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Syrian Conflict Isn’t Over, Don’t Forget the Syrians: Davos Voices

Syria experts at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos weigh in on what must be done to improve the humanitarian situation and alleviate the impact of war in Syria.

Written by Alessandria Masi Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A member of the Free Syrian Army patrols during Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, Syria, on January 26, 2018. Sarp Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The consensus among many of the leading Syria experts, humanitarians and policymakers attending the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this week was:

The war in Syria is not yet over.

Syrians still need help.

An average of 7,700 people in Syria have been displaced every day since the last Davos, making a total of 2.6 million. Over that year, at least 10,000 civilians have been killed in Syria and more than 200 people have been tortured to death while there have been nearly 900 attacks on healthcare facilities and a number of chemical attacks.

In conjunction with this year’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, some of the leading experts at the forefront of Davos discussions shared their insights on how to improve the humanitarian situation in Syria, new initiatives being explored and whether or not the global community’s focus has shifted from the ongoing war to post-conflict efforts.

Syria Deeply: What new avenues are being explored to improve the humanitarian situation in Syria? Are efforts focused on funding initiatives dealing with the ongoing conflict or leaning more toward post-conflict efforts?

Jean-Marie Guehenno, senior adviser at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue: I don’t think the war is over. It’s going to be a long, contracted, bloody campaign, sadly, awfully. I think that’s the most likely scenario, because the Kurdish question in particular is not resolved in Syria. The United States wants to stay in Syria, but at the same time it does not have the allies; they wouldn’t have the allies on the ground; they won’t be a decisive presence, in a nutshell. So I think it will be enough to lead to protracted war, but not to a solution.

That being said, maybe because a negotiated political solution is some way off, the least bad thing that one can do is to help, on the American level, to alleviate the suffering of the population. We have seen in the southwest that … the cessation of hostilities … opened some space where you might have aid.

I think we can hope for more of that around Syria, which gradually would bring decreasing levels of violence, if not the full end to the war. In that context, focusing on whatever can be done, on the American front, makes a lot of sense because fixing the bigger political issues is much harder. There is no serious, real agreement envisioned between the key players and the key actors.

I think in those places where the fighting has stopped – and there are quite a few in Syria – one has to try to start testing what can be done post-conflict at the local level, in the daily lives of people. All the basics of life, from basic functions of the state – health, education and particularly security – that’s key. You can see that on a local level there’s a need for such arrangements. But the Syrian state continues to pay the civil service throughout the country.

That’s an effort that should start now, because if you wait for the overall agreements, you may wait a long time.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch: It’s not the least bit post-conflict Syria. I think there’s a huge dose of chutzpah in the government talking about the need for economic assistance to rebuild the various civilian institutions that it’s currently bombing. The real question is: Can we get people at Davos not looking at Syria simply as a humanitarian crisis, not looking at it as a new effort for peace, but rather [look at] … the atrocities that are killing people, the indiscriminate bombardments and the blockade, the siege.

Of course, everybody wants peace. Peace has been in the process of negotiation for years now. No one thinks it’s a whole lot closer. The real question is: While peace negotiations happen, how is the war fought?

It’s like people go out of their way to avoid that because it means confronting [Russian president Vladimir] Putin, because none of this would be happening if Putin wasn’t giving it his blessing. There should be no escaping the need to address the basic wartime strategy that [Syrian president Bashar al-] Assad and Putin are pursuing. It seems like this is something that everybody does their best to avoid.

In fact, the real issues are the siege of Eastern Ghouta and the indiscriminate bombardment of the 390,000 civilians in Eastern Ghouta and the 2 million-plus displaced people in Idlib. This is putting it maybe negatively, but Europe is so preoccupied with migration at this point. If you need a self-interested argument why they should be focusing more on Syria, think about the 2 million people, the 2 million displaced people in Idlib, who are sitting on a Turkish border. Where are these people going to go?

This isn’t just how you rebuild [after] the destruction of the past. Why are we talking about rebuilding infrastructure that is being attacked to this day? Assad is still very much targeting hospitals and clinics and the like. These are presumably the first of the institutions that would be rebuilt. It’s much cheaper to get it stopped than it is to talk about rebuilding the mess that he continues … [to make].

This is not a matter of more money; this is a matter of more pressure. That’s the important thing. More money is needed by the refugees, that just would be unequivocally good. But in Eastern Ghouta what is needed is not more money but more pressure.

It’s not a humanitarian issue. The siege is a human rights issue. It’s starvation of the civilian population by design. The issue is more humanitarian aid, because very little of the humanitarian aid gets in. The issue is pressure on Putin in particular and Assad to lift the siege or to let people free, let civilians freely come and go.

Dr. Annie Sparrow, critical care doctor and assistant professor at the Arnhold Global Health Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital: Syria will still be an issue next year at Davos, but it is not imaginable that Ghouta will survive more than another three or four months perhaps. This is the last time … right now. The whole siege is awful, I think it’s still worth talking about the siege because this is our last opportunity to even talk about it. That’s why I’m here now. I’m certainly going to talk about it … and make myself unbearable.

I think that loss of hope which we have all held out on for so long is really, that’s indescribable. Once you see people with that loss of hope you really struggle.

What is awful about what we’re watching now is this time last year every eye was on Aleppo, because it had fallen and it was still being talked about. Now we are talking about Turkey and the U.S., and Turkey’s campaign on the Syrian border. We are missing the last story from Ghouta, which has been under siege, this totally illegal siege, now for four years, which is so very long. We are seeing [it], as I watch it, extinguished. It’s so unbearable and it’s so awful to watch. To watch it from Geneva or New York, it’s like, how are we still watching this, and it’s worse than ever, and we’re still doing nothing?

Do I see anything useful happening? I’m not sure. I think there are still donors that could be influenced to put money toward the organizations that are still achieving something and still trying to reduce its support of organizations in Damascus and trying to find the ways to support the doctors. That’s useful.

Neal Keny-Guyer, chief executive officer of Mercy Corps: I think the important word that you used was “explored.” I don’t see anything new or extensive that’s happening at scale and obviously right now, there’s a great deal of concern at the humanitarian situation. As the conflict intensifies there, there’s the … recent [incursion] … by the Turks into the northern part of the country and there continue to be the besieged areas.

But I think there is increasingly the recognition that we can’t just focus on the pure humanitarian [situation]. The basic needs, that’s important. But there are things you can do now and we and others are doing it. You can support farmers at planting seeds and restoring agriculture and that agriculture can get to markets. You can begin through mobile technology to provide information and through that, some skills and education. But the big issue is trying to blend and merge the humanitarian and the recovery so that we can begin to think more long-term about the situation and not just focus on short-term humanitarian needs.

These responses have been lightly edited for length and sense.

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