#SupportingSyrians or #FailingSyrians? – What next after the London Conference on Syria

by 12th Feb 2016
Syrians waiting for their initial interviews to register for assistance from CARE (photo taken in Jordan, February 2014) Syrians waiting for their initial interviews to register for assistance from CARE (photo taken in Jordan, February 2014)

This week, days on from the #SupportingSyrians Conference, and like everyone else, I watched the news to see the devastation caused as Syrian regime and Russian airstrikes rained down on civilians in the Aleppo region and 35,000 people fled to the border with Turkey. Ten billion dollars pledged by world leaders, yet where are these leaders as Syrians cry out for protection from the violence? In the words of one Syrian activist last week, “What use is funding if the sieges prevent aid reaching those trapped inside and starving to death? What use is funding if our health clinics are bombed to the ground? What use is support for schools if barrel bombs fall on our children?”

So what next? Here are three ideas:

We need to shift away from quiet advocacy to mobilise public outrage at violence against civilians; using the World Humanitarian Summit and every other opportunity to build a solidarity movement against atrocities in Syria

We have all seen the images of children starving to death in Madaya and other besieged areas across Syria. What is not generally shown is how at the same time that those people starve to death, and they continue to do so despite the convoy which got through a week ago, people are fine-dining and sipping on cocktails a half hour drive away at the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus. Syria is a protection crisis, above all else. It’s not a lack of food or water, it’s a combination of deliberate blocking of aid and a lack of political will or action to challenge that blockade. The #SupportingSyrians conference provided much more of a platform for activists to share these demands than previous donor conferences in Kuwait over recent years, which must be acknowledged.

So what can be done? Syrian human rights activists call for the imposition of a ‘no fly zone’ and safe havens to prevent the attacks by the Assad regime and its allies on civilians. Anything to stem the violence. They call on the UN to defy armed groups and send convoys into areas under siege backed by UN blue helmets. An assessment of such military options goes beyond the expertise of a humanitarian agency like CARE International. However, we can and should work with others to generate a much greater level of popular outrage at what’s happening inside Syria. In 2013, I myself worked briefly in the CARE New York office lobbying for the first UN Security Council presidential statement on the protection of civilians inside Syria. It seemed like a victory for advocacy at the time. How wrong we were. Since then, resolution after resolution condemning the atrocities and calling for respect of international humanitarian law (IHL) has been issued by the world’s most powerful nations to almost zero effect.
To secure more robust action on protection, we need to raise the political cost of inaction. And to do this, we need to mobilise the public. It is ultimately voter opinion, not technical policy analysis, private briefings or even UN Security Council resolutions, which motivates elected politicians. One opportunity for doing so on a global level could be the UN World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), 23rd -24th May in Turkey. Until now the WHS conversation has focused too much on technocratic debates about the aid system, with a focus on the supply of aid when the real problem is not the system, it’s a combination of the huge demand and the deliberate blocking of aid by states who believe their sovereignty overrides their international legal obligations to facilitate independent, neutral and impartial humanitarian aid.

Policy wonks have pondered how the WHS might address protection. Efforts to secure a new global inter-governmental reporting mechanism on IHL through the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement fell apart in December 2015 due to opposition from Russia and a number of other states. Some have suggested that the WHS create a new UN Special Envoy or Rapporteur to monitor IHL compliance. There is also the hope that world leaders at the summit will endorse a declaration reaffirming humanitarian principles and IHL. Personally, I agree that we should push for these things, but the problem is not technical, it’s political. So civil society needs to use the WHS as part of a wider and longer-term campaign to up the popular and political sense of shame at the disrespect of IHL and failure to protect refugees. Back in the 90s, a global social movement challenged the unfair terms of trade and other economic impacts of globalisation, which led to important, if imperfect, reforms to how the World Bank and wealthy nations frame their trade relations with the developing world. I don’t know if it’s possible, but we need to try and create a similar kind of social movement on IHL and refugee protection today.

We need to link advocacy on the Syrian conflict and #refugeeswelcome to address how Islamaphobia and narrow ‘national security interests’ at home in donor countries are driving bad policy in the crisis response

One of the concerns raised by many Syrians in London last week was that the #SupportingSyrians Conference served to legitimise the West’s strategy to contain refugees in countries neighbouring Syria, and stem the flow into Europe. They questioned the balance in #SupportingSyrians funding allocations between inside Syria, where the needs are greatest, and support to refugees in neighbouring countries or donor contexts. The focus of donor states on their own national security interests has also manifested in the impact of counter-terror policies on aid efforts. Counter-terror policies are making it harder to transfer funding to Syrian civil society inside Syria and the neighbouring countries. At the conference, one group supporting women’s centres, including in besieged areas, shared how their bank account had been frozen three times and they had to change their names (to delete the word ‘Syrian’) due to the counter-terror policy drive.

