x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Shivering as the bombs fall, Syrians continue to suffer

As the fighting drags on, the misery of Syrians keeps growing.

Yesterday, as the temperatures dipped below 5 degrees Celsius, I found that I was shivering from the cold. Fortunately, I keep a coat in the car and it wasn't long before I was back inside a warm house. Unfortunately, such options aren't open to many living elsewhere in the region. To the north of us, it's been the coldest winter for 20 years. Snow in Jerusalem and Aleppo, torrential storms in Lebanon - this will be a winter to remember.

But historic weather data isn't the only challenge of this cold snap. Images of refugees from the Syrian conflict, now estimated to number over 600,000, tell a heartbreaking tale: families sheltering from the snow, cold and rain in flimsy tents, lacking warm clothing, and insufficient food and heating.

These images remind me of my first trip to the region nearly 45 years ago, when I visited a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. It was a cold and rainy February day. The snow that had fallen a week before had melted, but my colleagues and I had to wade through deep mud between the rows of tents, watched by men, women and children whose misery was etched deeply on their faces. I will never forget the impression that visit made on me.

Today, similar camps of displaced Syrians dot the borders of Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. They are filled with thousands of men, women and children who have fled a brutal regime concerned only for its own survival.

The UN estimates suggests that over the next few months the total number of Syrian refugees may rise to a million. Many hundreds of thousands more are internally-displaced - an estimated 2.5 million Syrians have fled their homes during the two years of fighting. In the north, along the Syrian border with Turkey, there are many would-be refugees who are unable to cross because the refugee camps inside Turkey have already reached their capacity.

The human toll is likely much higher, however, as countless people are simply trapped at home, like my family's friends in Aleppo. They have electricity a few hours every few days if they are lucky, food is short, fuel for heating is 20 times more expensive than it was before the conflict began, temperatures have fallen to minus 3 degrees C and, wrapped in warm clothing, they shiver every night as they listen to falling bombs.

In other words, they are losing hope. Sadly, there is little sign that the situation will improve in the immediate future.

Putting aside the politics of this complex crisis for a moment, it is difficult to see the Syrian war as anything other than a humanitarian tragedy. Enormous sums of political and economic capital are required to cope with the fallout. The UN has said US $1.5 billion (Dh5.5 billion) will be needed for the first six months of this year, and one recent estimate is that it will cost at least $1 billion this year to provide for the refugees outside Syria alone. As the conflict continues, that figure is likely to rise dramatically. It is, simply, beyond the ability of the world's major relief agencies and donor states to cope unilaterally.

The other day, an old friend who is a member of a western government asked my view on what his country could - and should - do with regards to Syria. It was, I warned, an increasingly complex situation, with the prospect of bitter sectarian and ethnic strife becoming a growing component of a conflict that has already seen an estimated 60,000 killed. There must be more focus on helping the refugees and those who are internally displaced, I counselled. More tents, more food, more clothing, more medical supplies. The items may not bring an end to fighting, but they could make a real contribution to ensuring that in these dark times for Syria, those who have escaped immediate danger don't succumb to the elements.

The UAE, I am pleased and proud to note, has already made a significant contribution to the relief programme. There's been a steady flow of tents, food supplies, medical equipment and health care teams and, a couple of weeks from now, a new refugee camp is due to open in Jordan, fully funded by the UAE, that will be able to accommodate around 6,000 people in prefabricated homes. Other countries must follow suit.

It's cold here this winter - but that's not going to cause misery and death. I wish that were the case inside Syria and along its borders.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture

Editor's note: due to a production error, an earlier version of this story referred to the temperature as "below 20 decrees", rather than "below 5 degrees".