Money, mayhem and murder: Syria and a week of ‘progress’

‘…the anguish of each belongs to us all…’ Primo Levi, The Girl of Pompeii







‘We need a no-fly zone. We need it to survive… People are thinking about managing the conflict, not ending it.’ Marcelle Shehwaro, Kesh Malek (Aleppo-based NGO)

The first week of February 2016 may turn out to have been the most important for Syria since the start of the state’s civil war in March 2011.

Sadly, there is no guarantee that the last seven days will change the state – or the lives of its people – for the better.

In 2015, the United Nations received 58 per cent of the funding it needed to fulfil its proposed response to the international crisis caused by the Syrian Civil War.

There are many reasonable and reasoned concerns about the UN and whether or not it can operate sufficiently beyond the reach of interested parties to deliver what Syria actually needs, but it’s certainly unreasonable to expect any organisation to succeed with a little over half of what it needs.

Nor was 2015, a year in which the UN asked for $7.213bn and received almost $4.184bn, especially unusual in this respect.

In 2013, it asked for $4.391bn. It received almost $3.074bn (70 per cent).

In 2014*, it required $5.996bn, and received just under $3.358bn (56 per cent).

*This was also the year in which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urgently called for each developed state to take 20,000 Syrian people, to save the lives of people threatened by war, and also urgently reduce pressure on states including Lebanon and Jordan, who had between them taken in more than 1.6m Syrian people.

The EU gave a total of 184,665 people the right to enter. Not only is this far below the 540,000 people (spread across the EU’s 27 member states) the UNHCR requested, the figure actually includes all refugees granted right to remain, not just those from Syria. 2014 was a year in which Europe ignored the desperation of human beings on a scale few organisations ever managed before.

The results of this consistent failure to provide aid for human beings in continuing danger of death, maiming and torture has had predictable and horrifying results.

Well over 350,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011, the vast majority slaughtered by President Bashar Al Assad and forces loyal to him, including the Russian air force. Some of them, as in Madaya, a small village only 25 miles from Assad’s presidential palace, have been deliberately starved to death by the regime. More than 1.2m people have been injured in the same period.

More than 6.5 million people who have been forced from their homes by bullets, bombs, missiles and the threat of terror and torture, as well as of death, remain in Syria, where aid agencies struggle to reach and help them (both IS and Assad himself prevent aid delivery in almost all cases, other groups allow it more reliably, but some regions remain inaccessible, as in the case of Madaya, where 16 people have already died of starvation and the Assad regime has returned to refusing aid delivery. Madaya’s experience is not unique: almost 400,000 people were under siege across Syria in January this year).

More than 4.5 million Syrians have fled the state altogether – the vast majority of them are now in Turkey (2.5 million people), Lebanon (1.03 million) and Jordan (630,000 people), with smaller numbers in Iraq (245,000 people) and Egypt (117,658). By comparison, around 480,000 have arrived in Europe in the last year*, and are spread across 27 states, though Sweden and Germany have taken by far the largest number, while the UK has fewer than 2,000 Syrian people since the war began in 2011.

*An estimated one million refugees arrived in the EU last year – 48 per cent of those people originated in Syria.

Inside Syria, more than 13.5 million people, including six million children, urgently need humanitarian aid, (Syria’s pre-war population was 23 million), and more than 70 per cent of people do not have regular access to clean drinking water. More than two million children within Syria – and one million outside the state – are out of school.

As noted above, this is not to suggest that every single one of Syria’s – and Syrians’ – problems would by now have been solved. The UN is nothing more than the sum of its members’ capacity and inclinations (so that when people claim ‘the UN’ has failed Syria, we should perhaps translate this to read ‘the international community’ has failed Syria) and to date none of them have consistently displayed either the ability or commitment to lift people from the horror of their day-to-day existence in the state.

But what is undeniable is that the failure of the world to give the UN what it needed to do the job has led us here, to the disaster of Syria, to the death and mayhem delivered on its people, and to the largest single piece of the international crisis the world is now experiencing.

So on Thursday, when more than 70 politicians, humanitarians, business people and others met in London for the ‘Supporting Syria and the Region 2016’, its financial focus was understandable – even promising.

The previous day, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, the event’s official host, pledged to double the UK’s contribution to the ongoing Syria crisis to £2.3bn ($3.34bn) up to 2020, including doubling its contribution for 2016 to £510m ($739.65m).

