The Human Security in a War Zone. Brief Analysis of the Situation in Syria
HE Mr. Dan Sandovici
Ambassador of Romania to the Syrian Arab Republic
From a European perspective, what happens today in Ukraine, with all the consequences of the conflict in this country, is proof that our continent is not as shielded against armed confrontation and violations of human rights, as we all hoped until recently. As many Ukrainian citizens expressed their dismay seeing their homes and cities destroyed by the bombardments, we never thought that such events could happen in the 21st century. The geopolitical aspects of this conflict are relevant for a national level of security analysis. However, I believe the most important aspects of humankind are represented by an enormous amount of suffering and feeling of insecurity not only for the people in Europe but all over the globe.
Without going into theoretical details of human security, I will present some events and evolutions I saw in the Middle East, a region where I’ve been working as a diplomat for more than 20 years, and with a special focus on Syria, as I have been Ambassador of Romania to the Syrian Arab Republic for almost 15 years.
Broadly speaking, human security refers to a range of conditions that threaten the survival, livelihood and dignity of people and communities.
As we all know, in the Middle East and North Africa, the wave of revolutionary movements that started in 2011 in Tunisia, known as “The Arab Spring”, extended progressively towards almost all the Arab states. After Tunisia, other countries, like Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, faced protest movements of different intensities and results, calling for freedom, social justice, dignity and economic prosperity. In some cases, like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, those revolts led to regime change. In others, like Bahrain and Syria, the leadership succeeded to suppress the popular movements. In general, the results of the uprisings were not at the level of protesters’ expectations. As a French political analyst said, “The fruit doesn’t always respect the promise of the flowers”.
A particular case study is that of Syria, where the internal conflict has been raging for more than 11 years, with many external and internal actors involved in violent armed confrontations. From a human security perspective, the result is catastrophic. According to the reports of the United Nations, out of a population of 20 million, more than 500.000 people have been killed, about 5,6 million people are refugees in other countries and 6,9 million people are internally displaced. More than 14 million people can’t meet their most basic needs and are dependent on humanitarian aid. Nine out of ten Syrians, live in poverty. Women and children are the first to suffer as a result of the war.
The burden on the countries which host the Syrian refugees is considerable. I will not refer to the European states, because their situation is better known, but I will focus on Syria’s neighbouring countries, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
For Turkey, a country with a population of about 85 million, the presence of 3,5 million Syrian refugees looked manageable at the beginning. Well, it was not. In the last years, facing a very profound economic crisis and high inflation, Turkish public opinion started to point fingers at the Syrian refugees, blaming them for the economic difficulties. Some political parties seized the opportunity and used the promise of the Syrian refugees’ return as the main point of their programs in the presidential election race, scheduled for June 2023.
The bad news for them is that the Syrian refugees are not at all prepared to return to Syria, because nothing good is waiting for them in their country. From a security point of view, the armed confrontations are not over, the economy is on the brink of collapse and there is no hope for the amelioration of their living conditions in the short, medium, and even long term. Furthermore, young boys, who were at the age of over 10-12 years old when they left the territory of Syria with their parents, are now eligible for conscription in the Syrian army. From the moment they set foot on Syrian territory, they will be conscripted and sent to fight the militants of the Islamic State Organization in the North-East or those of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in the North-West, both organizations being listed terrorist groups by United Nations, in the first case, or by some countries like USA, Canada, Turkey etc., for the second one. So, despite the incentives promised by the Turkish authorities, very few refugees would consider going back to Syria. And, according to international laws, refugees cannot be forced to go to a country where their life would be in danger. The return must be voluntary, safe and dignified, and that is not the case, at least not for the moment.
The context is very similar in Lebanon. However, we must take into consideration the presence of 1,5 million Syrian refugees in a country with a population of around 6 million. In addition, Lebanon also hosts around 500.000 Palestinian refugees, who started arriving in the country in 1948. This situation makes from Lebanon the country with the highest number of refugees in the world, with a per capita ratio of 4:1, meaning that for every four nationals, there is one refugee.
