Don’t talk about reconstruction, Syria is still at war

On 27 June, Human Rights Watch released a new report arguing that the Syrian government is co-opting humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance to entrench its repressive policies. The New York-based rights group found the government restricts access of humanitarian organisations to communities in need of aid, approves aid projects selectively, and imposes requirements on groups to partner with security-vetted local actors, ensuring aid is “siphoned through the abusive state apparatus to punish civilian populations it perceives as opponents, and reward those it perceives as loyal or who can serve its interests”. 

The reports raises valuable questions around the delivery of humanitarian assistance in areas under the control of the Government of Syria and its articulation with the humanitarian principles international organizations should abide by. Most organizations working to deliver humanitarian assistance to Syrian communities are currently struggling with the questions of operating from Damascus. It should be highlighted here that a limited number, even if there is a significant increase, of organizations (34 according to the latest available data) operating with a Government of Syria registration. These organizations represented 110 million dollars of humanitarian funding in 2018 while organizations operating cross-border (under UN resolution….) account for more than 2.2 billion dollars the same year.

But the question of whether to operate or not under a Government of Syria registration is not the point of this blog post. To me it is concerning to see Human Rights Watch asserting that “now, with the exception of Idlib, most of Syria appears to be moving into a low intensity or even post-conflict phase. The Syrian government has regained most of the territory.” This is exactly the rhetoric pushed by the Syrian authorities and its Russian and Iranian allies. For several months now we have seen this message being developed within the international community, including its governments and media outlets, namely that Bachar Al Assad won the war, that his government would control most of Syrian territory and that all actors should now start thinking about reconstruction.

This message is the message from Damascus and does not reflect the situation on the ground.

In Idlib the situation continues to escalate following the offensive launched by the Syrian Army with the support of Russian air forces in April 2019. Syrian forces were met by a strong resistance from Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) and other opposition forces which have gathered their troops to counter the government offensive. Opposition forces have demonstrated their capacities to hit the Syrian army and its Russian ally in their areas of control including by using drones and advanced weapons provided by Turkey. Syrian and Russian forces have on their side conducted a massive bombardements campaign, targeting civilian locations, especially hospitals and schools, leading to the displacement of more than 300,000 people. In the latest escalation, Turkish military posts have been targeted by Syrian forces, opening the door to a potential confrontation between Syria and Turkey, with Russia in the middle. Until a compromise is found, violence will continue to simmer in Idlib and there is no short-term perspective in which Damascus regains control of this enclave.

While very few reports are emerging from southern Syria, the situation there remains extremely volatile and far from being controlled by the regime. When the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) retook the south from rebels in mid-2018, Russian mediation limited the violence. Almost a year later, security and living conditions remain precarious; the regime has re-established authoritarian rule; and Iran-aligned groups may be trying to establish a presence near the armistice line with Israel.

But low-level activity against GOS and aligned personnel continue in southern Syria. Recently, in Dara’a, five small arms attacks were recorded against an Airforce Intelligence checkpoint in Da’el, a local mayor in Nawa, a reconciliation and settlement committee in Hrak town, a 4th Armoured Division vehicle on the Saham al Golan to Jlein road, and against Atman’s Reconciliation Committee Chairman on the Yadudeh to Mzeireb Road. An unidentified group also set fire to a 4th Armoured Division vehicle in Um Walid, while in As Sweida, a Syrian army major and a colonel were abducted on the Salkhad to As Sweida Highway on 17 June. This was the first abduction of its kind in the area on record. Demonstrations were also organized in several towns of the southern co-called reconciled areas showing that the contestation of the regime is still alive and will continue to survive.

In North East Syria while the situation could be seen as in a stabilization phase, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF – mainly composed of YPG kurdish fighters) are regularly challenged by the remaining presence of Islamic State cells. They also face dissents within their alliance with the Arab tribes that Damascus tries to manipulate against the Kurdish Self Administration. In any case the presence of foreign powers, mainly US forces, in this part of Syria makes any military operations by the Syrian regime and its allies quasi impossible. Only a diplomatic solution will allow Damascus to reassert a level of control in the north eastern part of the country.

While the government of Syria and its allies are actively pursuing funding from the international community to begin the reconstruction phase, large parts of the territory remain under the control of various actors, HTS and other opposition groups in Idlib, Turkish backed forces in the pocket of Afrin, SDF and Kurdish forces in the North East. Humanitarian needs are still at critical levels in all parts of Syria, including in Government controlled areas, and the international community, with UN agencies and international humanitarian organizations, should focus on addressing these needs in a principled approach. Pressure should be exercised on Damascus to allow unhindered access to populations, but also on the UN system which has been compromising with the regime for too long and supporting the reconstruction rhetoric.  Reconstruction should only be addressed once a political solution will be reached and the war over, opening the way not only to reconstruction but also to some kind of reconciliation process. For now addressing humanitarian needs remains the priority.

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