Syria: where do we go from here?

As the UN’s stalemate remains in place, with no official intervention, former DiA volunteer Lydia Greenaway explores the differing attitudes towards intervening and what the key issues are

syria refugees

More than one million Syrians have been displaced since the civil war started

The Syrian civil war is showing no sign of slowing down. Last month was said to be the deadliest so far, with an estimated 6,000 deaths in just 30 days. According to Christian Aid, more than 1 million civilians have already fled the country due to the mounting violence and there is a strong likelihood that many more are yet to follow. The pressure on aid agencies to get urgent, life-saving support to vulnerable refugees is only intensifying.

International aid agencies have been providing refugees, both in Syria and bordering countries, where many have fled to, with basic provisions of food, shelter and clothing, which has been increasingly essential throughout the long and cold winter months that are thankfully now drawing to a close. However, attention to long-term aid is now becoming a key area of concern. Establishing education is imperative, instability and loss of access to schools posing a serious risk to the long-term wellbeing of children and young adults.

Increased attention is being directed towards the need for emotional support, particularly for women and children, to support those recovering from their experience of violence and the loss of their family members and community, and to help them start re-building their lives, despite the ongoing uncertainty of when they will be able to return home. Charities like Action Aid and Save the Children have pointed out particular concern regarding emotional distress and have allocated resources towards psychosocial development and support.

But what kind of long-term support should they be preparing for? Resources are far from plentiful, let alone endless. Without a light at the end of the tunnel, there is rising apprehension over the fact that the enormous relief effort from organisations around the world can’t be expected to go on forever.

The question that’s now creeping up on world decision-makers is whether or not further steps should be made to bring the war to an end. In 2011 the UN authorized a coalition military intervention in Libya, which brought together more than 20 countries worldwide to assist the Libyan people in bringing Gaddafi’s regime to a close. The conflict in Syria has already spiralled far beyond the devastating impact that was felt in Libya. While the highest estimations of the Libya death toll reached 25,000, the two-year Syrian civil war has already taken more than 70,000 lives.

So why hasn’t the same kind of intervention taken place? The UN’s Responsibility to Protect mandate is the manifestation of the human rights movement and the positive duty of an international order to protect all people against gross violations of human rights. It was this mandate that took military forces into Libya, and under the same code, the case for intervention in Syria is a pressing and urgent one.

But there are plenty of reasons not to go to war in Syria. Some of the world’s most powerful countries are divided: Iran, Russia and China are said to support Assad’s government, while western countries and the Arab League have shown their support for rebel forces. The UN Security Council is not currently in a position to act, the demand for intervention vetoed repeatedly by Russia and China, to the contempt of other nations.

Questions of whether or not countries will begin taking action into their hands, and whether this can only have perilous outcomes, are beginning to emerge. Last year Turkey urged the West to take action against Assad, and threatened intervention, while it has also been reported that Iran is ready to deploy troops to offer Assad support. Pressure has been put on the US to intervene, but not without opposing pressure to leave its military forces out of Syria, and it looks unlikely that the US will deploy any more than peace-keeping forces. Any military intervention will not go without a response, not only from Syria, but likely from other countries, so any military move will come with precarious risks. The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan raised his concern, saying that military intervention in Syria can now only do more harm than good, claiming “we left it too late”.

But what else can be done? Attempts to hamper the conflict by putting an embargo on the arms trade with Syria have proved to be fairly feeble: Russia and Iran have continued arms sales to Assad’s regime, while Britain and France expressed fears that the embargo was seriously hindering rebel forces, urging the UN to lift the ban so that rebels can be properly armed against attack; the UN has now lifted the oil embargo.

This is not Libya. This time the world is divided. That fact brings with it irresolvable tensions, the lives of the most vulnerable hanging in the balance of difficult decisions. While decision-makers are in the throes of some frightening choices, the best that can be done for now is a continuation of the humanitarian relief that has reached Syria’s civilian population so far. If the risks of military intervention continue to be too hazardous, it seems that the Responsibility to Protect mandate will remain very much in the hands of aid agencies and relief workers, to rescue, protect and assist Syria’s most vulnerable, and to provide them with a pathway into a more stable future.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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