The US agreed to increase its funding by $900m by 2020, to increase its total to $5bn, while Germany pledged to give $2.5bn through to 2018.

In total, the event managed to secure pledges of $5.8bn for 2016, and a further $5.4bn from 2017-2020.

The money pledged will be used, the conference’s organisers have said, to support a political end to the Syrian Civil War, and a transitional governing body which will be charged with delivering a new political system for Syria, and to create up to 1.1m new jobs for Syrian refugees and citizens of the states who host them – primarily Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey – by 2018.

The conference promised that the money will also be used to help ensure that by the end of June 2017, 1.7 million children – all refugee children and vulnerable children in host countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq) – will be in quality education, with equal access for boys and girls, and that access to education will be increased for the 2.1m children out of school in Syria.

These pledges – particularly the last – should not be underestimated. Each one could potentially improve the lives of tens – perhaps even hundreds – of millions of people (once the effect of peace in Syria, as well as the economic results of more workers and a better educated population in several countries are considered) and nobody forced anyone to promise to donate any money at all.

The conference and its outcomes may yet prove to be an important moment not only for Syrians and their country, but for a far wider portion of the world.

But there are reasons for caution.

The first is that the pledges made so far are exactly that: pledges. None of the money promised has yet been handed over, and while those who made the promises on Thursday did so with the best of intentions, there are numerous examples of pledged aid never being delivered (in 2014, $585m pledged at that year’s Supporting Syria conference was never actually handed over).

Second, the United Nations estimates that it needs $9bn to deal with the humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian Civil War in 2016. The pledges for this year so far total $5.8bn, leaving the UN 36 per cent short of what it needs to carry out the response it hopes to deliver, even if every penny is actually handed over.

By the standards of previous years, 64 per cent funding for the UN’s operations in and around Syria isn’t bad, but as already noted, consistent underfunding has already led us to the current crisis, and this latest shortfall simply adds to those of previous years: it is hard to escape the fact that the 2016 fund-raising drive has not yet achieved what it needs to, if it ever will.

The education pledges are a genuinely excellent step – and their existence hopefully points to a growing acceptance and recognition not only that every child deserves the best possible start in life, but that ensuring they get it benefits us all, and that the crisis is also changing people’s lives and opportunities within Lebanon, Jordan and several other states.

But the employment pledges are a little less easy to praise unreservedly.

Of course, it’s vital that people who have fled war, terror and oppression in their homelands should be given the chance to use their skills and abilities in the countries to which they travel – it enables them to earn money, to practice their professions, helps them to become productive and contributing members of their new society, improves that society’s economic situation by increasing the size of its workforce and reducing the number of people it has to support with cash payouts.

But as noted above, after accounting for roughly one million children, there are more than 3.5 million Syrian people who have been forced out of the country, meaning that the number of jobs which the conference pledges to create would be less than one-third of the number required, even if we disregard its promise that some of those jobs would be for ‘host country citizens’.

Not only that, but they will be created ‘by 2018’. The need is immediate. Most people cannot wait almost two years before being allowed to work, and as the inability to work is one of the major factors cited by adults leaving Turkey for the EU, it’s clear that this is a serious shortfall.

And there are other matters to be considered.

For example, the conference made little attempt to meet the urgent request by Lebanon’s Education Minister Elias Bou Saab, who told delegates that his country required $12bn over the next five years to cope with a situation in which one in five people in Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee.

‘The first thing you have to do is stop the bleeding,’ he said. ‘It is an ongoing earthquake that we are living every day, and every day it is growing.’

Equally, although the conference was called to consider Syria and the crisis resulting from its civil war, a number of Syrian humanitarian organisations expressed concern that they had been side-lined at the conference, getting few if any opportunities to talk to the main delegation and instead being booked into events and talks at the event’s periphery.

One example is Marcelle Shehwaro, quoted above, of Kesh Malek. In common with almost all organisations working on the ground in Syria, Kesh Malek is clear that a major problem to all people in Syria and all those working to assist them is the continued bombardment of Syria by a variety of airforces – most often those of Assad and Russia.

Shehwaro’s call for a no-fly zone is by far the most common single request (short of the war ending immediately) of people and organisations in Syria, yet has been continually ignored by the international community.

There are many reasons for this, the major one being that both NATO and Russia, the bodies which could conceivably propose and carry through an imposed Syrian no-fly zone at the UN, want to be able to continue bombing raids. But to ignore the direct experience and advice of those on the ground risks missing opportunities to improve and save lives.

