Lina Sergie Attar
CEO and Founder, Karam Foundation
Turkey Country Director, Syrian American Medical Society
Independent Consultant; Research Director, Operation and Policy Center
Senior Advisor to the Vice President for Middle East and North Africa, United States Institute of Peace
Arab Center Washington DC
About the Webinar
Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) held a webinar on February 24, 2022 to examine the current situation in Syria, titled “The Deteriorating Humanitarian Crisis in Syria: Is There an End in Sight?” Four experts offered analyses and assessments: Lina Sergie Attar, CEO and Founder at Karam Foundation; Mazen Kewara, Turkey Country Director at Syrian American Medical Society; Karam Shaar, an independent consultant as well as Research Director at Operation and Policy Center; and Mona Yacoubian, Senior Advisor to the Vice President for Middle East and North Africa, United States Institute of Peace. Radwan Ziadeh, Senior Fellow at ACW, served as moderator.
Mazen Kewara began his remarks by offering updated statistics about the humanitarian situation in Syria: 14.6 million people are in extreme need; 20 million are food insecure; 2.4 million children remained out of school in 2021; over 2 million live in informal settlements and camps (this is a 5 percent increase since 2020); there was a 97 percent increase in food prices between December 2020 and December 2021; more than 50 percent of health care workers have left the country; only 65 percent of hospitals and 56 percent of public health care centers are fully functional; there were 30 attacks on health care facilities in 2021; and there were 1,874 civilian casualties reported in 2021, 636 of whom were children. He referred to the situation as a “humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.”
Kewara explained the challenges faced by the health care sector in Syria, particularly in areas outside government control, and he focused on the northwestern region of Syria where his group, the Syrian American Medical Society, operates. The first challenge he outlined was access for humanitarian aid to get into the country, and he discussed UN Security Council resolution 2585 regarding aid coming through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in northwestern Syria. Kewara argued that such a humanitarian service should not be politicized among Security Council members. In addition, he urged the support of local agendas and nongovernmental organizations working on the ground. Kewara said that COVID-19 is another formidable challenge, as a new surge in positivity rates is unfolding in Syria and the vaccination ratio is very low (only 6 percent have taken two doses). Resources are overstretched, he added, with medical supplies limited and hospital beds full. Third, Kewara said the conflict has resulted in the immigration of many health care workers out of the country, so the lack of qualified medical personnel and specialized medical education is pressing. Fourth, he asserted that there needs to be much more funding of health care and the rehabilitation of the health infrastructure of the country. Kewara stressed that the long-term health requirements of the Syrian people must be addressed and not just their emergency needs.
Mona Yacoubian said that at present, Syria is not generating a lot of attention in Washington, noting that intertwined economic and humanitarian crises are driving the suffering and humanitarian hardship in the country. Although “the era of large-scale military offensives and large-scale displacement is largely over” in Syria, she stated, the conflict has settled into a “protracted, at times violent stalemate.” She cited extreme poverty, food insecurity, climate change, a severe drought, winter storms, and fuel shortages as some of the profound challenges Syrians face. Yacoubian said that for the Biden Administration, Syria is now a lower priority, as is the Middle East in general, especially in light of the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine. She noted that there is no high-level envoy to Syria in the current administration, whose priority remains countering the Islamic State. There is also an assumption that President Bashar al-Assad is here to stay, so the focus now is on the humanitarian situation in Syria.
Yacoubian characterized UN Security Council resolution 2585 as a significant achievement and stressed the importance of keeping the Bab al-Hawa border crossing operational; failing that, it is imperative that donors start to think creatively about how to funnel humanitarian aid into the country. She said that efforts toward “early recovery” should focus on the resilience and stabilization of local communities, and that funding should continue and even increase, especially in northeastern Syria. Politically, Yacoubian noted the importance of consolidating the de facto cease-fire so large-scale offensives do not resume. In addition, she urged keeping an eye on Iran and its posture in Syria, especially in the context of the current negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. She concluded that there was a “cruel paradox” playing out in Syria now, where violence is generally “at an all-time low, but humanitarian suffering is at all-time high”; nevertheless, she said, in this 12th year of the conflict, the situation is well beyond being called a humanitarian emergency. Further, Yacoubian asserted that any assistance be subjected to accountability and transparency and not exploited by Assad regime, so that aid benefits the Syrian people. As for the situation of Syrian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon, she said that it is precarious, especially economically. Another concern, Yacoubian added, is the increased threat of the forced return of refugees to Syria, as the situation calms and the regime says that their return is safe; she said this would contravene international law.
Karam Shaar examined the political and economic conditions in Syria, saying that the economic situation is now worse than during the beginning of uprising. Even though military violence is currently at its lowest point, he added, multiple factors are exacerbating the situation for Syrians: Lebanon’s banking crisis; the coronavirus pandemic; family feuds within the regime; US sanctions; and the bad economic situation in Iran, which is the economic backer of the Assad regime.
Shaar stated bleakly that “we might be headed toward a famine in Syria if current trends continue” as a result of three principal factors: the severity of the current drought; the fact that 90 percent of Syrians already live below poverty line, with 60 percent not knowing where their next meal is coming from; and declining humanitarian funding, which is at its lowest level since 2014. In reviewing the politics and economics of aid, Shaar stated that UN-facilitated aid to Syria, coupled with Syrian government aid, are what people rely on; they cannot subsist without this assistance. However, he said, the “aid is being stolen so clearly” through multiple channels: by contracts with regime cronies; by the way the regime grants aid to loyalist areas more than other areas; and by exchange rate channels and policies that benefit the Assad regime. This is one area that Shaar urged the United Nations and the international community to try to correct expeditiously. He also admonished the aid agencies to do more to address long-term needs, saying that “you can’t just keep on giving people money to eat and a tent to live in” as this is not tenable in the long run. Shaar recommended an increase in humanitarian funding, despite all the shortcomings of the politics of the assistance. He added that it is crucial to find mechanisms for increased accountability, investigate how aid money is being spent in Syria, and review the current sanctions. Shaar concluded that the situation keeps getting worse in Syria and the world needs to redouble efforts to bring it to the international forefront again, as the problems there are far from over.
Lina Sergie Attar expressed her lack of optimism in real political change, citing the failure of the international community to invest in human potential, especially in Syria. She spoke about the positive efforts that the Karam Foundation has been pursuing since 2013 on behalf of Syrian refugee children and youth to mitigate the cycles of trauma and despair that they experience. The foundation’s work focuses on refugees at the Syrian border in southern Turkey and in Istanbul, using three different interventions: ensuring the children are in school and not succumbing to child labor practices and early marriages; providing innovative education and centering teenagers (14-18 years) so that they continue their schooling and gain life skills; and creating access to higher education for this population.
Attar recounted stories of some Syrian youth in Turkey who have excelled in the foundation’s programs, which she said aim to develop leadership skills and help the young Syrians to be creative and to feel that they matter. Attar said that many in the Syrian community who are involved in humanitarian assistance grapple with the knowledge that they, alone, cannot fix the problem in Syria, that “it is bigger than all of us.” She noted that many important solutions emanate from civil society, and this is also the case in Syria—that the international community should listen to and partner with civil society actors there. Attar lamented the fact that each year, aid agencies say that winter has been harsh and that the tents of the refugees and internally displaced persons have been destroyed; this, she said, begs for a more enduring solution, such as replacing the tents with shelters. She urged long-term solutions across the board. Asking what humanitarian aid really means, she answered her own question with the words, “humanitarian intervention should be intervening for the interests of the people.”