Indications have started to emerge that the impetus to assist may be fading as this three-year war continues without signs of a resolution.
The civil war in Syria has ballooned into a humanitarian crisis of historical proportions. As reported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, 9.3 million people are currently in need of humanitarian assistance in the war torn nation, with 6.5 million displaced from their homes within Syrian borders.
Another 2.4 million are displaced in neighboring nations, with minimal shelter, inadequate clothing and limited heating and food as winter’s cold rips through the upper Middle East.
Despite pledges to help, indications have started to emerge that the impetus to assist may be fading as this three-year war continues without indication of a potential resolution. With only 70 percent of the $1.5 billion pledged last year actually reaching U.N. coffers, there is a legitimate fear of donor fatigue in a conflict in which U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos has categorized all the combatants as having shown “total disregard for their responsibilities under international humanitarian and human rights law.”
This concern comes at a time when the U.S. — the leading provider of humanitarian aid to Syria — has moved to suspend all non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. This move — which the State Department has insisted is temporary — is based on the reality that the various rebel groups are fighting each other.
In December, the Islamic Front — a coalition of Islamist fighters that have broken from the American-supported opposition but is still fighting al-Qaida — seized warehouses storing U.S. supplied equipment.
This and similar events have forced some Assad-opposed nations to reassess the question of security concerns in Syria.
The growing humanitarian crisis
Despite this, the realities of those victimized — the refugees — are startling and dark. In a situation that threatens to economically sink not only Syria, but the majority of the Middle East, Syria’s growing refugee situation has grown to a problem that is spiraling out of control.
According to videos provided by local activists, 13 children have died from exposure to the cold. Such images of children being forced to face sub-zero temperatures in t-shirts and sandals leaves a striking image of the conditions in the refugee camps. The U.N. estimates that donations only meet 38 percent of the need, leaving many without adequate food or heat.
Worse, some nations have been criticized for having taken a “not-my-problem” attitude to the refugee crisis. For example, while the U.K. has offered $820 million in humanitarian aid to the Syrian refugees, it has effectively rejected the call to take in Syrians for resettlement. While the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and many members of the European Union consented to the call, the U.K. called the idea “tokenistic,” limiting its intake to just 1,500 refugees. the EU has taken in 12,340 refugees, with Germany receiving 10,000 by itself.
This, according to Amnesty International’s briefing “An International Failure: The Syrian Refugee Crisis,” represents only 0.5 percent of the refugees that have fled Syria since the beginning of the war.
The EU “has miserably failed to play its part in providing a safe haven to the refugees who have lost all but their lives,” said Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International. “The number of those it’s prepared to resettle is truly pitiful. Across the board European leaders should hang their heads in shame.”
In response to the expanding humanitarian disaster, the U.N. has launched its largest humanitarian aid appeal, with a requested $6.5 billion. The international diplomacy body has projected that the fighting has reversed Syrian development by more than 35 years with more than half of the nation’s populace living in poverty.
The U.S. has announced it will contribute $380 million to the appeal, bringing the nation’s humanitarian aid to Syria since the beginning of the war to over $1.7 billion. The U.S. contribution would include more than $177 million to improve access to emergency medical care, sanitation and hygiene for the displaced within Syria. The U.S. has also pledged more than $76 million to Lebanon, more than $61 million to Jordan, nearly $31 million to Turkey, approximately $20 million to Iraq, and more than $12 million to Egypt to assist the refugees that are being hosted by these nations.
Kuwait has taken the lead in pledges, with $500 million in new contributions offered. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have offered $60 million each. The EU pledged $225 million and the U.K. offered $165 million. Norway, Luxembourg and Iraq have also made pledges.
A war spun out-of-control
According to published reports from the Wall Street Journal and the BBC, agents from the European intelligence agencies have met with the Syrian regime in the first such meeting since the withdrawal of their embassies at the beginning of the war. It has been alleged that the agents — which includes members of the French, German and Spanish intelligence agencies and British MI-6 — shared information concerning European jihadists operating in Syria.
The Western powers — while supporting the Assad opposition by rhetoric — have grown concerned with the power vacuum that is forming in rebel-held regions. The confluence of a surge in the number of foreign Islamist militants engaged in the fighting and the continual infighting among the rebel forces have created a situation in which al-Qaida-aligned groups have been able to exploit.
“They are Muslims from the U.K. who are collecting funds from well-wishers and people who wish to assist the Syrian refugees,” defense consultant Moeen Raoof told RT. “They are collecting a lot of money from individuals, buying ambulances and also medicine and other aid items, for example clothes, baby milk powder, and driving in convoys to Turkey. And we know for a fact that the northern part of Syria is controlled by the terrorists. So all the aid going through Turkey is actually being handed over to the terrorists and not to Syrian people everywhere on an equal basis.”
The U.S. has indicated that it knows nothing of these talks.
Furthermore, the rapidly-shifting alliances of the multi-faceted rebel front has brought some of the Islamists back alongside the Free Syrian Army, easing some of the hesitations the U.S. has on renewing non-lethal aid.
The U.S. is attempting to restore the image of American support in light of threats of the opposition groups boycotting a planned Jan. 22 peace conference. The rebels feel that any efforts to negotiate with Assad would discredit them and would only serve Assad’s goals. With the moderates currently engaged toward eliminating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to the north, many can argue that the rebels are currently fighting Assad’s fight for him. While it is commonly felt that the ISIS threat must be met, doing so significantly spends the rebel’s war capital.
The opposition has announced that they will decide on Jan. 17 if they will attend the conference. But after a series of rebel stronghold losses at the hand of the Syrian army, the opposition has little incentive to involve itself with the process, particularly, since Damascus has already rejected the opposition’s primary demand: that Assad will not be involved with the transitional government.
“The larger questions are: What is the strategy for making the conference itself successful? And how do the meetings in Switzerland serve an overall strategy for Syria?” said Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department official. “Just getting people to sit down and talk is too low a bar for success. It’s almost subterranean.”
The administration has announced its wishes to funnel aid exclusively to the Supreme Military Council, which represents the moderate, secular Syrian opposition. However, the administration admits that it would be difficult or impossible to avoid funding to the extremist Islamic Front.
“You have to take into account questions of how the S.M.C. and the Islamic Front are interacting on the ground,” a senior administration official said to the New York Times, adding, “There’s no way to say 100 percent that it would not end up in the hands of the Islamic Front.”
The Islamic Front, which represents a half-dozen rebel groups, seeks the creation of an Orthodox Islamic state in Syria. The U.S. and its Western European allies favor Syria remaining intact as a secular state with the Assad administration removed. With the Free Syrian Army effectively sidelined, Assad-aligned forces currently having the momentum and the Islamic Front more-or-less a loose cannon, the current situation has solicited less than perfect confidence.