The self-immolation symbolic suicide on March 15, 2011 protested a blatant lack of rights delivery by state authority. This sparked the public collective articulation of perceived injustices committed by state. The event started the Syrian conflict, which has become one of the most serious humanitarian crises requiring the biggest UN-led humanitarian assistance in the history of the organization.
The inequalities between Sunni, the largest ethnic group in Syria making up 64% of the population, and Alawi, a specific branch of Shia Islam ruling the country, escalated to riots and protests because of the tensions created through a mobilization of political and religious identities. The war in Syria has reached its eight year and has caused half a million casualties and provoked an unprecedented humanitarian crisis: 13.1 million people require humanitarian assistance including over 2 million people in hard-to-reach areas where they are exposed to serious life threats.
The Syrian war is commonly portrayed as a result of a historically embedded hatred spread between the Sunni majority and Shia minority living in the country. Even though the Syrian government portrays the conflict as sectarian and deeply embedded in the historical context, it seems that the myths of Sunni-Shia hostility have been reinvented and passed down from generation to generation as a part of a specific political agenda of the ruling elite. The scope of the conflict has surpassed any expectations and its consequences ruin both the current Syrian government and the country’s civil society. Under the heavy US sanctions, the Syrian government was supposed to collapse and surrender.However, Bashar al-Assad’s regime showed itself as incredibly resilient and determined to survive: The government thrives thanks to military and economic assistance from allies such as Iran, Russia or Hezbollah.
But the blame should also be put on the UN-led humanitarian effort since the money and resources sent to Syria are captured and used by the government for its own military purposes. Assad regime took control of the $30 billion international humanitarian response, hijacked the data on the use of humanitarian aid and started to blame humanitarian workers of undertaking terrorist activities in the country. However, to understand the current situation, one must go back to its historical origins and focus primarily on how has the ancient myth of hatred between the two Islamic branches been integrated into political discourses.
Colonial History and Sectarian Divisions
The polarization of the Syrian society began while Syria was part of the French colonies: the French Status Law from 1925 divided the population into two categories – the Sunni majority and the Shia minority. The French have deliberately encouraged sectarianism to “divide and conquer”. The use of sectarianism has been perpetuated by other political actors and reemerged as particularly strong under the Hafez al-Assad administration. November 1970 marked the venue of Alawi to power – Hafez al-Assad overthrew Jadid and surrounded himself with powerful Alwai figures and especially with members of its own family. Unlike its Iraqi counterpart Saddam, Hafaez al-Assad prioritized Sunni culture but the inequalities between different Muslim communities were more and more blatant. In fact, the perceived empowerment of Alawi connected sects to politics like never before and different political entities made use of this new ethno-political identities for their own agenda.
When Hafez’s son, Bashar, took power in June 2000 he removed many of his father’s supporters and made the governmental apparatus even more Alawi-dominated. After the regime’s accusation of assassinating Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafiq al-Harir, Syria faced strict US sanctions which, combined with the external circumstances of Iraq’s civil war, deteriorated the state’s economy and the people’s living conditions. Assad’s administration continued the trend launched by his father of ostensibly denying sectarian differences while reinforcing their political importance as a means to maintain power. The Syrian government now makes an abusive use of the UN resolution 46/182 which clarifies under which conditions humanitarian aid should be delivered. Indeed, the resolution stipulates that, despite the presence of humanitarian workers, the state’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected. This allows the Assad regime to manipulate the UN and maintain its political power by preventing the UN agencies to monitor the situation in the country.
Humanitarian Aid within the Syrian Civil War
The UN-led humanitarian aid sent to Syria has been the most important one since the birth of the Organization. In the first year of the conflict the UN provided more than $2.8 billion in emergency food assistance for the Syria crisis. The conflict deteriorated state’s economy provoking widespread displacement, disrupted markets and transport systems and damaged agricultural infrastructure which led to large-scale food insecurity throughout Syria. The 2017 data show that 6.5 million people in Syria are food insecure and about four million people were at risk to become so. The prices of food in Syria have skyrocketed since the beginning of the conflict – basic nutrients such as bread is now eight times more expensive. In fact, seven out of ten Syrians live in extreme poverty.
By consequence, the civilians decided to migrate to neighboring countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey or Egypt. In fact, around 5.6 million refugees have fled Syria and installed abroad hoping to escape the war horrors and improve their living conditions. Yet, in many host countries Syrian refugees lack legal livelihood opportunities and depend on emergency food assistance. The protracted Syrian conflict places an enormous cost on the surrounding countries which themselves require humanitarian aid. Even though the UN-led humanitarian aid is the largest in its history, it falls short to meet people’s needs since the resources are captured by both the Assad regime and the terrorist organizations operating on the Syrian soil. The government’s ability to hijack the most expensive humanitarian effort is alarming and signals a need for the UN to reform its system for providing aid.
The UN-led humanitarian efforts are seriously undermined by the claim of sovereignty made by the Assad regime. The government interprets the UN resolution as they please: Assad regime interfered directly with UN agencies assessments of what aid was needed and to whom it was delivered. Several Syrian governors underestimated both the extent and urgency of humanitarian assistance needed in the country. Taking states prerogatives to their extreme, the government hampers UN-led humanitarian efforts by imposing administrative and political obstacles denying access for assistance. Throughout 2015, only 23% of UN convoy requests received administrative approval, and less than half of those were able to proceed since the government refused to give the UN workers security clearances. The claim of sovereignty restricts UN-led humanitarian assistance since the workers are viewed as illegitimate actors, their resources are being captured and unequally redistributed by the government.
