Hoping for the best in Syria – and making the most of a ceasefire

by 03rd Feb 2016
Syrian refugees being transferred from the Syrian-Jordanian border Syrian refugees being transferred from the Syrian-Jordanian border

I met several Syrians in Jordan and Turkey during a recent visit (mid-January). All of them said they just wanted the war and the violence to stop so they could go home. Some were more hopeful than others that this would happen soon. But that’s what they all wanted.

So, what if we try to be a bit optimistic. Are we ready to respond if we get what we’re asking for?

Peace within reach?

In a notable breakthrough of the Syria peace talks in Vienna in November, the International Syria Support Group agreed to convene the Government of Syria (GoS) and opposition representatives in formal negotiations under the auspices of the UN. The Support Group, made up of virtually every direct and indirect foreign state participant in the Syrian civil war, has aspired to find a solution to the destabilising Syrian civil war, and progress has increasingly appeared to be within reach. The current timeline for the peace plan agreed to by the International Syria Support Group, and endorsed by the UN Security Council in December, is:

  • By 14 May 2016, a ceasefire between the GoS and opposition groups will come into force, allowing the process for drafting a new constitution to begin.
  • By 14 May 2017, UN-administered free elections will be held under the new constitution, ushering in a new government and, hopefully, bringing an end to fighting in the country.

Helping the hard to reach

If there is a ceasefire in May 2016, it should become much easier to help the 13.5 million people still inside Syria and affected by the war, including 3.7 million women, 6 million girls and boys, and 1.5 million people with disabilities. 250,000 people have been killed and over one million injured with adult men being most affected. In particular, a ceasefire should bring an end to the sieges and make it easier to reach more of the 4.5 million people in the hardest to reach parts of the country.

How should we do that? The obvious answer might sound like the UN and aid charities need to be ready to send in hundreds or thousands of staff to start giving all of the help that they’ve not been able to give in the past. But the obvious answer might be wrong.

Supporting local organisations

In fact, charities have had to find other ways to help people inside Syria during five years of war. And this has largely depended on supporting local organisations inside Syria. Some of these were existing organisations. Many are new. And increasingly, some of these local organisations are run by and for women, not just by men.

In Turkey last week, I met four of the local organisations that CARE supports to work inside Syria. I met a Syrian doctor who still spends about half of his time going into Syria and running a field hospital in Aleppo, in the basement of a building, so that they can keep working despite being bombed twice over Christmas. One of our partners focuses on delivering food vouchers to families inside Syria, which they can use in Syrian shops. Between them all, they have some 2,000 Syrian staff working inside Syria, helping their communities survive the intensifying war.

Helping people who used to have very different jobs in the old Syria to set up new local aid organisations in a war zone has not been easy, especially for them. But they have risen to the challenge. So, if peace breaks out, should we stop supporting them just because it might be easier for us to do it ourselves again? I don’t think so.

Investing in local capacity

As the World Humanitarian Summit will declare in Turkey in May this year, local organisations are always the first responders to humanitarian disasters and sustainable development is about investing in their ability and capacity. The idea is to sustainably reduce the amount of external help people need.

Having achieved something in Syria by supporting this local capacity, let’s not undo it. So, instead of expecting a ceasefire to mean we want lots of foreign aid workers inside Syria, let’s start planning for how we can help those local organisations adapt to a ceasefire and start to help more and more of their fellow Syrians.

A sustainable long-term strategy

This is definitely a more sustainable long-term strategy. It’s also likely to be more effective in the very short term, if we plan for it now. In addition, it can be a way to employ well-educated and highly skilled Syrians who have lost their former livelihoods, and avoid the situation we have seen in some countries where donors and NGOs find themselves hiring local doctors as drivers.

It is also of course an opportunity for Syrian refugees who want to return quickly and help with the immediate rebuilding of their country. That is such a better peace to build, than to disempower Syrians just as they get their country back.

Laurie Lee

I joined CARE in August 2014, because I believe strongly in our focus on economic development, gender equality and people holding governments accountable. My focus at CARE is on ensuring we have the best people to do the job we do, to support our teams on the ground in over 70 developing countries, and to ensure we continuously improve our ability to monitor the impact of our work, and learn how to do it even better.  

Prior to CARE I worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for seven years, advising them on development policy issues in Europe and Africa. Before that I worked for the British government. I managed British development programmes in South Africa and Afghanistan. He worked in 10 Downing Street to prepare the G8 Gleneagles Summit on Africa in 2005. And I ran the DFID Trade Policy Unit until 2008.

One good thing I've read

One of CARE’s goals is to help the 2 billion people – including 1.1 billion women – without access to financial services, to get them. This great and easy book, Portfolios of the poor: How the world's poor live on $2 a day, by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford and Orlanda Ruthven, explains why there’s no such thing as living 'hand to mouth'. The poorer you are, the more you need financial management tools.

Email: Lee@careinternational.org

Twitter: @lauriejlee