The Humanitarian Effectiveness Project

Download the essay ‘‘No voice can be heard above the gunfire’: Protection, partnerships and politicking in the Syrian Civil War’, by Jessica Field

The humanitarian context of the Syrian Arab Republic and the civil war

Constitutionally a semi-presidential republic, Syria is a closed authoritarian regime ruled by President Bashar al-Assad since 2000 and, before that from 1970, his father Hafez al-Assad. Inspired by a series of pro-democracy protests in countries throughout the Middle East from late 2010, known as the ‘Arab Spring’, many Syrians began taking to the streets calling for regime change. In March 2011, non-violent, pro-democracy protests erupted in the southern city of Deraa in response to the arrest and torture of school children for painting revolutionary graffiti. These protests were met with violent repression as government security forces opened fire on demonstrators, catalysing nationwide protests demanding Assad’s resignation, which were in turn violently crushed. The escalating violence rapidly disintegrated into a civil war as rebel brigades formed to battle government forces across the country. By 2013 there were thought to be as many as 1,000 armed opposition groups fighting inside Syria. These groups are diffuse, varied in mission and method. Some are supported financially and militarily by a range of different international powers, including Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. A few high-profile groups, including Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, have adopted terrorism and jihadist insurgency tactics, recruited foreign fighters, and undertaken high-profile attacks and executions. On the diplomatic front, frequent national and international attempts to consolidate a legitimate and strong political opposition, or broker peace have consistently failed.

In January 2013, six months after the conflict was formally declared a civil war, the Syria crisis was confirmed as a level three (the highest ranking) humanitarian emergency, which resulted in the largest ever appeal launched by the United Nations. Mortality rates and numbers of those affected and displaced are extremely difficult to determine and verify, not least due to security and access issues and concerns over the manipulation of statistics. Nevertheless, the current number of people killed in Syria is estimated to be over 250,000, which includes at least 10,000 children. OCHA states that 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance – 6 million of whom are children and 1.5 million of whom have a disability. Over 4.8 million have fled the country, with the majority pouring into the neighbouring countries of Turkey (2.7m), Lebanon (1.1m) and Jordan (0.64m) – triggering a regional refugee crisis. The number of those internally displaced is estimated at over 6.6m and those designated as ‘hard to reach’ or besieged at 4.5 million. It is also thought that 8.7 million people are unable to meet their daily food needs, that 70% of the population are without safe access to drinking water, and that 5.3 million people are in need of shelter. This is in part owing to the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure – which has included attacks on, and military use of, schools, hospitals, economic assets and water networks. There has been a fundamental disregard of human rights by all parties to the conflict, with attacks on civilians – including aerial bombardments and starvation through besiegement – being used as tactics of war.

The UN’s Strategic Response Plan for Syria offers a programmatic framework for addressing the key humanitarian issues arising from the crisis. The plan emphasises multi-sectoral programming focused on the most vulnerable groups, and calls for increased flexibility in humanitarian programming and improved humanitarian access. It also aims to mainstream protection work, focus on emergency response preparedness, and ensure the strategic use of country-based pooled funds. However, a core difficulty in meeting these aims is a chronic funding gap, which is forcing agencies to scale down programming. Funds requested for the Syria Humanitarian Response Plan in 2015 were US$2.9bn, only 43% of which were met. This shortfall was echoed for the Syria Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan, which required $4.3bn and received just $2.8bn. With these severe funding shortfalls and the absence of a viable political solution on the table, the humanitarian outlook for Syria in 2016 remains dire.

Last updated May 2016.

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