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Briefing: What to watch in Syria this year

Idlib is the bloodiest crisis in Syria, but it’s just one on a long list.

Children look through holes in a tent at the volatile al-Hol displacement camp, where nearly 70,000 people are in need of aid. Ali Hashisho/REUTERS
Children look through holes in a tent at the volatile al-Hol displacement camp, where nearly 70,000 people are in need of aid.

A campaign to recapture Syria’s rebel-held northwest may be the bloodiest and most headline-grabbing part of the country’s war right now, but it is just one of many crises within the overarching crisis.

The months-long offensive in and around Idlib province looks set to win back more territory for the Damascus government, at a high price in civilian lives, wrecked infrastructure, and hundreds of thousands forced into flight.

Across the country, which is now approaching nine years of war, the UN says 11 million Syrians – excluding refugees – need emergency help this year, and has appealed to donors for $3.3 billion.

International aid may be no substitute for ending the violence, or stopping massive human rights abuses, political repression, and lawlessness. It should, however, be able to help Syrians who are jobless, displaced, and living in makeshift shelter, or in need of other basics like food, healthcare, sanitation, and clean drinking water.

But from a plunging currency to a diplomatic standoff over aid imports, efforts to bring practical relief to Syrian civilians are hemmed in on all sides, deeply politicised, and hostage to global rivalries.

A flurry of developments in Syria has highlighted the continuing volatility in the country and the scale of difficulties facing efforts to ease civilian suffering. The New Humanitarian continues to track developments on several fronts.

TNH compiled this briefing to explore the key problem areas that Syria’s massive and complex aid operation will face in 2020. It is based on regular contacts with aid workers and analysts – as well as public reports and studies. In order to speak freely on sensitive matters touching on conflict, diplomatic negotiations, and operational security, all interviewees requested anonymity.

New conflict uproots many in Idlib and the northwest

Some 300,000 people have fled their homes in northwestern Syria since mid-December as Syrian and Russian airstrikes pummel the rebel-controlled region, where around 2.7 million people live or have taken shelter. The UN estimates over 1,300 civilians have been killed since the onslaught began in late April, and hospitals and clinics have repeatedly been bombed, with a UN scheme to limit attacks on civilian targets discredited, most recently in a New York Times report.

Read more → Civilians see no future in Idlib as Syrian forces tighten grip

The latest wave of displacement, media and UN reports say, has largely been caused by an assault on the towns of Maarat al-Numan and Saraqeb in Idlib, with people generally heading northwards, towards the provincial capital of Idlib city, and the Turkish border beyond.

The UN estimates that one in five people who fled violence in the past few weeks headed for camps along the Turkish border, with the rest taking shelter in towns and cities.

But fuel shortages are making it more expensive to flee by road, and the cold and wet winter has made conditions for the newly displaced especially harsh. Most people are forced to stay in the country, even in flooded camps, as Turkey long ago closed the border to civilians trying to leave.

“Cross-border aid, a lifeline for Syrian civilians, has become a bargaining chip.”

Meanwhile, aid agencies and NGOs are finding it harder than ever to get aid to the area, squeezed between demands for taxes and other fees from jihadist-aligned local authorities, and the need to comply with donor prohibitions on aid diversion.

Even if this offensive pauses, after Damascus wins back control of more key towns and highways, armed rebels and destitute civilians will be trapped in a shrinking corner of the country with no clear negotiated way out. It’s a scary scenario that one analyst called a “mountain Gaza”, and a definite challenge for people hoping to get help to the area.

Cross-border aid under threat

The rebel-held northwest relies heavily on imports and aid trucked in from Turkey, with thousands of trucks of commercial traffic crossing the border every month, among them vehicles carrying aid supplies from the UN, NGOs, and Turkish aid groups. The UN’s deliveries to territory President Bashar al-Assad’s government does not control would be illegal without special permission, via resolution, from the UN Security Council.

The current resolution, 2165, is due to expire on 10 January 2020, and as 2019 came to a close, its extension turned into a bitter diplomatic dispute, with the lifeline for Syrian civilians becoming a bargaining chip.