To a similar extent, it is also worth taking a step back from the conference and its pledges to look at a wider matter.

Because the money pledged at the conference will – should it all be produced – make a real difference to the experience of some refugees and some of the communities into which they have been forced.

But we must also consider the actual living conditions of many of Syria’s displaced people, and its refugees in other states. Because many thousands of Syrians are living in camps, places intended as temporary shelters for people who cannot return home.

Those camps cost money to run, they require fresh, clean water for drinking, hygiene and sanitation, food must be provided for all the people who live and work in them, the accommodation provided must be at least waterproof.

But though they are places where people can survive for a while – and though they are certainly better than being tortured or burned alive in one’s bed – refugee and internally-displaced people’s camps are not places in which one can build or live a life.

And though the money states including the UK are donating is needed to keep those camps open an operational – and should certainly not be derided – there are clear arguments, moral (people should not be forced to suffer when they have done nothing wrong) and practical (people in camps can be working for the benefit of those around them, wherever they may be, and the longer one spends in desperation, the more likely it is one attempts to break out and behave desperately), for putting our immense wealth to use giving people opportunities to fulfil, and continue to fulfil, their potential, to the benefit of themselves, their families, their communities and in the end to the benefit of us all.

The conference and its outcomes deserves recognition, but without a variety of other responses, including opening our doors to desperate people who can help us just as we help them, it is simply impossible to pretend it is anything other than a drop in an increasingly stormy ocean.


That final point touches on an event at which I was fortunate to be invited to speak, also on Thursday 4th February, at Queen’s College Oxford.

The College works with CARA, the Council for At-Risk Academics, through which it has in the past opened places for students and researchers from conflict-stricken zones, or places in which one’s religion, sexuality or outlook could lead to imprisonment or death (CARA was set up to help Jewish academics escape Nazi Germany and has since helped thousands of academics flee war in Bosnia, Iraq and other states – including Syria – to continue their work) and organised an event to help raise money to offer a bursary and place to stay to students and researchers to Syrian academics.

I was fortunate to share a bill with musicians and poets (including Iraqi Kurd Choman Hardi), one of whom read as part of his presentation the Primo Levi poem The Girl of Pompeii, who performed music and readings.

I shared two stories; one, from Sirte, Libya, which is included in my book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis, in which a student at Sirte University describes how the first Libyan Civil War affected his life and his city, and another about a 25 year-old from Aleppo, Syria, who was killed just weeks before leaving to take a place at University in Paris, while working to provide food and improve literacy in his ruined city.

His work has been mentioned here, and I believe he had done far more in his short life than most of us manage in far longer, but retelling his story to an audience gathered to help students and researchers escape war, it was impossible not to wonder what else he – and hundreds of thousands like him – might have achieved had they been allowed to.

Primo Levi – a Holocaust survivor whose masterful prose often overshadows his poetic achievement – was correct to note that the ‘anguish of each belongs to us all’. But it is equally true that the triumph of each – medicines, technology, simply being there to help someone who helps someone who helps someone and so on, ad infinitum – is the triumph of us all.

The achievements of human beings are the achievements of humanity, and it is at times of the greatest terror, hardship and confusion that we must remember it most. CARA may seem too ‘specialist’ but combined with other organisations like it, it can help show that every life is worthwhile, and that everything worthwhile is worth saving.

We do not know what we have already lost in Syria, in sub-Saharan Africa, in states all over the world where conflict, terror and disaster snatch lives. And we do not yet know what we will all gain by saving lives which are threatened now.

But we do know that we can help, and that by doing so we rescue not just people, but all the knowledge, experience and talent that is contained within them.

That is a memory we would all benefit from keeping close at hand.


Unfortunately, there are occasions when life throws up grotesque coincidence and twisted reflection, and on the evening of Thursday 4th February, as I shared the story of a young man killed while working to help people in Aleppo, news broke which appears to herald a new stage in the long battle for control of that city between Assad and those who oppose him.

For those of us lucky enough not to be trapped in Syria’s largest city or its surroundings, clear warnings had come a day before, when ‘peace talks’ in Geneva between representatives of Assad and many of the groups who oppose him had been halted.

Staffan De Mistura, the UN envoy overseeing those negotiations, had ended them after just three days, after a huge increase in Russian and regime bombing raids close to Aleppo, in which dual plane air strikes hammered homes, shops and businesses in and around the city six or seven times each day.

