Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

Good News for Syrians from Brussels

Despite international attention being squarely focused on the war in Ukraine, more than 75 countries gathered in Brussels on May 10 and collectively pledged $6.7 billion to the Syria humanitarian aid effort. Such a sizeable sum far outmatched expectations and underlined the extent to which the international community remains cognizant of the acute level of need across Syria.

In fact, the humanitarian crisis in Syria has never been as bad as it is today, with at least 14.6 million Syrians (over 70 percent of the in-country population) in need of external assistance to meet their basic needs.

With Syria’s economic crisis continuing apace and inflation still crippling the Syrian Pound (valued around SYP 4,000 to a single US dollar), the outlook for Syria and Syrians in 2022 was already dire. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine precipitated a worst-case scenario in many respects, particularly with regard to food security. As global food prices have soared, the World Food Program has been forced to cut the size of food baskets provided to Syria, from 1,300 calories to 1,170, this month. Syria’s domestic wheat production is expected to be lower than ever in 2022, due largely to drought, but supplementary supplies from Russia (to the regime) and Ukraine (to the World Food Program) are both now off the table.

With some experts predicting possible famine conditions later in 2022, it is encouraging to see that the Biden administration has placed food security at the top of its agenda during its time as chair of the United Nations Security Council this month. Moreover, the US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield is also investing heavily in the contentious issue of cross-border aid access into northern Syria – an issue up for a vote at the Security Council in July. Diplomatic sources believe Russia is highly likely to veto that resolution mandating cross-border access – a move that would spark an immediate and unprecedented humanitarian tragedy for the four million people currently wholly reliant on UN aid supplies in Syria’s northwest.

Behind the scenes, efforts are being made to broaden the multilateral discussion on cross-border aid in Syria, in an effort to deter Moscow’s veto. The war in Ukraine and the resulting collapse in relations between Russia and the West has almost certainly removed any prospect for constructive and fruitful bilateral diplomacy between the US and Russia – which previously prevented a Russian veto in July 2021. Whatever channels and mechanisms are mobilized in the coming weeks, it remains absolutely vital that a resolution is found to sustain aid supplies to the millions in need across northern Syria.

Any such arrangement will require the full engagement of Turkey, whose government perceives the stability of northwestern Syria as an existential national security issue. It is possible also that Turkey may manage to negotiate its own quid pro quo with Russia, to secure continued UN aid supplies, but Ankara’s shuttering of the Bosphorus to Russian military vessels and airspace to Russian military aircraft has complicated things significantly. It has been within that environment that US-Turkey relations appear to have embarked on a path towards slow recovery – with the Biden administration having just asked Congress to bless a major weapons sale to Turkey, widely assumed to be a first step towards the sale of advanced F-16 fighter jets.

With a year until Turkey’s general election, President Erdogan’s recent announcement of plans to re-house one million Syrian refugees inside northern Syria risks complicating much of this recent trend of increased cooperation and multilateralism. As polls have demonstrated for years on end, there is little to no discernible interest amongst Syrian refugees to return to Syria, given fears for personal security, as well as the acute economic challenges in all regions of the country. While Erdogan’s pronouncement is clearly driven by domestic politics – domestic resentment at Syria’s refugee community in Turkey is rife – it is also reflective of Turkey’s long-standing security strategy across northern Syria: to establish a so-called “safe zone.”

Ultimately though, it risks violating the fundamental human rights of the millions of Syrians currently residing in Turkey, and in simple terms, it is also impractical. If Turkey’s biggest fear is destabilizing northwestern Syria, then forcing hundreds of thousands of refugees into an already combustible, poverty-stricken region home to millions of displaced people is virtually guaranteed to realize those fears.

In recent years, an enormous effort has been made by non-governmental organizations (particularly Turkish and Qatari ones) to construct entire ‘villages’ and ‘towns’ of housing units to provide more secure conditions for displaced peoples in Idlib and northern Aleppo. These initiatives are a vital step to improving the prospects for millions of people who, every winter, have risked freezing to death in tents. Yet it is some of these developments that appear now to be the intended destination for Syrian refugees in Turkey, per Erdogan’s plan. That makes no sense and must be prevented.

There is no doubt that the strains placed on Syria’s neighbors by Syrian refugee flows have been intense and unsustainable – as comments from Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey are all now making clear. But there can be no ignoring the fact that refugees do not wish to return. Forcing them to do so would be a crime of international proportions, so the only solution is a major international initiative to better support refugee host communities and to pivot aid to displaced Syrians in-country towards strategic assistance aimed at enhancing housing and means for self-sufficiency. With the results from Brussels clear and present on everyone’s mind, now is the time to begin that discussion – it would be better late than never.