For me, one of the most powerful moments last week came at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Refugee Crisis followed by networking between Syrian activists and UK-based volunteers aiding refugees in Europe. While speakers mostly advocated for a more humane approach, one individual claimed that the residents of the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp were mostly angry young men, potential criminals and terrorists, who should be kept from the UK. Yet it was the response of one male Syrian refugee telling his story that stays with me now: torture and detainment two times at the hands of Syrian state security; a journey by boat accompanied by a mother, children, a PHD student and a doctor; and three weeks in Calais. The dignity with which he recounted his journey and expressed his desire to return and rebuild Syria one day showed up the anti-migrant rhetoric for what it was. He was followed by Marcell Shewaro, a Syrian activist renowned for her work on education and dialogue between groups in Aleppo to resist sectarian violence, who made connections between Islamaphobia, the treatment of refugees, radicalisation and the West’s policy on the Syrian crisis.  

Several participants referred to the mass public mobilisation around #refugeeswelcome on 12 September 2015. Thousands of ordinary people marched in solidarity with those fleeing violence in Syria and elsewhere. New voluntary networks have sprung up to support refugees in donor countries where the governments have mostly failed to do so. To my mind, this upsurge in grassroots activism on the refugee crisis is the most exciting social movement on humanitarian action in the developed world since Henri Dunant formed the International Committee for the Red Cross in 1863.

How can we build on the connections between support to refugees and activism ‘at home’ in donor capitals and our humanitarian work inside Syria and the neighbouring countries? International humanitarian agencies have an important role to play.* Repeatedly, studies of refugees suggest that they are moving due to ‘push’ rather than ‘pull’ factors, most recently the increase in intensity of bombing and failure of coping strategies in Syria after Russia joined the conflict in September 2015. CARE’s partners in Syria have highlighted how, for example, sheltering in basements is no longer a viable coping strategy for civilians given the more powerful weaponry and 24-hour bombing cycle used by Russian planes. UNHCR’s latest information indicates that 33% of those arriving in Europe are coming direct from Syria as a result of the worsening situation. This kind of analysis can be helpful in countering misinformation circulating in donor countries that people fleeing to Europe are economic migrants or mainly attracted by social security benefits. Syrian activists in London for the conference, as well as refugees now based in the UK, both highlighted how they are keen to return to Syria and help rebuild their country one day. Perhaps, in this way, connecting the humanity of Syrian (and other) refugees who come to donor countries with the violations of humanity occurring inside the Syria warzone (and others) can help with awareness-raising on both.  

We need to put Syrian voices at the heart of advocacy and decision-making on the crisis; both in how the funding pledged in London is spent and monitored, and towards the World Humanitarian Summit

It’s a sad irony that Syrian civil society was the last to hear about the #SupportingSyrians Conference. In the words of Rouba Hassan of SAWA for Development: “The invitation of Syrians has been last minute. A lot couldn’t make it because of Fortress Europe and the visa issues. Our presence here has been a token presence at ad-hoc events of which the priorities have already been pre-determined without our involvement.” To be fair, the co-hosting nations faced a herculean effort to pull together a donor pledging conference in just over two months. Inevitably the main focus was on securing more funding from donors. In theory, Syrian voices informed the humanitarian needs assessments that underpin the UN-coordinated funding appeals which donor pledges then finance. Yet the point remains, Syrians (and host communities in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey) are the intended beneficiaries, and it is local NGOs and informal networks that are delivering life-saving aid inside Syria at considerable risk to their own lives. Those are the voices which should get heard both at conferences like #SupportingSyrians and in ongoing efforts to determine priorities and stocktake on progress in humanitarian action. Yet, when Rouba asked Syrians in the main plenary of the donor conference to raise their hands, just two people did so.

So what could be done about this?

Certainly for future conferences on Syria, the hosts should allow a bottom-up process to nominate civil society representatives. This actually happened prior to #SupportingSyrians but was set aside. In the run-up to the conference, an initiative to consult and nominate NGO reps through the country-level and regional NGO forums was set aside by the co-hosting nations. That should not happen next time.

However, the question of how to promote a more empowering approach to the Syrian crisis response is wider than this. Indeed it’s a challenge for the whole humanitarian system, including Syrian NGOs themselves. Some Syrian CSOs complained that information had not reached them through the UN or the larger Syrian NGO networks. Some Syrian women activists have highlighted how most of the funding and policy engagement opportunities are channelled to larger Syrian national NGOs, which are male-dominated and have specific political affiliations. So we need to collectively unpack which Syrian voices get invited into these processes and heard.

