Resilience, Peace and Security

What’s really going on in Syria?

A general view shows damaged buildings in the northwestern Homs district of Al Waer January 18, 2015.  REUTERS/Stringer

Damaged buildings in the north-western Homs district of Al Waer, Syria Image: REUTERS/Stringer

Joe Myers
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Middle East and North Africa

15 March 2016 marks five years of an armed conflict that has killed or wounded 11.5% of the Syrian population. The civil war, fought between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and others opposed to his reign, has almost obliterated national wealth and infrastructure, and forced more than 4.5 million Syrians to flee the country, leading to an unprecedented wave of refugees in neighbouring states and Europe.

Read on for rolling news updates or scroll further down for a full explainer on the Syrian crisis.

Latest news

  • World powers have agreed to a "cessation of hostilities" in Syria that will begin in a week after talks in Munich, Germany. There was no immediate commitment from Russia to end airstrikes against jihadist groups Islamic State and al-Nusra Front. Humanitarian aid is expected to be delivered to besieged areas across the country.
  • World leaders gathered in London on 4 February and pledged $10 billion for war-torn Syria. The money will be used for the education and employment for Syrian refugees. It comes at a critical time, with peace talks in Geneva also suspended in the same week.
  • UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in an interview with the BBC, has urged the international community to not only mobilize funds, but to “show unity of purpose in your political commitment towards Syria”.

What’s the picture on the ground right now?

What began as anti-government protests in 2011 has become a bloody stalemate, with the government of President Bashar al-Assad, ISIS and a variety of Syrian rebel and Kurdish fighter groups all holding territory.

Government forces are concentrated in Damascus, as well as the centre and west of Syria, where they are fighting ISIS and numerous rebel groups. These groups are strongest in the north and east of the country, and are also battling one another.

A Western-led coalition is carrying out air strikes, as is Russia.

The situation is complex, but the suffering of the people of Syria remains extreme. The latest figures suggest that nearly half a million people have died in the conflict, with 11 million others forced to flee their homes. Amnesty International estimates 50 families have been displaced every hour since the conflict began in 2011.

How is it affecting nearby countries?

The numbers are staggering. More than 4.5 million people have left Syria since the conflict began – but just 10% have gone to Europe. Over 2.5 million have fled to Turkey, more than a million to Lebanon and over half a million to Jordan.

Neighbouring countries are struggling to cope with one of the largest refugee movements in recent history – King Abdullah of Jordan has said his country is at “boiling point”.

According to UNICEF, we face the real prospect of a "lost generation" if the humanitarian response is not stepped up. This applies to the populations of host countries as well, as they struggle to provide school places for newcomers as well as their own citizens.

What are world leaders doing about it?

February's London conference saw $10 billion pledged to those affected by the conflict. Part of the reason for this vast sum is the underfunding of last year’s UN appeal, when less than half the promised money was made available.

So who were the biggest givers? The US has committed $900 million, and Germany pledged $2.5 billion by 2018.

British Prime Minister David Cameron called on world leaders to increase their aid donations, and promised $1.75 billion in new aid between now and 2020. “Sufficient funding to guarantee the basics of life that these refugees need must be the bare minimum expected of us,” he told the Guardian.

“The private sector plays a critical role in this respect," adds Miroslav Dusek, head of Middle East and North Africa at the World Economic Forum. "We are seeing an important momentum in the regional and international business community in finding new ways to support refugees, with a particular focus on education and health.”

What are the likely outcomes?

As the evidence from last year shows, pledges don’t necessarily turn into funding.

However, a coalition of humanitarian and human rights groups has called on governments to “help Syrians lead more proactive, dignified lives and ease the strain on host communities in neighbouring countries”.

The conference is aiming to ensure refugee children have access to a school place by 2017, and also hopes to open up trade to host countries – boosting local economies and providing for refugee populations.

“The relentless suffering of the Syrian people should be a global call to action for humanitarian assistance to alleviate suffering and for political action to bring the war to an end," David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, told Amnesty International.

Whether these aims materialize is impossible to predict, but one thing is for sure: the end of this enormous humanitarian tragedy and the future stability of the region depend not only on regional players, but governments, businesses and civilians around the world being able to work together to de-escalate the conflict.

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