United Nations fights donor fatigue for Syrian civilians and refugees
By Steven Erlanger
As the long Syrian war drags into its 10th year, conditions for Syrian civilians are deteriorating quickly, with rapid inflation and the coronavirus pandemic adding to their travails. On Tuesday, donors met virtually in Brussels at a conference hosted by the European Union and United Nations to try to find the money to keep the poorest Syrians alive.
After almost a decade of violence, the Syrian government of Bashar Assad has mostly won the country’s civil war, aided by Russia and Iran and their proxies. But with Turkey increasing its own forces inside northwestern Syria, with up to 10,000 troops around Idlib province, a sort of military stalemate has taken hold since March in parts of the country.
The meeting of the donors in Brussels, which included some 80 governments and nongovernmental organizations, was focused solely on humanitarian aid, not reconstruction. That will have to wait for the war to end and a political settlement. Collectively, the donors pledged $5.5 billion for this year, plus a further $2.2 billion for 2021.
The aid is meant to be targeted toward Syrians in need throughout the country, whether in government-controlled areas or rebel ones, and to Syrian refugees in neighboring countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as Egypt and Iraq. Donors have for years pushed the United Nations and aid groups to ensure that the aid reaches those who need it, regardless of political control.
Life in Syria is getting worse even for those under government control, and the amount pledged here will still leave many destitute.
U.N. officials say that with raging inflation, a basket of basic food items providing 2,000 calories each for a family of five costs at least 200% more than it did a year ago. At the same time, salaries are stagnant.
The price of that basic monthly food basket is now 80,000 Syrian pounds ($155.94), while the average monthly salary is 64,000 pounds, said Corinne Fleischer, the World Food Program’s director for Syria.
After nine years of war, some 9.3 million people inside Syria are considered “food insecure,” an increase of 1.4 million in the last six months alone. Half a million children are considered to have been stunted from malnutrition.
Fleischer, based in Damascus, said her teams were helping 4.5 million people a month — fewer than half those now considered food insecure — and still have a funding shortfall of some $200 million.
“There is real desperation now, even in Damascus, with the inflation,” Fleischer said. “A lot of shops have closed, here and in Aleppo, too. It’s a downward spiral.”
Mark Lowcock, the United Nations’ undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said, “The numbers are really unfathomable.’’
But, he added, there is also a particularly significant obstacle to getting aid to the embattled northwest, where the Syrian government is still trying to establish control.
The authorization for the U.N. to use two border crossing points for aid from Turkey into northwest Syria, including Idlib province, runs out on July 10, Lowcock said. Those crossings are the lifeline for some 2.8 million people, 70% of the region’s population, many of whom are displaced from elsewhere in Syria.
More than half of them are children with high rates of malnutrition. “There is no other way to reach them,” Lowcock said.
But the U.N. Security Council has been dragging its feet on acting, with Russia and China slow to respond. In December Russia and China vetoed a resolution allowing aid to cross at four points, and later voted to allow only these two crossing points to operate for six months.
Assad’s government monitors aid workers and deliveries in areas it controls, and can make it difficult to do the kind of evaluations that donor countries would like, according to Fleischer, the World Food Program’s Syria director. That has sometimes led to aid agencies stopping distribution in the south, but the U.N. is clear about trying to provide aid to those who need it wherever they are.
The U.N. had asked for nearly $10 billion — $3.8 billion for aid inside Syria, including $380 million to respond to the coronavirus as it spreads there, plus another $6 billion to aid countries hosting Syrian refugees.
Lowcock said the money for the virus would go toward testing kits and supplies to distribute throughout Syria in preparation for a higher rate of infection, as has been seen in Yemen and Iran.
“A country whose health system has been destroyed in the war cannot be expected to cope with COVID,” he said.
Before this meeting Lowcock said the U.N. had about 25% of what it needed, but that is roughly on track with last year, when the total sought was lower, about $9 billion. About $7 billion of that was pledged at this conference last year.
This year, donors pledged $5.5 billion, plus a further $2.2 billion for 2021. That is “not a bad outcome,” said Lowcock, who was the co-chairman of the meeting, along with the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles.
The European Union pledged 2.3 billion euros ($2.6 billion) over the next two years, Fontelles said. Adding in additional money from member states, Europe pledged $3.6 billion for this year, plus another $2 billion for 2021 and beyond.
Since 2011, the bloc and its member states have provided 20 billion euros in aid for Syrians in need.
The United States pledged nearly $700 million, bringing the American total to more than $11.3 billion since the start of the Syria crisis, said James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement.
Germany pledged 1.6 billion euros, and Britain will contribute some 300 million pounds ($368 million).
When the Syrian war began nine years ago, Syria had about 22 million people. Currently some 6.7 million people are internally displaced, and 6.6 million are refugees. Officials have stopped trying to count the number of dead, which are estimated by some groups, like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, to be as many as 580,000.
An estimated 80% of Syrians live in poverty. Syria’s currency plummeted last fall in connection with a financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon, where many Syrians kept their money; this has compounded the crisis.
In about a month, the Syrian pound fell from about 1,800 to the dollar to about 3,100 on the black market, destroying the purchasing power of government employees. Prices for imported staples such as sugar, coffee, flour and rice have doubled or tripled.