Syria: Preserving humanity after twelve years of failure
George Graham, Chief Executive of Humanity & Inclusion UK, explains how for twelve years, Syrians living in extreme need have survived in the face of the international community’s complete failure to uphold fundamental humanitarian principles.
At the heart of humanitarian action are the principles of ‘humanity’ and ‘impartiality’. Humanity is the idea that everyone should be treated humanely and equally in all circumstances by saving lives and alleviating suffering. It is the driving instinct behind every humanitarian response. Impartiality is the idea that there should be no discrimination on any basis; instead, aid should be provided simply in accordance with needs.
Try telling that to the people of Syria. For twelve years, Syrians living in extreme need have survived in the face of the international community’s complete failure to uphold these fundamental ideas.
Khaled (4 years old) lives in Zarqa, Jordan with his older sister Sheima (13y.) and their parents, who fled Syria in 2013. Born in Jordan, Khaled receives support from Yasmeen, a CBR project volunteer, for his cognitive impairment. He should soon be able to start school.
The provision of aid in Syria has been endlessly politicised. The Damascus government clearly has little interest in supporting people living in areas controlled by groups that oppose it. Western governments are keener, but their aid is dependent on the UN Security Council renewing authorisation of the use the main border crossing from Turkey – a process that takes place every six months amid tension, grandstanding and extreme uncertainty for the people whose lives depend on the decision. On top of this, the sanctions that have been imposed on Syria have a chilling effect on organisations’ willingness to provide support.
Last month’s earthquake turned this already terrible situation into a catastrophe.
The UN estimates the death toll from the earthquake in Syria at over 4,500, with nearly 9,000 injured. More than 10,000 buildings have been partially or fully damaged. The health system, which had already endured years of bombing, has suffered yet more destruction and is overwhelmed by the scale of needs: in addition to crush injuries, amputations and widespread trauma, the region is also facing a severe outbreak of cholera.
Awatef Shamiyeh was injured in the earthquake of 6 February 2023. Only 8 years’ old, she has limited range of motion in her knee, caused by wrong positioning and trauma on her thigh from injuries sustained during the earthquake.
The politics means that access to affected areas is difficult and requires constant negotiation. Shockingly, a whole week passed between the initial call for life-saving equipment and its eventual delivery. The earthquake has exposed how inadequate and ineffective the agreements that in theory enable aid delivery in Syria are in practice.
The politicisation of aid is not new, but the scale of its impact in Syria is especially affronting.
Yet the humanitarian impulse is a universal one. The underlying premise of what humanitarians are trying to do – that is, to meet people in need on the basis of that need alone – is an ambition shared by people across the world, regardless of their ideology, religion or other affinity. This is demonstrated by the huge numbers of local people in Syria responding to the crisis, some working for formal aid groups with others offering more ad hoc support. All are motivated by a desire to do what they can to assist others.
Moreover, they are being supported by literally millions of people around the world, whose contributions make it possible for charities like Humanity & Inclusion to provide desperately needed resources and specialist expertise. Overall, the world is doing far too little to help Syrians in this dreadful situation, but the generosity of donors in countries like the UK is enabling people in Syria to deliver life-changing and life-saving aid for the most vulnerable people. That’s what humanity looks like.
It would help if political actors made more effort to nurture and promote these values. In the short term, they could do this by leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to get more aid and personnel into affected areas in Syria, whether by opening additional border crossings, facilitating convoys or raising substantially more funding.
In the long term, they could help the people of Syria and in every country affected by crisis or disaster by confidently championing an idea of humanitarianism rooted not in the specifics of one particular culture or set of political priorities, but, rather, in what we all have in common as human beings. That is, of humanitarianism as a genuinely universal enterprise and a practical expression of humanity at its best.