x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

There is only one certainty in Syria: worse is still to come

Syria's humanitarian crisis will continue, even if hostilities in the nation end now. As ever, it is the most vulnerable who are bearing the brunt.

Commenting on my column last Saturday on the passing of Nelson Mandela, a friend of mine wrote, succinctly: “Now we need more Mandelas.” Yes, indeed. Perhaps nowhere in the world needs such a visionary and inspiring leader as much as the Middle East, someone who can bring hope to the desperate, who can bring peace out of conflict and who can offer the choice of reconciliation rather than a continued process of devastation and destruction.

I’ve written before of the politics of the brutal civil war in Syria and have little to add today to what I’ve said previously. Instead, I shall focus on humanitarian aspects of the crisis, using figures collected together by the UAE mission at the United Nations.

It’s estimated that around 125,000 people have died as a direct result of the violence. In comparison, there are believed to have been around 200,000 deaths from chronic diseases, thanks to the collapse of medical services – in particular due to the breakdown of the pharmaceutical distribution system.

Following the outbreak of polio a few weeks ago, around 500,000 Syrian children are deemed to be at high risk, because they haven’t been vaccinated. Many are in areas which, thanks to the fighting, there is no access for humanitarian relief. It’s not clear, anyway, that there are enough high-quality polio vaccination stocks to go around. The threat of an epidemic of a disease once thought to have been nearly vanquished is growing, threatening as many as 20 million children in seven countries across the region.

Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, had 5,000 doctors before the conflict began. Earlier this year, the number had fallen to 36, and is likely to be even lower now.

More than one million refugee children and more than a million more inside Syria lack access to basic education, raising the spectre of a “lost generation” condemned to grow up without access to proper schooling.

This year’s harvest was the worst in 30 years, as farmers have been unable to cultivate the land. A particularly harsh winter has also been forecast. One in five Syrian families lack any food in their homes for up to seven days a month.

Inside Syria, 6.5 million people have been displaced, more than three times the number last winter, Around 9.3 million people, or 40 per cent of the population, are in need of aid. Of these, 2.5 million are beyond the reach of humanitarian assistance because of the security situation. Two million of these have not been reached for a whole year, because of instability, the besieging of neighbourhoods by regime forces and restrictions by government on convoys carrying humanitarian relief.

Outside the country, there were around 2.2 million refugees by early last month, with the number expected to reach 3.5 million by the end of December, according to UN estimates.

Of these, over 810,000 are in Lebanon, 81 per cent of them being women and children, representing almost a quarter of Lebanon’s current population. Its economy is on the verge of collapse. More than half a million more are in each of Turkey and Jordan. Another 200,000 in Iraq and 125,000 in Egypt, while many thousands of others have fled further afield.

To tackle the situation, the United Nations has made its largest-ever appeal for humanitarian assistance, for US$4.4 billion – and has, thus far, received only 54 per cent of the money that is required. The need continues to rise daily, as do the numbers of those who are refugees and who are internally displaced.

Even if there were to be an immediate end to the conflict, it will take years for the devastating humanitarian impact on Syria and its people, as well as on its neighbours, to be repaired. Many of those who have left may never return to their homes.

Diplomatic progress towards a cessation of the fighting is, at best, negligible as external powers pursue their own objectives and rabid dogs pursuing a goal derived on the perversion of religious values rampage amid the ruins. Syria has been destroyed, while the fighting continues over the rubble of its infrastructure.

Where, indeed, is there an Arab Mandela, with the vision and the stature to provide the leadership that is required to bring this tragedy to an end?

None is to be found, as the humanitarian crisis continues, inexorably, to unfold. Yet worse, I fear, is still to come.

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