A massive summit on aid to Syria was hosted in London in early Feb 2016 – attended by David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State John Kerry. The UK government prides itself on leading the humanitarian effort to Syria, and hopes to prod other countries into stepping up their game. So what is the UK actually doing to help Syria, and is it really helping?
There has been a brutal civil war going on in Syria since 2011. We explained in another article how and why it started, and how so-called Islamic State (ISIS) got involved. To date, over 250,000 people have been killed, most of whom by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
13.5 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance. The United Nations has received credible reports of people dying of starvation. Nearly 5 million have left Syria to arrive in neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Jordan. That’s according to figures from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Meanwhile, estimates of Syrians who have travelled to Europe are in their hundreds of thousands.
For one, Britain is a member of the United Nations and therefore has the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) the populations of countries where the governments are no longer holding themselves accountable for the welfare of their people.
For another, the Middle East is an important region, with many powerful nations involved like Iran and Saudi Arabia. What happens in the Middle East has big consequences for what happens in the rest of the world, partly because it is home to the world’s largest oil reserves. If the UK wants to make sure that what goes down in the Middle East suits its own trade interests and national security, then it needs to be involved. No such thing as a selfless act.
Explore: Western relations in the Middle East:
Britain says that these four things it is doing will help Syria. People will argue, though, over whether these things actually do help.
#1 Massive cash injection.
The donation from Britain has totalled £1.1 billion since 2012 – going straight to refugee camps in Syria and surrounding countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. At a conference in early February 2016, they doubled that money – pledging another billion on top. The only larger donor is the United States. The funds are passed to “implementing partners” like the Red Cross or Save the Children, who then provide immediate and basic aid like food, water and hygiene as well as supporting education and dealing with emergency trauma. A new focus is on jobs and schooling in Lebanon. Emily Ashton of Buzzfeed hasn’t missed the fact that this strategy also encourages refugees to stay over there rather than coming over here.
#2 More cash – apparently partly to fund moderate armed groups.
This neat little infographic on the UK government’s Syria Crisis Response also mentions £9.5 million from the UK Conflict, Stability and Security Fund to “support local capacity and build long term stability.”
What is this money actually used for? Supporting “local capacity” could literally mean anything. We had a little dig, and according to this parliamentary document, it is partly funding “moderate armed opposition groups” operating in Syria. Here’s the million dollar question: can we be sure that funding moderate armed groups will definitely help Syria? When we say “help Syria,” what do we even mean?
Here’s one way to argue it: The reality is that a civil conflict is being fought against a powerful dictatorial regime (Assad) which has probably used chemical weapons against its own population. Other big states in the region (looking at you, Iran and Saudi) are injecting money and weapons into the conflict on all sides for their own ends. Meanwhile, the so-called Islamic State are fighting everyone like there is literally no tomorrow. Someone has got to come out on top, and the UK might as well throw its weight behind those armed forces who “have a moderate and unified vision for the country” and who might otherwise be too weak to face off the Assad regime or ISIS.
Here’s a counter to that argument: Aid provided to armed groups has at times ended up indirectly in the hands of ISIS. If equipment is dumped so that soldiers can escape the decapitating forces of ISIS, then that equipment is up for grabs. Also, Western countries have in the past backed armed groups who later evolved into the very Islamic militants being fought against today. Can we be sure the same won’t happen again? Have we learned from past mistakes?
#3 Getting people to sit down and talk it through (hopefully).
Britain has repeatedly stated that what it wants for Syria is a lasting political settlement, and David Cameron has repeatedly stated that “Assad must go.” The UK was part of an international effort, along with the US, Russia, France, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan (but not a single Syrian representative?!) to get warring parties to talk about peace. These peace talks are due to start very soon in Geneva – the end of January 2016 – and will last 6 months. The problem? There is still wrangling about who exactly gets to attend these peace talks, so there may not be much good will at the table even before they begin.
#4 Airstrikes and fighting ISIS.
How do you get rid of ISIS? Like the US and France, Britain is currently going for the airstrike option. Whether this works against ISIS, you can argue for days over whether this actually helps Syria. Does it reduce violence in the short- or long-term? Does bombing Syria’s oil fields hurt ISIS, but also hurt Syria’s chances for post-war recovery? Or is anything we can do to stop ISIS the best thing in a bad situation?
In the meantime, knowledge is power. No, seriously it is. Get decoded on how the Syria crisis started right here. Or get a closer look into politics and Western involvement in the Middle East through our video series on Saudi Arabia.