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It’s time to talk about northwest Syria

Ignoring the region risks planting the seeds for political and humanitarian crises for years to come.

Internally displaced Syrians at a camp in Idlib, northwestern Syria, in February 2020. Umit Bektas/REUTERS
Internally displaced Syrians at a camp in Idlib, northwestern Syria, in February 2020.

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For much of the world, the Syrian crisis has faded from memory. Yet in the opposition-held northwest, millions of people, many displaced from other parts of the country, are facing the threat of hunger and infectious disease, as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and his allies increasingly attempt to isolate the territory from access to vital food and medical supplies.

What is needed more than ever is a long-term strategy to help the more than 4.5 million people who live in northwest Syria. But the aid response has been fractured, driven by contentious political decisions at the UN, and undermined by the hostile government. 

Just this month, a convoy of 16 trucks carrying food and medical supplies travelled from Damascus to the region, which includes Idlib province and its surroundings. While civilians in the region are desperate for help — 1.7 million live in overcrowded camps, and food insecurity is on the rise — the aid represents a tiny fraction of the assistance they need.

Such efforts to bring supplies from Damascus, so-called cross-line convoys, are unreliable, relatively small, and have often been stopped by the Syrian government. Instead, the northwest must rely in large part on UN-sponsored cross-border programmes and shipments of supplies from Türkiye. 

Yet that strategy is conditioned on political debates at the UN Security Council in New York, where Russia, an ally of al-Assad’s repressive regime, imposed in July its own resolution on members that extended the UN’s mandate to deliver aid to the region by a mere six months. 

Unless there is a major paradigm shift in the conflict, these displaced persons may never be able to return to their homes.” 

It’s clear that this short-term approach, where aid to the northwest is dependent on shifting political interests and alliances, is not a sustainable way to help millions of people in need. 

But before any long-term strategy can be considered, diplomats and donors need to accept some hard truths: 

First, the al-Assad government has proven repeatedly that it has no interest in providing for the people living in northwest Syria, and it has consistently opposed international efforts to help them. In response, the Security Council unanimously adopted the first cross-border resolution in 2014, authorising UN agencies to provide humanitarian assistance through four border crossings to areas outside the al-Assad regime’s control. That has now been whittled down to one.

Second, the al-Assad government has made it clear it considers the people in the northwest as outcasts. Over two thirds of the population in the region were displaced there from other parts of the country as a result of regime sieges, bombardment, and forced transfer. 

Unless there is a major paradigm shift in the conflict, these displaced persons may never be able to return to their homes. In 2017, al-Assad himself said: “[The war] cost us a lot of money and a lot of sweat, for generations. But in exchange, we won a healthier and more homogeneous society in the true sense.” 

The year before, a Syrian general said that: "A Syria with 10 million trustworthy people obedient to the leadership is better than a Syria with 30 million vandals.” If the regime sees the people living in northwest Syria – rebel fighters and civilians alike – as vandals who it might not want as part of its population, it's unlikely to see it as worth trying (again) to retake all of the northwest anytime soon. But this still leaves millions of civilians trapped in limbo.

A transition to longer-term aid

Given this sobering reality, donor governments and aid agencies need to elevate funding levels in the near term, and in the longer term begin transitioning from emergency aid to assistance that makes communities more resilient. The dependence on emergency aid is dangerous not just because funding is dwindling but because it could be abruptly cut off by a Russian veto at the Security Council, sparking an even worse food security crisis than the one many are already dealing with. 

A shift to cash assistance and vouchers is one way to do this: It could reduce dependence on the complicated logistics of delivering food for 1.4 million people per month across the Turkish border. This would require aid agencies to support local markets as they absorb increasing demand. Otherwise, aid workers fear prices will skyrocket, leaving millions more without the means to feed their families. 

Prioritising water station rehabilitation would also decrease the need for unsustainable and potentially contaminated water trucking services, which adds to health costs and vulnerability. The recent quick spread of cholera in northeast Syria and the first reported cases in the northwest are an ominous sign of what is to come.

Read more → Cholera worries grow in Syria’s Idlib

In May, the US issued a General Licence that allows private companies to invest in some parts of northwest Syria without violating sanctions. That’s a promising start to improving the lives of people in the region, but investors that could potentially improve the local economy even more need to be courted and re-assured. Gulf countries could play a constructive role in this process, given their resources and desire to make amends with regional players such as Türkiye.  

Even with these reforms, the UN still needs to retain the ability to provide aid across Syria’s borders. While there are multiple local and international NGOs operating inside Syria, many of them rely on the logistics provided by the UN, and any shock — like mass destruction or displacement — could overwhelm their capacity. 

The humanitarian community is still reeling from a regime offensive on Idlib that displaced one million people in 2020. If the UN cannot fill this role because the Security Council doesn’t let it, other reliable funds and supply chains need to be put in place.

There have been some efforts in the Security Council to broker a path forward to stabilise the humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria – beyond the six- or twelve-month renewals of aid access resolutions. But in reality, these political debates have done little to relieve the prolonged suffering of people living in the region, where they face the danger of ongoing shelling and bombing. Earlier this month, seven people were reportedly killed in Russian airstrikes in Idlib. 

The status quo must end

What is clear is that aid can no longer be dictated by the politics of warring parties and the risk aversion of donor governments. It must be led by the actual needs and realities on the ground. Donor policies and concerns about security — much of Idlib is governed by a group many countries have designated as a terrorist organisation — are certainly stumbling blocks, but they are not impossible to overcome. 

Expanding humanitarian and civil society space through consistent and constructive negotiations with local authorities, including designated terrorist organisations, is long overdue and could allow donors to adequately fund education, health, food security, and other vital but neglected sectors. Cooperation with allies should also be bolstered to provide better security guarantees for the population, allowing communities to breathe again and limited private investment to begin. 

The well-being of the people living in northwest Syria is not just affected by the conflict, but also by the response to it. Adherence to the status quo or worse will inevitably affect regional and eventually international security.

Existing political and humanitarian policies on Syria are short-sighted, and the drawn-out international political debates over life-saving aid also remain a source of disturbing uncertainty for the millions living in the region. 

As one displaced local council head and father of three young girls told the authors: “I am more hopeless now than at any time before even when we were living under bombardment. I don’t have my land and no one cares.” 

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