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No bright light at the end of Syria’s devastating humanitarian crisis

The Syrian conflict has been continually punctuated with reports indicating an overall worsening of the humanitarian crisis

Brooklyn Middleton

Published: Updated:

For over three years now, the Syrian conflict has been continually punctuated with reports indicating an overall worsening of the humanitarian crisis. The world knows the situation is dire but with kidnappings rampant and various actors restricting access to besieged areas, there is ultimately still a limited amount of information from on the ground sources. That said, I recently had the opportunity to meet Thomas*, an aid worker operating in Syria who has worked extensively throughout the Middle East in extremely restrictive environments. While reluctant to engage in any discussion on the politics of the situation and while refusing to indicate who is predominately responsible for the indiscriminate targeting of civilians (“all parties, all actors, everyone”) he asserted that as the conflict drags on, international political pressure for a ceasefire cannot wane.

Foremost, Thomas indicated that the Syrian conflict is unlike any other he has worked in before; the security threats are seemingly unprecedented with some actors allowing limited humanitarian aid projects, but others threatening interference which could mean harming any foreign aid worker who returns to the area again. But when I asked him if international military pressure would better ensure protection of civilians he rejected it immediately, stating that a political solution – as unlikely as it seems now – is the only solution.

When asked which humanitarian issues – and there is a seemingly infinite amount of them - are given precedence over others, Thomas said it was too difficult to categorize the humanitarian needs in such a black and white manner. But he did explain that the primary method of aid work currently remains wholly predicated on implementing emergency, first-aid measures. This means that the main focus continues to be facilitating access to basic, critical elements of everyday life including medical care, shelter, clean water, and food. All of which are currently supported by donor funds totalling millions each month and all of which are periodically and strategically held hostage for political or military purposes.

Relying on humanitarian care

Thomas elaborated on this, pointing out that while the agricultural system has been breaking down month after month during the entirety of the conflict, famine is not yet imminent but nonetheless the situation certainly remains on the brink of utter catastrophe.

With the protracted war likely to continue dragging on for years to come, the notion that “donor fatigue” will not undoubtedly set in is romantic at best

Brooklyn Middleton

Simply stated, the current system of humanitarian care is only sustainable if the millions of dollars keep pouring in.

Thomas said: “If the people are not able to grow their own food in sufficient quantities, which cannot happen without a peace deal, then it is a massive burden on donor nations to continue supplying those millions.”

Meanwhile, even gaining access to the areas of critical needs still remains all but impossible. “We are only trying to get acceptance from the community, whether it’s the civilian council, the head of the Sharia court, or any other actor in the location, we tell them, ‘we are here to help these people and require unimpeded and safe access,” Thomas said.

Sometimes the various actors facilitate this and sometimes they most certainly do not.

Polio outbreak

The need to guarantee aid workers’ access to civilians was further demonstrated by a United Nations’ report made public last week, indicating that the recent polio outbreak in Syria – the first in nearly a decade – is “the most challenging outbreak in the history of polio eradication.”

The reemergence of the illness is also the latest reminder that the ongoing Syrian conflict has ramifications on the entire region; a six-month-old child was diagnosed with the illness in Iraq’s Anbar province – the first detection of polio in the entire country since 2000.

It is widely accepted that the disease originated from Syria where at least 25 children have been paralyzed by the illness. The Save the Children organization’s thorough report on the polio outbreak warned that the actual figures are cloaked in secrecy and reliance on personal accounts is extensive. With that being said, the actual number of children paralyzed by the disease is likely far higher; moreover, their report stated that upwards of 80,000 other Syrian children could be infected with polio.

It remains unclear to what degree efforts to implement a vaccination campaign will prove effective but given that aid efforts have been consistently, and often intentionally, stymied, it does not look positive.

Ultimately, aid workers like Thomas can continue providing emergency care – to say nothing of the 20+ years of development aid Syria will undoubtedly need post conflict - for as long as the donor community continues contributing those critical funds. But with the protracted war likely to continue dragging on for years to come, the notion that “donor fatigue” will not undoubtedly set in is romantic at best and fails to reflect the current reality - increasing the chances that Syrian civilians, cruelly, have yet to face the worse.

* Name has been changed to protect the aid worker’s identity.

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Brooklyn Middleton is an American Political and Security Risk Analyst reporting from Israel. Her work has appeared in Turkish and Israeli publications including The Times of Israel and Hürriyet Daily News. She has previously written about U.S. President Obama's policy in Syria as well as the emerging geopolitical threats Israel faces as it pursues its energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. She is currently researching Ayatollah Khomeini’s influence on Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant groups to complete her MA in Middle Eastern Studies. You can follow her on Twitter here: @BklynMiddleton.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.