Syria (1 of 3): A catastrophic humanitarian situation

Syria has grabbed headlines of international media for months but especially after the August chemical weapons attack that raised the stakes of an international (US) retaliation to punish the supposedly responsible Syrian regime. The roots and development of the crisis, the multiplicity and changing composition of the actors involved, and the complex international alliances and power games played around this conflict make Syria one nightmare scenario, especially for the situation on the ground but also for the level of difficulty for understanding and analysis.

In the last weeks most media have centered around arguments pro and against the intervention, with analytical lines based its legality (or lack thereof) under International Law; the application of normative principles as the Responsibility to Protect; the adequate response for a chemical attack (and only for some voices, doubts around who perpetrated it); and strategic considerations about potential regional shifts in this already unstable environment if an external action takes place.

In this this The Making of War and Peace series about the Syrian situation, I’ll try to find and show here the most useful resources to follow this conflict and understand different positions. The series will unfold like this:

  1. The first post (this one) focus on a few aspects of the catastrophic humanitarian situation created and the responses undertaken as well as in a brief summary of this complex crisis and its evolution.
  2. Time of actors: international powers (the US, UK, France, Russia, China) and regional countries (Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia). What are their interests and strategic calculations? What are their positions and/or doubts and what is behind them? September 16th
  3. Key debates: legality/illegality of intervention according to international Law; relevant Law regarding chemical weapons; relevant approaches and doctrines for the protection of civilians. And, is there a responsibility to protect (and if it is the case, why is it so selectively applied)? September 18th

Just hope it is useful.


The conflict started in the spring 2011 with popular protests that matched others in the region under the Arab Uprisings. The regime undertook a few changes in security and political structures and engaged in repression, something that triggered more protests and demonstrations and later armed responses in some cities and regions. International sanctions and diplomatic moves took place throughout the year, although action by the UNSC was restricted by Russia and China positions on behalf of the regime, while the US, UK and France opposed. Opposition groups joined the Syrian National Council as the main opposition body and fighting intensified. The Council was recognized as a legitimate representative of Syrian people at an international conference held in Turkey by April 2012.

By the end of 2012 violence had exploded long time ago and reached regional levels affecting places in Turkey and involvement by Israel. The opposition formed the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The UNSC estimated around 70.000 the civilians killed in this conflict by then. US support (weapons) to the rebels intensified, but also did doubts and evidences about involvement of jihadist foreign fighters in violence, with their own interests and political goals.

In June 2013 the first allegations of chemical weapons use arose, and also US support for rebel groups. A ‘red line’ for the regime was set up by the US in the use of those weapons. But in August 21, Syrian anti-regime activists claimed that the Government used chemical weapons in an attack on civilians. According to those sources, more than 1,300 people were killed in the attack. Evidences of use were found (there were UN inspectors in the country before the attack that were allowed to conduct investigations). However, conclusive evidence about the responsibility for the attack proved more difficult to find. At any case, the international trumps of war began.

The humanitarian situation

Syria is facing a huge humanitarian crisis, with about one-third of its 21 million population in situation of refuge or internal displacement. Humanitarian actors and UN agencies estimate that 4.25 million people have fled their homes although remaining in the country, while 2 million more have reached one of the neighboring ones. Around 5.000 persons are fleeing every day according to RELIEFWEB, the humanitarian news service of the UN that provides useful updates.

Two million children have left school only since the end of the last academic year. The situation deteriorates every day and the upsurges of violence result in further displacement and increase the vulnerability of the whole population. Civilians throughout the country become trapped in areas surrounded by violence. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), around 4 million people are at risk of food insecurity and more than half of the public hospitals have limited or no capacity to address needs. The health system is in the point of collapse.

Syria is probably nowadays the most compelling international crisis and (for sure) the one with more media attention and coverage. Real and potential Western involvement plays an important role here. However, and as happened in the past, attention and debate about international options does not automatically translate into attention for people in need. Many humanitarian organizations and UN personnel (not to mention the local Red Crescent volunteers that are paying a huge prize in death and personal injury) are fighting to address the needs and reach new areas.

The international humanitarian response is scarce from the part of donors. The UN system has requested 1.5 billion dollars for the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP), of which only a 45% has been funded. The Financial Tracking Service (FTS) informs that a lower 42% is the funding reached for the Regional Refugee Response Plan (RRP), budgeted in 3 billion dollars. The figures can be better seen in this graphic:

Source: Financial Tracking System, UN (

Source: Financial Tracking System, UN (

There is a sheering scale of attention that gives preeminence to high level political figures and leaders, especially when war-talk is in the room. At other moments, when diplomacy and negotiation are on their way, attention lowers although remains high when (as now) the crisis is unfolding.

It is ok to pay attention to grandiloquent statements, and even more to negotiations and to people figuring alternative paths to find political solutions. What is at odds with any supposed preoccupation with the protection of civilians is not responding to the immediate circumstances of people in need.

What do you think that Syrians need more?

Looking for additional resources?

The CNN provides here a useful timeline of this conflict and episodes or regional and international involvement. Some basic (or as they say, the “very very” basic) facts about Syria can be found in this Washington Post blog. For interesting historical, cultural and political information, check this piece by The Guardian.

If you need additional information, the BBC World Service provides a complete dossier about the Syrian conflict with background, basic facts, actors involved, international alliances and the forth. A useful resource is this page by the Syrian Needs Analysis (SNS) project, by ACAPS, including maps. For live updates, don’t miss the Syria Live Blog at Al Jazeera.

Next post: The actors (2 of 3; Monday 16th)