10 years of war in Syria

From front-page news to a forgotten crisis

It is now ten years since the Syria conflict began, causing the world’s largest displacement crisis. Our Head of Advocacy in the Middle East region, Samah Hadid, sets out what we must do now to end the suffering of the Syrian people.

Six million Syrians are displaced within their own country. Over five million are living as refugees in other countries. Add those two huge figures together, and it reveals that half the Syrian population have been forced to flee their homes. Give yourself a moment to take that in.

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Read caption Samah Hadid, NRC’s Head of Advocacy in the Middle East, speaking here on Al Jazeera in 2020.

Samah Hadid, has been working in the Middle East region for the past decade, advocating for various humanitarian causes. I asked her what it was about the Syria crisis that motivates her.

“The indifference of the international community to the suffering,” Samah replies without a pause.

For the first few years, the crisis in Syria gripped international news streams. It was impossible to avoid. There were images circulating of traumatised children in the back of ambulances. Bombed streets. Refugees in cramped boats, desperately seeking protection across the Mediterranean.

And then there was that unforgettable image of a tiny lifeless body washed up on the shores of Turkey. His name was Alan Kurdi.

This image caused outrage and an outpouring of compassion from people in all corners of the world. But in recent years, it’s gone quiet. The crisis now rarely makes front-page news.

Read caption Images such as this of Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean in unsafe boats went viral, capturing the interest and sympathy of people around the world. Photo: Yannis Behrakis/ REUTERS/NTB Scanpix

“Now, there’s inertia and this feeling of just giving up. It’s been incredibly frustrating to see as a humanitarian advocate,” says Samah. She adds, calmly but firmly: “It’s also been frustrating to see, speaking as someone from Lebanon, wealthy countries not stepping up and supporting the neighbouring countries or doing enough to end the displacement crisis.”

A crippled region

The vast majority of Syrians who fled Syria are living as refugees in neighbouring countries. Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey host over five million refugees between them. Only a small percentage have been relocated to wealthy nations.

Lebanon is facing an unprecedented economic crisis. At the start of the war, it allowed Syrians temporary refuge. The idea was that as soon as the war was over, Syrians would be able to go back home.

Now, ten years on, this “temporary” arrangement has become more permanent. Yet, many families are still living in flimsy tents, and work opportunities are extremely limited. They are living in limbo.

“Their conditions have worsened over time. Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries are facing poverty – in many cases extreme poverty such as in Lebanon where 9 out of 10 Syrian families are living in extreme poverty – so those humanitarian needs will continue to grow,” Samah warns.

“And the resettlement of Syrian refugees to third countries, wealthy countries, has been abysmally low. Across the globe the figures have fallen to their lowest level since the crisis began. The international community is shirking its responsibility to support Syrian refugees and the world’s most vulnerable.”

Abd Housny, 50, and his wife, 45, fled Homs in 2015 because of the war and sought refuge in Saadnayel, Bekaa Lebanon. They now live in one of the informal tented settlements with their children and grandchildren. 

"The winter is very harsh in Bekaa, the situation is miserable especially since we live in a tent," says Ab. "We need plastic sheets to cover the walls of the tent so we can prevent the tent from flooding when it rains.”

The Norwegian Refugee Council helped us in many ways in this settlement, especially in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector. They also built a water tank with a filter so the water can be used for drinking as well.

Photo: Zaynab Mayladan/NRC
Read caption Abd Housny and his wife fled Homs in 2015 and sought refuge in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. They now live in one of the many informal tented settlements with their children and grandchildren. “I have relatives who stopped visiting me because of my living conditions,” says Abd. Photo: Zaynab Mayladan/NRC

Syria in 2021

“The war is over – why don’t they go home?”

This is a question that we see time and time again on our social media channels. With the violence no longer making headlines, it would be easy to assume that the conflict was over. But this is far from the truth.

