their Syrian partners. This connection to foreign agencies − and money − changed perceptions of local aid workers, gave them an outsized level of influence and sowed the seeds of scepticism, resulting in many being viewed as collaborators and potential spies.
Outside the country, the betrayal of Syrian refugees was the preserve of those who claimed universal human rights as their highest ideal. Terrified of the demographic change that an influx of displaced Syrians would bring, and in a failed effort to halt the march of the far right, European countries subcontracted their border security to Turkey, which already hosted more than three million refugees, in exchange for generous financial aid.
In one fell swoop, Europe surrendered its moral high ground and whatever leverage it had over Ankara, including the prospect of EU membership in exchange for liberalising reforms. It also farmed out the dirty work of stopping migrants and refugees from crossing the Mediterranean to Turkey’s coastguard and Libyan military factions, the latter of whom ended up underwriting a thriving human trafficking and modern slavery ecosystem.
Ultimately, the Rukban camp’s tragedy has been years in the making, and nothing will be done about it. Mr Al Assad will continue blockading the camp until it surrenders, because nobody will punish the regime and its international reputation will not suffer. Jordan, which has continued its policy of see no evil, hear no evil when it comes to the camp, recently reopened the Nassib border crossing − a clear sign that Mr Al Assad’s former rivals have accepted that he will remain in power.
At this point, it would be appropriate to offer some words that suggest a path forward for the UN or other aid agencies, many of whom, after pulling out from Damascus in the early years of the conflict, have returned and are jostling for a place in a post-war order. However, it appears that the reputation of the entire aid industry has been irreparably damaged by its inability to provide help to Syrians when they have needed it most.
The only leverage western powers now have over the Syrian government is funding for post-war reconstruction. The US and its allies have said they will not approve such funding for areas of the country controlled by the regime unless there is a meaningful political transition. Since Russia does not want to foot the bill for the devastation it contributed to and abetted, it is urging European powers to reconsider this stance.
That leverage is also unlikely last for long. Across Europe, many right-wing figures are already urging a return of refugees, and paying for rebuilding that will theoretically make it bearable for Syrians to go back home − if one ignores the risk of arrest and persecution that many of them will face − may prompt a revision of the last principled stand Europe is taking on the crisis. The regime sees no reason to capitulate to the demands of an opposition that has lost the military battle, and Mr Al Assad is betting that the West will knock on Damascus’s door, eager for a piece of the reconstruction pie. It is likely that his gamble will pay off.