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Current Issue
July, 2019
Volume 45, Number 2
  
28 March 2019
Michel Constantin




On the road outside Rableh, Syria, visitors see the extent of the damage from years of war.
(photo: CNEWA)


We received the following report a few days ago from our regional director in Beirut, Lebanon, Michel Constantin:

To better assess and evaluate the current situation in Syria — now that the regime’s forces have regained control of more than 75 percent of the country and secured the major cities and rural areas — CNEWA-Pontifical Mission visited our partners so as to touch base with the beneficiaries of our aid and the volunteers who are work on behalf of the church.

Our plan was to visit three areas: the capital of Damascus; the central city of Homs and Tartus on the coast; and finally, Aleppo, where we were asked to participate in a special synod of the churches organized locally to discuss the challenges facing the Christian community there, once the largest Christian community in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, the visit to Aleppo was canceled for security reasons. On the same day we were scheduled to travel there, heavy shelling targeted downtown Aleppo. Nevertheless, we were able to follow the work of the meetings and we were updated on the findings and recommendations.

What follows are our impressions and findings:

Military attacks continue to decrease, especially since the areas under the opposition or the extremists are now very restricted to one area in the northwest of the country (Edlib and the surrounding area, controlled by the extremist militia of Al Nusra) and the northeast (east of the Euphrates River under the Kurdish militias supported mainly by the United States). However, this stability should not be confused with long-term peace, which some question as doubtful. Some observers fear fragmentation and the ethnic cleansing of areas that fall either to government or Kurdish control. This could spin out of control, for example, should both parties face each other in battle around Deir Ezzor. This is particularly dangerous, as each side is backed by different outside powers.

The territorial defeat of ISIS does not mean it will cease to exist. Rather, it is likely to adapt its strategy, continue underground, and use more guerrilla and terrorist tactics. The problem in Syria is not just ISIS, but the lack of inclusive governance and equal opportunities in the country. These are the root causes that enabled ISIS to grow. The organization is not a cause but a consequence of the underlying political situation. As a result, the defeat of ISIS will not lead to the end of the conflict in Syria. If the root causes are not addressed, the conflict is likely to continue. In addition, new conflicts and new extremist groups might arise.

On the other hand, in the aftermath of the war and with the absence of a clear and united opposition, any political process without a clear strategy carries risks. A power vacuum — or political, ethnic or sectarian tensions — could become a source of renewed conflict, which may lead to the further destabilization of the region.

Socially and economically, the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria — and the resulting rupture of socioeconomic ties inflicted on the nation’s economy — has seriously damaged the infrastructure. It has reversed or significantly slowed not only the development of Syria itself, but also of its neighbors — first of all Lebanon and Jordan — as well as Turkey. This has exacerbated the situation in these states and has created new risks.

The streets of Homs are showing signs of life. (photo: CNEWA)

Conditions need to be created for the return of refugees and the restoration of life-support systems. These can bring not only humanitarian or economic dividends, but also political and strategic ones. But despite the improvement of the security situation in many areas, international experience shows that the absence of fighting is rarely the trigger for return of the displaced people. Numerous other factors are involved. These include:

Loss of human capital. The number of people lost to injury, death or emigration is staggering, and it will create permanent hardship for generations of Syrians. The decrease in the quality and quantity of public services — due to international sanctions on one hand and the absence of the qualified staff on the other — is clearly shown in schools, universities and especially in hospitals and other medical services. It is important to mention that more than 90 percent of available services in the country are public services. Moreover, many on the ground are saying that the highly qualified personnel who left Syria for other countries during the war were often granted citizenship rights. This means they were integrated into the society and the economy, and it makes their return to Syria unlikely, if not almost impossible

Security and socioeconomic conditions. Economic sanctions against Syria and its ally Iran impact directly the situation for Syrians on the ground. For there to be any improvement, sanctions must be eased, if not lifted altogether, reported local church leaders. The severe shortage of basic supplies, such as electricity, fuel and gas, has made it difficult to produce and export products for external markets, cutting off Syria from the flow of cash and imports. Until there is a change in the status of sanctions, post-conflict life will be much harder on the remaining population and will delay the return of the more than 5.6 million Syrians registered as refugees outside the country.

During our visit, we were in contact with school teachers and other civil servants who reported that their salaries have lost most of their purchasing power, falling more than 800 percent, from $600 per month before 2011 to $72 in 2019. And when we inquired regarding the need to continue with some emergency activities, we were told that sometimes even buying a bottle of vegetable oil would represent a challenge. More seriously, others informed us that some people lost their lives because they were not able to pay for the cost of dialysis treatment, which costs on average $25 per session.

Access to property and assets. Law No. 10 of 2018 established the concept of “renovation zones,” which put conditions on residents who want to return to their properties. They must present their deeds or proof of ownership within a certain short time period, or risk losing everything. Knowing that already many deeds were lost, the public perceived this step very negatively and many consider it a threat. There is much uncertainty.



Tags: Syria ISIS