The situation is not much different for Jordan, a country with a population of more than 10 million, which hosts around 674.000 Syrian refugees, of which more than 542.000 live in host communities. As Jordanian officials have mentioned many times, there are villages where the number of Syrian refugees is already higher than that of the locals. Despite the efforts of the United Nations agencies engaged in humanitarian assistance operations, the situation of those who live in tents, inside refugee camps, is extremely difficult, especially during the winter.
Economic security is another aspect to consider when we analyze the situation in Syria and Lebanon. The economies of those two countries are interconnected. The destruction of the Syrian economic infrastructure, during more than 11 years of internal conflict, led to a decrease in people’s living standards at catastrophic levels. If we add to those difficulties the collapse of the financial system of the neighbouring country, Lebanon, which has been for decades the first economic partner and “the financial lung” for Syria, as well the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and, lately, the economic outcome of the war in Ukraine, we can understand the steep rise of the number of cases of malnutrition in Syria, for the past 2-3 years.
In Lebanon, inflation and the collapse of the banking system caused a massive loss of purchasing power and an increase in poverty. After the internal conflict in Syria, with all the consequences for the neighbouring countries, especially for Lebanon, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the August 2020 huge explosion in the port of Beirut, the Lebanese and the Syrians learnt the hard way, to never say “things can’t get any worse”.
The support of UN organisations, various NGOs, the European Union and other international actors hasn’t succeeded in alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people. In this context, we must emphasize that the European Union is the biggest donor to the Syrian people, with a contribution for humanitarian assistance of more than 27 billion Euros since 2011.
Health security is another dimension taken into consideration when we evaluate the state of human security. What can we expect in a country where hundreds of hospitals and clinics were destroyed, sometimes systematically by some parties of the conflict? Moreover, the capacity of the public health system to help the people is very limited, as a high number of doctors and nurses took refuge outside of Syria. Despite the best efforts of the United Nations agencies involved in humanitarian assistance, their operations are not able to reach all the areas and all the people.
In this context, the outbreak of cholera in August 2022, coming from Iraq, was not so surprising. The disease was detected recently in the North-Eastern regions of Syria and it is currently spreading towards the North-West. The low level of individual hygiene and the use of contaminated water from the Euphrates River contributed to the spread of this epidemic, which reached already other regions and even Lebanon.
In addition to this, we can touch on another important topic of human security, which is environmental security. The lack of access to clean water sources is one of the basic but potent components of environmental threats.
Apart from the consequences of the armed conflict, the deterioration of the natural environment by climate change affected significantly the livelihood of the Syrian people. A drought that lasted for almost two decades in Syria forced the people from rural areas to move to the cities, swelling up the ranks of the poor urban communities. The suburbs of the big cities were the origins of the popular movements of protest at the beginning of 2011.
The very fragile stability currently existing in Syria, at least in the regions controlled by the Syrian government, will not last without steps taken in the political process. As Geir Pedersen, the Special Representative for Syria of the UN Secretary-General emphasized recently, there is a real risk of collapse of Syria “if we don’t move towards a nationwide cease-fire and get the political process back on track”. Syria, once at the top of the global agenda, now competes for attention with an array of global crises, including climate change, the war in Ukraine and its impact on global food and energy security.
As the challenges to the safety of people are transnational, effective responses can only be achieved through multilateral cooperation. Human security draws together the expertise and resources of a wide range of actors from the United Nations system, governments, the private sector, civil society and local communities. Let’s hope that the mobilization of all these entities will succeed to alleviate the life of the people affected by armed conflicts and insecurity in Syria, Ukraine and other countries. The old adagio “what happens in the Middle East remains in the Middle East” is not valid anymore. We are all affected by the evolutions in other regions, especially in neighbouring ones. And let’s not forget that the Middle East is a neighbouring region of Europe. If we help the people in need, we help ourselves.