Concluding that the Assad delegation could not be serious about peace while intensifying its war effort, he told delegates and media he would not ‘talk for the sake of talking’.

The following day, it was announced that a long siege by rebel groups on Nubul and Zahraa, towns north-west of Aleppo, had been broken.

The lifting of the siege has not only cut vital supply lines by which humanitarian aid has been being delivered to Aleppo itself – immediately risking the lives of around 400,000 people in the city and nearby – but also freed troops to advance on the city itself.

By Sunday, rebel groups reported that the gap between two ‘prongs’ of Assad’s forces outside Aleppo was just a few kilometres wide, and expected to be closed within hours, effectively beginning a siege of the city.

It is by no means certain that taking Aleppo – a city where opponents of Assad and his supporters have existed in uneasy contact since 2012, when large sections of the city were won by the Free Syrian Army – will be an easy task for Assad, the Iranian-marshalled Hizbollah forces which fight alongside his troops, and Russia.

Unlike the aerial attacks on which Assad and Russia have so far relied* to force civilian and military opponents from buildings and regions, the battle for the city itself – which it now looks likely will begin in a matter of weeks, rather than months – will likely be fought street-to-street, with tactics and man-power (opposition groups elsewhere in Syria have already been asked to send any fighters they can to Aleppo) likely to play at least as big a part as technical superiority.

*In the UK, and internationally, there is a reasonable and understandable desire to attempt to ‘balance’ the behaviour of Russia in Syria against that of the USA, France and the UK.

It is worth noting that the three NATO states each have a history stained with blood, and that they are no more likely to act out of self-effacing beneficence than Russia itself: while Russia is backing its major Middle Eastern ally, they are backing the force they believe will be most likely to form a post-conflict alliance with them.

But there is no escaping the fact that Russia’s involvement in this conflict has been brutal. Human rights organisations – including Human Rights Watch itself – have noted and reported on a series of international war crimes committed by Russian forces, which have slaughtered civilians in houses and at market. In this, it is acting in exactly the same way as Assad himself, who has steadfastly refused to differentiate between military opponents and civilians who do not support him, and has slaughtered both without compunction.

Just because we recognise faults in ourselves – and we should and must do so – does not mean we should overlook crimes committed by others. In Syria, Russian activity is in breach of international law: it is a party to the massacre of more than 250,000 civilians killed by Assad and his allies, lately including Russian aircraft and missiles. If we do not stand against that, we must ask ourselves what we are prepared to stand for.

But however difficult or long such a battle may be, it appears likely that it may be a decisive one in the respective wars of the FSA and Assad’s forces*.

*For an analysis of the likely outcome of any ‘victory’ in the Syrian Civil War, click here.

And it is understandably regarded with terror by Syrian civilians.

By Sunday evening, at least 70,000 people had fled to the Turkish border, where they were being held, desperate, traumatised and exhausted, without shelter and in many cases still fearful that the destruction they see looming over their home will follow them north.

Turkey has officially closed its borders with Syria, only opening them – where it has any control at all – to allow people with urgent medical requirements to cross for treatment.

EU representatives, including its Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn, have demanded Turkey open its border to allow the thousands to leave Syria, pointing out that Turkey has not only a moral, but also a legal duty to do so, under the terms of the Geneva Convention.

The EU is correct, and Turkey should open its borders. But such ‘reminders’ ring less true in the light of the EU’s own deal with Turkey, in which it is paying €3bn for Turkey to ‘prevent Syrian refugees crossing into Europe’.

The battle for Aleppo appears to be looming. Tens of thousands have already fled the region, and should matters develop as swiftly as they have in the last week, hundreds of thousands more will be imminently faced with death by starvation, the bullet, or bombs.

Turkey must open its borders, but it is also time for the European Union to use its immense wealth and organisational capacity to rescue people who have nowhere left to run.

If there is a legal and moral case for the single state of Turkey to help people – and there certainly is – then how much greater is that case for the 27 states in the world’s richest political bloc to do so?

Europe has so far failed in almost every aspect of the Syrian Civil War and crisis it has created. But we all benefit from every life which is saved, and the EU has the cash, and the capacity, to save hundreds of thousands of human beings at this moment.

The opportunity to do something so obviously and unquestionably just and correct seldom arises. It must not be missed.


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