The clash between Syrian government and UN aid workers reached its apex with the regime’s labeling of Syria Civil Defense rescue workers as “terrorists” and deliberately targeting them in ‘two-tap’ air strikes. The UN-led humanitarian efforts have fallen significantly short of meeting population needs as well as the possibility of countering jihadism in the country. The international humanitarian aid system emerges as key vehicle by which the terrorist organizations operating in the country have reaffirmed their claims on state’s sovereignty. The Syrian conflict is a very topical matter since the war has sparked one of the most serious refugee crises which deteriorated the stability in the Middle East. The protracted conflict reveals UN inability to counter terrorism and insecurity in the member’s countries. The situation illustrates the structural problem of the UN and the impossibility of the Organization to take effective enforcement measures in order to protect the citizens of the world. It is important to ensure humanitarian aid mostly for the refugees and the victims of the conflict. By consequence, letting humanitarian workers enter the Syrian soil can also help the UN to gather evidence of the ongoing war crimes in the country. It is crucial to make sure that external impartial actors enter the soil in order to report on the current situation in the country.
The UN needs to find new legal solutions (such as resolutions) which would prevent the Syrian government from misusing the humanitarian aid and preventing its population from receiving essential needs for survival. The truth is that the UN hands are tight since no current legal measure allow the Organization to change the Assad regime’s attitude which signals the urge of finding new enforcement measures when it comes to receiving humanitarian aid. By consequence, it is also important to find less formal strategies which would push the regime to negotiate with the opposition in order to end the conflict and set the basis for a more sustainable and egalitarian political future. The role of NGOs and the possibility of ending the conflict via their engagement should be taken into account by the UN in order to address the Syrian protracted conflict.
The international community, an Assad’s ally?
The international community has been accused of being complicit in legitimizing Assad’s sovereignty claims since the UN agencies allowed the Syrian government to dictate and manipulate the UN data on the number of besieged people. It seems that the UN tries to cover their own responsibility for the humanitarian disaster by revealing surprisingly optimistic estimates on the success of the humanitarian aid delivery. Besides the cooperation with the local relief organization Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARC), the UN agencies have not fully disclosed to which agencies they were brought into relationship with. Yet, this information is crucial since some of the local organization are clearly supporting Assad’s regime such as the Syria Trust for Development. A large number of agencies dedicate their work to the Syrian government claiming that they support “martyr families” which is a reference to the families of those killed by regime troops.
Moreover, the UN body for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) under-reported the scope and severity of needs in Syria to cover for the UN failed humanitarian assistance. In February 2015, the UN Secretary General used OCHA statistics reporting that there were 11 besieged areas in Syria with a combined affected population of 212, 000. This figure is challenged by the data collected by the Syrian American Medical Society which found that for the same period there were additional 38 communities to be under siege with an affected population of 640,200 people. While OCHA reported that the Syrian government besieged 87.5% of these people, the Syrian American Medical Society estimated that it was actually 95%. Different NGO’s such as Siege Watch, the Dutch peace organization PAX and the Syrian Institute claimed that they found alarming discrepancies between the UN data and the independent agencies. The international community is indeed accused of compromising their own values since the UN accepts to deliver humanitarian aid even though there is no independence nor impartiality in the access to the humanitarian assistance.
The potential ending of the protracted Syrian conflict is complicated by the fact that the war has become a proxy war meaning that states aid, financially or militarily, non-state proxies to fight against a common adversary. The proxy war aspect has involved an incredibly extended number of actors in the conflict. A lot of states have been sponsoring different rebel groups hoping to strengthen the opposition and weaken the Assad regime. However, the strategy has backfired and empowered radical fundamentalist groups provoking even more violence and bloodshot in the conflict. The geopolitical claims are highly polarized but the majority of the involved actors wants to protect their own interests.
To end the conflict, all interests need to be satisfied but because of the extended scope of interest, this seems like an impossible task to achieve. The first step in ending the conflict is to guarantee a safe access to humanitarian workers -workers should establish links with the locals and engage them in the aid distribution. The humanitarian organizations should take into account extra supplies as a payoff for the IS and the UN should address the Syrian’s manipulation and instrumentalization of nominal state sovereignty (respectively its misuse of the UN resolution 46/182).
To heal the Syrian society the links between the Sunni majority and the Alawi Shia minority should be re-established. The manipulation of sub-state identities from the very beginning of the conflict exacerbates the situation in Syria. Therefore, the narrative must be reviewed in order to cease the hatred among populations. The help of third-party actors, and especially religious leaders, should enable to gap the bridge between Sunni and Alawi Shia branch. The potential negotiations should focus primarily on establishing a more inclusive rhetoric that would enable both communities to focus on their religious similarities rather than differences that drive them apart.
Finally, the domestic as well as international elites have politicized Syrian’s identities for their own ends which now ruins the possibility of mediation between the terrorist organizations and eventual peacemakers. To stop labeling the conflict as sectarian can help to bring the terrorist organizations to the table of negotiations.
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