If major powers fail to come to an agreement, the aid operation in the north would face serious challenges, but not come to a complete halt. Many international NGOs and Turkish aid groups providing help in Idlib could continue without the largely symbolic reassurance of Security Council authorisation. (They did just that before 2165 was first passed, in 2014).

But UN agencies would have to stop or look for a legal workaround, although UN officials insist there is no plan B. The biggest UN aid programme for Idlib is run by the World Food Programme, which says it supplied one million people, about a third of the population, with rations in December.

Northeast Syria and al-Hol camp

Turkey’s October invasion and several US policy shifts have made for a chaotic few months in the other major part of Syria Damascus does not yet control: the Kurdish-led northeast.

Fighting has paused for now, but political alliances are shifting, leaving open the possibility of a quick transformation in humanitarian needs and how to respond to them.

Turkey’s stated aims are to neutralise what it says is a threat from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and to resettle large numbers of Syrian refugees in a “safe zone” it now controls along the border. That scheme, critics say, could not only violate the rights of refugees but also deliberately dispossess Kurds of land.

Threatened by Turkey, the SDF is increasingly cooperating with Damascus, although the terms of their deal have not been finalised. That relationship matters. The northeast is currently less isolated than the northwest, with people there able to trade with the rest of Syria and across the Turkish and Iraqi borders.

“The situation is so toxic that the aid agencies working in al-Hol fear unrest.”

That means the aid operation there would likely be fine, if diminished, if talks on cross-border aid at the Security Council fall apart.

NGOs working to help people in the northeast say concessions to al-Assad’s government by the SDF could be the bigger hit – aid could be disrupted if Damascus decided to exert stricter control over convoys leaving from the capital and clamp down on aid projects managed from Iraq or Turkey.

Among the 1.8 million people in the northeast who need aid are nearly 70,000 people – mostly women and children – cooped up in the volatile al-Hol camp. Many are family members or supporters of the so-called Islamic State, but others fled the group as it fought for its last patch of territory in Syria nearly a year ago.

Some in the camp are foreigners, and only a few have been accepted for repatriation by their home countries. The situation is so toxic that the aid agencies working in al-Hol fear unrest at what has become a de facto detention facility.

Reconstruction funding and humanitarian aid restrictions

While the media’s focus is on the dramatic escalation in the northwest (and previously the northeast), large parts of Syria are actually relatively calm, albeit uneasy and socially fractured.

But much of the country is also in ruins and economically devastated, which makes it hard for the roughly 17 million people in Syria, and those who are coming back, to rebuild their lives.

Getting the economy going again in post-conflict Syria, and rebuilding social services and infrastructure, will take cash, and a lot of it – estimates on how much range from $120 billion to nearly $400 billion or even more. It will also take time: the World Bank estimates Syria needs decades to recover.

Sanctions and political conditions are among the obstacles standing in the way: the United States and EU member states are unwilling to pay for any major reconstruction while al-Assad remains in charge.

Allies Iran and Russia don’t have deep enough pockets to foot the bill, while China and the Gulf states so far appear uncommitted to the project. In December, Russia pledged $5.8 million for reconstruction through the UN Development Programme (the UN has no sanctions holding it back, but also no money of its own to spend). But that’s a drop in the bucket.

Some NGOs and analysts say donors should take a more pragmatic view in the light of massive social needs and the increasing likelihood that al-Assad will stay in power. The reconstruction boycott affects Syrians regardless of their political opinions, they argue, and fixing damaged schools is hardly an effective and/or appropriate lever for political aims.

Some donors are showing a willingness to back some repairs (but not those explicitly labelled reconstruction), and projects to fix water systems or patch up classrooms, for example, will be included in the UN-backed humanitarian spending plan for Syria in 2020.

Regardless of the definition of reconstruction, international aid in general continues to be tightly controlled by the government. Humanitarian staff can be denied visas without explanation, while independent assessments of needs and project monitoring and evaluation are widely restricted. The planning, coordination, and management of the largest aid player, the UN, is tied up in political and bureaucratic tensions.

