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7 trends that will shape humanitarian options in Syria

OPINION by Alexander Matheou

The Syrian capital of Damascus can be deceptive. It has the hustle and bustle of a regular city. People there talk of the eight-year conflict as something that is now drawing to a close. Yet you don’t have to look far to see that the humanitarian crisis is not over. It is just evolving.

Syria has been a priority context for humanitarian organizations since 2011. That will not change in the foreseeable future, but the way assistance is provided will.

For eight years, the aid agenda in Syria has largely focused on survival alone. In 2019, it will need to evolve to concentrate more on livelihoods and cash-based assistance.

Here are seven trends that shaped humanitarian work in Syria in 2018 and that will continue to do so in 2019, as we enter the ninth year of crisis.

1. Humanitarian need will remain enormous and access will remain a key constraint.

The sieges and blockades are largely over, but significant parts of the northeast and northwest and pockets in the east and in the south are still held by international armed forces or local armed groups. Humanitarian access will therefore still require negotiation with multiple stakeholders and will remain unpredictable for the foreseeable future. The role of the International Committee of the Red Cross as a neutral actor able to negotiate access with all parties will remain crucial.

2. Most of the people in need of assistance will be in government-controlled areas.

As a result of shifting front lines in 2018, the majority of Syrians inside Syria are now living in government-controlled parts of the country. This includes the majority of Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance. To reach these people, donors and agencies will need to invest more in coordinating via Damascus and less on delivering aid from across the borders of neighboring states. Some international NGOs and donors will struggle with this new reality, but that won’t change where the needs are greatest.

3. The concentration of internally displaced people in the north will mean that some cross-border aid will still be needed.

The majority of Syrians in need of assistance will be in government-controlled areas, but the majority of internally displaced people, for now, are still in the north, and cross-border aid may still be the surest way of delivering aid. Numbers may shift in 2019, however. As an indication, around 800,000 of the approximately 6 million internally displaced Syrians may have already gone back to their homes in government-controlled Syria over the last 12 months.

4. Refugees and internally displaced people will return home, but in smaller numbers than optimists are predicting.

Many families will probe opportunities to return home by sending single family members to test the water. Others may prefer living in their own semi-destroyed homes to living in a camp or imposing further on friends and relatives. But several factors will stop this becoming an influx.

First, significant parts of Aleppo, Homs, Raqqa, Eastern Ghouta, rural Damascus and other towns and cities, have been turned to rubble. There is no running water, no power, and few health facilities. Remarkably, some people are living in these conditions, but it is unlikely that large numbers will choose to do so.

Second, demography and land ownership in Syria have shifted around during the war, and many Syrians may not be able to go home to the land or communities they left.

Third, many of those who fled Syria still do not think it is safe to go back. There may be a growing narrative in 2019 that people can and should go back, but humanitarian organizations and donors will be right to insist that returns are voluntary.

5. Poverty will drive the need for aid more than fighting will.

Around 70 percent of Syrians are unemployed. The gross domestic product has reversed by 30 years. Half a million people have been disabled by the war. The army may in part be demobilized in 2019, but there will be no jobs waiting for the men who return home. Homes, businesses, and factories have been destroyed. There has been a massive brain drain of talent across borders into neighboring countries and Europe.

Aid will be one of the critical coping mechanisms that people use to survive. For eight years, the aid agenda in Syria has largely focused on survival alone. In 2019, it will need to evolve to concentrate more on livelihoods and cash-based assistance.

Some major donors will push back on any talk of rehabilitation in the current environment, but aid agencies will quite rightly insist that the innocent don’t suffer and that basic services such as water, power, and medical care should be restored.

6. Stabilization money will shrink even further before it grows again.

The current stabilization plans were premised on a totally different outcome than the one that has materialized in Syria in 2018. The current plans, therefore, are likely to be scrapped but few, if any, donors will want to talk about new stabilization proposals yet. That will require more confidence in a political process — which, of course, is what is needed most of all, but there were few hopeful signs as 2018 drew to a close.

7.The Syrian Arab Red Crescent will remain the critical national humanitarian actor.

There has been a lot of concern within the humanitarian sector about the prominence of a Damascus-based, Syrian organization coordinating so much of the response over the last eight years.

But few who have worked with SARC have anything but admiration for the commitment of its volunteers, over 60 of whom have been killed while trying to provide humanitarian assistance, often across front lines.

As we enter 2019, SARC is a different organization than it was even a year ago. It is more professional, thoughtful, more considerate of the future. It is a Syrian organization that operates within the realities of Syria, but it is independent-minded and committed to being guided by the ICRC principle of humanity. Critically, it is there for the long run — before, during, and after the current crisis. Supporting SARC will remain one of the major responsibilities of international partners, particularly in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

It will continue to be the case that the world will look at Syria with a political lens. Humanitarians will need to bear witness to the ways that ordinary lives have been shattered over the last eight years and need support to cope.

Alexander Matheou is the executive director of international for the British Red Cross. He has worked in the humanitarian sector for 20 years and has experience of working in the Middle East, South Asia, the former Soviet Union and Africa. His major areas of thematic experience include disaster management, risk reduction, good donorship practices, and aid effectiveness.

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