Addressing the War in Syria, Not Managing its Consequences

The refugee crisis in the Middle East—the mass displacement of millions of people—poses immediate and long-term problems. For the refugees themselves, it is a humanitarian crisis. The sudden and unexpected mass displacement of Syrians put an intense strain on neighboring countries: particularly Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, which together host millions of Syrian refugees. The influx of refugees has even upset the political climate in some European countries. In the long term, those growing up as refugees will miss out on education and work opportunities, and, if unable to return to their home countries, will be unable to contribute to the rebuilding of their countries.

Despite these challenges, though, the response by the international community has not addressed the root causes: ending the war and the humanitarian consequences of opening a way for refugees to return, if they choose. Without addressing the core issues, governments and international organizations will continue to pour resources and aid into unsustainable efforts to cope with the ever-growing refugee crisis, and refugees will bear the consequences.


The current international approach has addressed the symptoms, but avoided the underlying causes. US and global efforts such as the Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees and the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees seek to establish sustainable and fair ways for governments to cope with the numerous number of refugees making dangerous journeys in search of safety and stability. These efforts aim to achieve policies that uphold the rights of refugee populations by establishing frameworks for responsibility-sharing among nation-states, mechanisms for ensuring access to education and employment opportunities, and initiatives that guarantee the safety and well-being of refugee and migrant populations.

But agreements like the Global Compact on Refugees, and its sister compact on migration, are not solutions—they are coping mechanisms. They purposefully steer clear of the underlying issues that brought about these recent wars and humanitarian crises; which show just how inadequate the international systems—meant to resolve these issues—are. A quick read of the news on Syria reveals that the United Nations has been unable to take even basic steps to address the war because Russia continually uses its veto power in the UN Security Council (UNSC)to block significant resolutions, or simply refuse to adhere to any resolutions along with Iran, and the Syrian regime. Both tactics are clear in Ghouta.

The tragedy unfolding in Eastern Ghouta is a consequence of this global failure with 400,000 civilians trapped, starving, and forced to evacuate after Assad and his allies unleashed a blitzkrieg of horrors against them. From February 18 until March 5 alone, the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC) recorded hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries due to regime and Russian bombings. The UNSC passed a resolution calling for a nationwide ceasefire on February 24 that has yet to be effectively implemented, costing hundreds of civilian lives. UN aid convoys had, finally, reached rebel held Eastern Ghouta but the Syrian regime removed 70 percent of the supplies, which included surgical materials and trauma kits.

Before Eastern Ghouta, it was Aleppo. Before that it was Homs, Daraya, and Daraa. Even when UNSC Resolutions set out the framework to do so—calling for civilian protection, holding war criminals account, lifting sieges, and releasing political prisoners—there is no enforcement mechanism. The United Nations, meant to be the platform for resolving international crises, is instead reduced to eloquent speeches and a lot of hand-wringing. Promises of “never again” are meaningless if no one is willing to enforce them.

There is a general sense of reluctance on behalf of governments, aid organizations, and advocates to address—or even acknowledge—the root causes of mass displacement. There are often well-meaning reasons behind this: they may not want to be seen as “political” entities with an agenda and a bias, they might be beholden to donors who require neutrality, or do not have the expertise for the complexity of politics.

While there are some justifications to this reasoning, the inherent nature of refugees is political, particularly in Syria, where the government is using displacement as a tactic to seize territory from the opposition. Although it would be unacceptable for political biases to get in the way of refugees accessing critical resources, not acknowledging the political nature associated with refugees, limits the framework of treatment to focusing on the symptoms, and not the root causes.

Getting past bandaids

The international system is, by all accounts, deadlocked on Syria. The available solutions tend to be narrowly focused for a single actor or small group to implement; without getting directly involved in the war. In simple terms, the refugee crisis has highlighted a stark failure of the international system: it takes less political capital to deal with refugees—whether by preventing them from traveling to new countries, or supporting their integration—than it does to resolve the root drivers of the refugee crisis. As long as the situation remains as is, systems for tracking displacement will expand, funding might become more efficiently allocated, and international bodies might pass new agreements managing the movement of refugees. These approaches only treat systems and—often in limited ways—prioritize host country benefits over the displaced.

Refugees are not willing migrants, and most would return to their home country if they could. Most would not choose to live in countries where they struggle with the language and proper paperwork, face discrimination, and might never be economic equals to their new country’s native citizens. Refugees were forced to choose among limited options for survival as reports of mass slaughter, forced disappearance, arbitrary arrest, siege, and displacement surrounds them. Despite all this, the international community has not adequately intervened.

At this point, though, merely acknowledging what is behind mass displacement is too little and too late. The major external actors—the United States, Russia, Iran, and Turkey—have each staked out their territory and seem unlikely to risk direct confrontation amongst each other. The question is, then, what can be done now?

Looking forward to reconstruction, helping refugees and IDPs return home is not simply a moral imperative, it is also necessary to rebuild the country. More than half the country is displaced, and their skills are needed to rebuild the physical infrastructure and social fabric of the country.

Refugees and IDPs may be able to return to some areas, particularly under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria. Turkish controlled Euphrates Shield territory already hosts many returnees; yet its safety is debatable as it continues Operation Olive Branch in the Afrin area in northwestern Syria. The outlook for the rest of the country remains bleak. The regime has relied specifically on a displacement tactic to secure its control. Without reaching a political deal that would allow for the safe return of refugees, most people displaced from regime controlled areas will not be able to return.

Humanitarian aid alone cannot solve the refugee crisis. The massive displacement of Syrians is not a consequence of humanitarian failures, but political ones. Without the political will to solve the Syrian crisis by achieving a political solution, Syrians will continue to find themselves in a humanitarian crisis: with inadequate access to aid and support systems. More efforts and resources are needed to end the war, not just manage its consequences. 

Sana Mustafa is a Syrian Activist and a Founding Member of the Network For Refugee Voices, Mustafa is also the Director of Sana Mustafa Consulting, LLC. Follow her at @Sanasyr6

Image: Displaced Syrian children look out from their tents at Kelbit refugee camp, near the Syrian-Turkish border, in Idlib province, Syria January 17, 2018. Picture taken January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal