Earlier this month, aid group Syria Relief and Development traveled to Idlib Province to pass out clothing and toys to children. Two days later, a missile struck the town, killing half of its residents.
The incident highlights the limits on what aid groups can do to relieve the suffering of Syrians caught in the endlessly escalating conflict.
“We can distribute aid each day, we can treat the injured, but to be honest, our leaders need to know that even if we were to throw billions of dollars worth of humanitarian aid at Syria, it does not circumvent the need to find a political solution now. This situation is not sustainable for the long term,” says Jomana Qaddour, a Syrian living in the US who has been volunteering as a legal counsel for the aid group.
This week the Syrian conflict marks its two-year anniversary. What started as a protest movement has transformed into a civil war that has claimed more than 70,000 lives, forced more than 1 million Syrian refugees to flee the country, and displaced more than 2.5 million inside Syria.
The scope of the humanitarian crisis has grown so much that it often exceeds the capacity of those working to deliver adequate assistance. Aid workers say that the situation is only expected to worsen considerably in the coming year, hindering an already underfunded aid effort.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to show no willingness to leave office. The dividing lines between Syria’s sects, ethnic groups, and political parties have grown so deep that if Mr. Assad were to unexpectedly step down or be assassinated, the civil war would likely continue along new frontlines.
“There are areas where you have rebel advances and rebel successes, you have areas where the regime has hit hard, but ultimately it looks like it’s just a bitter stalemate,” says Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
If the situation continues as it is now, the United Nations has warned that the number of refugees could climb to nearly 3 million by the end of this year.
This week, the United Nation’s World Food Programme announced that, due to funding shortages, it may begin having trouble delivering supplies. Since August 2011, the organization has distributed 83,000 metric tons of food, a weight equivalent to about 500 jumbo jets, to millions of Syrians, despite a myriad of challenges.
“This emergency is one of the most complex that we have dealt with,” says Laure Chadraoui, a public information officer for WFP. “We have logistical difficulties turning the money into food that we can buy and then move inside Syria to reach the 14 governorates. We have security challenges, obviously, we have to ensure the safety of our staff, of our trucks, of the food, and the people we serve. But above all we have funding constraints. Without the money, we won’t be able to buy the food and assist a big number of people in Syria.”
To continue its work from now until June, the organization needs $156 million, or roughly 40 percent of the total amount of humanitarian assistance the US has pledged to Syria thus far.
In January, international donors pledged $1.5 billion to provide humanitarian assistance to Syrians via UN programs. To date, however, less than a quarter of the promised money has been spent, with many UN offices saying they’ve received none of the assistance money pledged largely by Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
“As always with these international emergencies these donor countries have actually got to come through with the pledge, they actually have to make those resources available,” says Carolyn Miles, CEO of Save the Children. “We’ve got to get those resources from donor countries to start flowing through those agencies and into the programs.”
With 3 million buildings damaged or destroyed amid the fighting and a generation of Syrian children missing years of schooling – in Aleppo only 6 percent of children attend school – the nation will likely require a long and sustained international commitment if it is to rebuild. Prior to the war, Syria was one of the poorest Arab countries and two years of fighting has now left its economy in shambles.
“This is a country that does not have any major raw resources, like oil and gas. How are you going to reconstruct Syria? How are you going to put together the social fabric, the various communities?” says Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. “My take is that very few nations will contribute the funds necessary … to really begin the reconstruction.”