Economic pressure

The Syrian currency lost about half its value in 2019, and food prices are rising. Sanctions and shifts in oil supply, trade, and smuggling play a part. 

But another key factor is Lebanon’s fiscal crisis, which is worsening alongside months of anti-government protests. Thanks to US sanctions, Syrian businesses (not to mention war profiteers) have little access to the international banking system, so most rely on neighbouring Lebanon to conduct transactions and hold savings.

But in the midst of the political and financial turbulence, Lebanese banks have restricted hard currency withdrawals from all customers, choking Syria’s access to foreign exchange.

Inside Syria, wage earners face deep cuts in their spending power, even though some NGOs and Syrian aid workers benefit from a special Central Bank exchange rate.

But the dollar now buys a third more – 940 Syrian pounds – on the black market (it was 47 in 2011, before the civil war), and the economic outlook looks bad as new US sanctions that target those doing business with Syria, adopted on 20 December, are a powerful deterrent to foreign investment.

Political talks – or not

After a frosty but orderly start on 4 November, face-to-face talks about the Syrian constitution stalled by the end of that month, after a group of negotiators comprising nominees from the government, the opposition, as well as civil society failed to agree an agenda.

Even agreeing the membership of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which has a narrow mandate to review the constitution (rather than talk about power-sharing or a political compromise) had taken years of exhaustive diplomacy.

The talks, backed in principle by all sides, have been to some extent the only diplomatic game in town – the only major forum for political contact between the Damascus government and its opponents. But previous UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said getting any results from the process was “mission almost impossible”.

After the sides took a break, the current envoy, Geir Pedersen, said on 20 December that the hiatus “only underscores the need for a broader and comprehensive political process”.

Refugee returns

Under political, nationalistic, and economic pressure, neighbouring countries are impatient to see some of the 5.5 million registered Syrian refugees they host return home.

It’s also a priority for donors, who are looking forward to reducing the costs of supporting them in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan (the 2019 price tag was $2 billion).

Relatively few refugees decided to risk going back voluntarily last year (87,000 in 2019 by the UN refugee agency’s count), but the push factors are multiplying: restrictions and deportations have driven refugees out of Istanbul, Lebanon has thrown out thousands, and refugees are finding life so tough in Jordan that an increasing number are risking it across the border.

“UN refugee return policy is under review, as the situation inside Syria appears to be as good as it’s going to be for some time.”

Those who do return face a multitude of risks, aside from the ongoing violence, including imprisonment and forced conscription, not to mention a lack of job opportunities and places to sleep.

The UN has repeatedly said that conditions in Syria are not yet right for return, so it won’t organise transport or give cash to those who choose to go back. That policy is under review, as the situation inside Syria appears to be as good as it’s going to be for some time, and it’s clear that the list of conditions the UN set in 2018 for assisting returnees won’t be met in full.

Trapped in Rukban

Some 12,000 people in a pocket of southern Syria on the border with Jordan have been trapped in harsh conditions for years, blockaded by Syrian and Jordanian forces and intimidated by armed gangs and criminals. Peaceful solutions seem to have run out.

The weak are subjected to catastrophic levels of abuse, extortion, and ill health in a makeshift camp. Even though they live just metres from the border, there is nowhere to go: Jordan won’t let them in.

But going back is risky, too. Many of the men in Rukban are unwilling to return to areas controlled by the al-Assad government for fear of arrest or conscription as former rebels, opposition activists, or deserters. With shortages of just about everything, some residents appear ready to die in Rukban rather than go back.

About 18,000 Rukban residents were convinced to leave in 2019. But rights groups say promises from the Syrian government that evacuees will be allowed to go home freely have been broken, and activists and local media alleged in December that 174 have disappeared or been detained.

A small US base near Rukban backs a local rebel militia, deterring the Syrian government from taking back the area by force, but that may yet change. With the US presence in Syria in question, UN and Syrian Red Crescent access regularly blocked by Damascus, and diplomatic avenues used up, the prospects for Rukban residents in 2020 look worse than ever.


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