An overlooked aspect of the civil war in Syria is the massive displacement of civilians. A recent report published by The Brookings Institution notes that the number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) has gone beyond 4.2 million and another 2 million Syrians are refugees in neighboring countries. The U.N. estimates the number of refugees will increase to almost 3.5 million by the end of this year. This means a third of Syria’s population is forced to live outside their own communities. The failure of the involved parties and the international community to bring the civil war to an end is likely to aggravate the current situation. The sufferings of IDPs, refugees and the larger civilian population in Syria are likely to worsen for a number of reasons. Greater international coordination and commitment in support of expanding humanitarian assistance might just help soften some of the pain and suffering.
The first consequence of the deal reached between the U.S. and Russia to disarm Syria from its chemical weapons has been the unintended renewal of the violence between Bashir al-Assad’s forces and the opposition. The Syrian regime not only perceived the U.S.-Russia deal as a diplomatic victory brought by their Russian allies, but also saw it as an opportunity to increase attacks on the opposition.
For example, immediately following the deal, Assad’s forces conducted air strikes, shelling, and ground assaults against outlying neighborhoods of Damascus; not only provoking death and destruction, but also forcing civilians to flee their homes. All the indications suggest that the Syrian regime remains emboldened by the U.S.-Russian deal to continue to use violence short of chemical weapons.
Another unintended consequence of the U.S.-Russian deal is the manner in which it has led to a surge in violence between opposition groups. Developing a united opposition has always been a challenge in Syria. The deal, however, appears to have made the divisions between opposition groups more violent. Opposition groups and rebel leaders were disappointed in the deal and clearly saw it as a form of recognition of the legitimacy of the regime. Following the deal, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) squared off against the Free Syrian Army in the northern border town of Azaz and seized the town. In addition, the ongoing fight between armed Kurdish group People’s Protection Units (YPG), and Sunni groups intensified around Ras-al-Ain and the Northern Syria region. While Assad’s forces withdrew from Northern Syria in 2012, the clashes between Jihadists and the Kurdish armed opposition as well as power struggles between Democratic Union Party (PYD) and other Kurdish groups forced some 60,000 Kurds to flee the region and seek refuge in Northern Iraq in August. Increasing violence among opposition groups is likely to continue to aggravate the displacement in Syria.
It is not only intra-opposition violence, but also the suppression of the civilian population and interruption of humanitarian assistance by some of the opposition groups that contribute to the further displacement of the population. Media reports indicate that radical Sunni opposition is forcing Sharia law in the areas they control, and they enforce it with beatings as well as killings. Regarding the violence perpetuated by the armed opposition groups towards civilians, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic in a report from September 2012 stated these groups also take part in war crimes and, “continue to endanger the civilian population by positioning military objectives in civilian areas.” There are also growing reports of looting, pillaging, and murder—combined with disregard for basic humanitarian principles and human rights—that further aggravates the displacement of the civilians.
Without a resolution of the causes driving the violence in Syria, it is difficult to expect an end to the sufferings of civilians and a solution to the displacement problem. In anticipation of this reality, the UN has put into place the Syria Regional Humanitarian and Refugee Response Plan and stated the need to raise over $4.2 billion from the international community — of which 50 percent have been funded. This is not a terribly bad level of funding, however, given the deteriorating situation on the ground, the international community needs to increase its input. So far the cost of receiving refugees and ensuring their protection has been borne by neighboring countries. Turkey spent more than $2 billion to host Syrian refugees, followed by Lebanon and Jordan’s spending of another $2 billion. However, there are worries that Lebanon and Jordan are overstretched administratively and politically, endangering their internal stability. The Turkish government also feels hard pressed as the numbers of refugees and displaced people across from its border keep increasing.
Both the international community and the countries hosting the refugees should recognize the Syrian displacement crisis is likely to stay, if not increase, in the near future. The turn of events since the use of chemical weapons late in August suggests that a diplomatic, military or political resolution of the Syrian crisis is not imminent. As the Brookings Report points out, countries beyond the traditional Western donors, such as Non-Aligned countries and especially emerging economies, will need to participate in these funding efforts. There is also the need to put greater international pressure on the parties in Syria to respect humanitarian principles as well as international law – facilitating humanitarian assistance to civilians where possible. The U.N. Security Council’s statement on Oct. 2 draws attention to these issues is a late but modest step in the right direction with respect to the international community’s responsibilities to the sufferings of Syrians.