Beyond the circus of major policy events, we need to reassess how we partner with Syrian civil society at all levels. One of the main channels for direct funding to Syrian CSOs are the UN pooled funds, yet these are restricted to only 6-month or 1-year timeframes. Too many UN agencies and INGOs treat Syrian CSOs as sub-contractors to implement pre-designed projects; for example paying them X dollars to transport Y amount of assistance from A to Z location. From 2012, CARE decided to attempt a more comprehensive approach to partnership with Syrian CSOs; including support to their capacity for procurement, financial administration, gender sensitivity and so on. One of our major donors cut our funding as a consequence, as we were not able to scale-up at the same pace as other agencies which sub-contract to local organisations to simply get aid from A to Z.

Around the #SupportingSyrians conference, we organised meetings between Syrian activists with foreign ministers, ambassadors, heads of government agencies responsible for overseeing their state’s funding to the crisis response, and members of the UK parliament. For example, we partnered with the Norwegian Embassy, UN Women and Oxfam to host a breakfast for four Syrian women activists and one Jordanian refugee aid worker to present their recommendations to senior diplomats. At the country level, we are also about to collaborate with the Jordanian National Commission for Women to convene a process with local women’s groups to discuss how to address the needs and rights of women affected by the crisis.

Indeed, raising Syrian voices is obviously not just a matter of CSOs, but also ordinary Syrians who are the intended beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance and protection. In the refugee contexts, it is host government policies’ that constrain the capacity for aid agencies to pursue a more empowering approach in their programmes. Addressing this will require both political and financial support from the international community. The new ‘Compacts’ launched at #SupportingSyrians with Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey could provide entry-points to promote such an approach. The international community could use its political and financial leverage around the Compacts to encourage host governments to allow refugees to raise their views in a freer fashion on the assistance and protection provided to them, and to hold agencies accountable for responding to these. The Compacts could then also be a framework to address wider protection concerns, including keeping the borders open so that Syrians can flee the violence inside Syria.

#FailingSyria or #SupportingSyria?

The #SupportingSyrians conference raised 10 billion US dollars, which is indeed a step-change in resourcing the humanitarian response. Yet in the 19 years I have worked in humanitarian action, I have never felt the gap more vast between the suffering caused by a crisis and the inadequacy of the international response. Watching the news from Aleppo, Dara’a and elsewhere, it feels like a systemic failure of the humanitarian sector and the wider international community. Of course, humanitarian aid is only ever a band-aid. Political action is needed to protect civilians and address the root causes of the violence. So what next after last week’s conference? Stepping up efforts on protection, linking this to advocacy on the refugee crisis, and empowering Syrian voices need to be part of the picture.


* MSF recently published a great study criticising the political failure which underpins the flawed EU response to the refugee crisis. CARE has hosted an exhibition and public events in the UK and elsewhere to make these connections – exploring how for our agency ‘charity began at home’ with ‘CARE packages’ for the European war-displaced during World War II and highlighting the links to the current crisis. Speaking to journalist friend last week, he remarked that the biggest challenge in securing coverage of Syria is the apparent complexity and intractability of the crisis. Here again, drawing out the links between the Syrian crisis and the refugee situation inside Europe could help to cut through the misinformation, fatigue and apathy surrounding both.

Howard Mollett

I joined CARE in 2005, since then I’ve been lucky enough to work with our local teams and civil society partners in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Sudan, DRC, Kosovo and most recently on the Syria regional response team. My current responsibilities include co-chairing our global network of policy specialists on gender in emergencies, with a colleague in Pakistan, and leading CARE’s advocacy in the UK on the Syrian conflict.

Over the years, I have also worked on innovative research and advocacy with country teams on conflict analysis, civil-military relations and humanitarian access. What has kept me with CARE is the organisation’s support to grassroots activists and its commitment to addressing gender in a serious way.

Prior to joining CARE, previous roles included research on human security and development at the Centre for Defence Studies; the facilitation of a network monitoring human rights implications of the ‘Global War on Terror’; support to European coordination of the Make Poverty History campaign; global coalition-building with the Our World Is Not For Sale coalition; research on trade policy; and support to a network of environmental and human rights CSOs in the Balkans.

One good thing I’ve read

Drown by Junot Diaz - short stories that offer a brilliant fictional lens on gender, class and migrant experiences in the USA.

Email: Mollett@careinternational.org

Twitter @HowardMollett