“We’re still seeing fighting continuing particularly in the north of Syria,” says Samah. “On top of that you have an economic situation inside Syria that’s severely deteriorating.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the war-torn country hard. Levels of food insecurity and severe hunger are high, and are predicted to grow.

And who can forget the images of bombed buildings in Syria? The destruction has had the impact you would expect on the lives of ordinary citizens. One in three children are unable to attend school. Millions don’t even have regular access to safe water.

“It’s devastating,” Samah says frankly. “After ten years of conflict, we’ve seen devastating consequences on a humanitarian level but also in other areas.”

“The economy has collapsed. We’re seeing food insecurity on the rise, severe hunger on the rise. Infrastructure is destroyed on a massive scale. We’ve seen the horrific death-toll from the conflict. And destroyed lives. Millions of destroyed lives. And so, it will take decades for Syria to stand on its feet again.”

Read caption The queue for receiving emergency assistance from NRC in January 2021. Photo: NRC Syria

Providing aid amid intense conflict

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is one of only a few agencies operating across the whole of Syria. Against a backdrop of intense conflict, we are working to provide emergency and longer-term assistance to people in need.

“I think that NRC has tried to fill gaps to ensure that we are providing not only crucial emergency aid that’s needed in a humanitarian crisis but also longer-term sustainable assistance,” says Samah.

“For example, we’ve been offering legal advice and vital information about civil documentation and obtaining identification. This is key for people to be able to access basic services now and in the future.”

“We’ve also been providing the basic humanitarian aid that is essential in a crisis like this.”

This includes ensuring people have access to clean water and sanitation, and providing education for children and young people who’ve had their schooling disrupted. We’ve been rebuilding schools and medical centres. And our support for Syrians expands across the region, where we assist refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.

But unfortunately, this assistance can only go so far. The only way to truly improve the lives of Syrians is to put an end to the conflict.

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NRC education team supporting the student after the rehabilitation process is completed – Harasta, Eastern Ghouta
Read caption NRC’s education team supporting students after completing the renovation of their school in a suburb of Damascus. Photo: NRC Syria

What happens now?

The humanitarian situation is deteriorating rapidly inside Syria and in the wider region. I asked Samah what difference, if any, the ten-year mark could make for Syria.

“We need to mark the ten-year moment by reviving our efforts to end the conflict and solve the displacement crisis,” says Samah. But what does that really mean?

“It means more long-term assistance to neighbouring countries who host the majority of Syrian refugees and will continue to for years to come.”

“What we hear from Syrians inside the country and in neighbouring ones is that they want to stand on their own two feet to rebuild and restore their lives. So, it also means providing sustainable assistance to the country that is aimed at enabling self-reliance and resilience so as to improve conditions inside Syria. And supporting an increase to work rights for refugees in the region so they can be self-reliant too.”

But what can I do to help?

Susan Sontag wrote in her 2003 book Regarding the pain of others that, due to 24-hour news streams, we are “flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation”. As a result, she wrote, “we are losing our capacity to react. Compassion, stretched to its limits, is going numb.”

This could certainly be true of the Syria conflict, and could explain why we are now seeing this “indifference” that Samah speaks of.

But we must renew our efforts, as an international community, to assist Syrians who are in desperate need.

“We need to continue to share the stories of those who have been affected by the conflict and make sure they are not forgotten,” says Samah.

“Because I think while this decade has seen immense suffering, it has also seen remarkable resilience by Syrians who have demanded to determine their own futures. We need to make sure those voices are heard.”

Read caption The Refugees Welcome Here march taking place in London in 2016, with thousands of people showing up to show their support for refugees. Photo: Matthew Chattle/REX/NTB Scanpix

“We also need to demand that wealthy countries do their share to support the most vulnerable refugees,” Samah continues. “And that includes pushing governments to increase resettlement rates and ensure that aid to Syria continues.”

“We need to rally behind this moment. Use the ten-year mark to really push to end this crisis. Otherwise it will continue unabated for years to come.”