(March 18, 2020)
Gail: We’ve seen nine years of a brutal war in Syria. UNHCR casualty estimates are well above the half-million mark. Years of continuous fighting has left 6.6 million people displaced internally, and another 5.6 million displaced around the world. The conflict has been long, and drawn out. International aid organizations have criticized all sides at one time or another.
But recently in Idlib province, the last stronghold of opposition to the Assad regime, close to a million of the 3 million people who live there have had to flee the Assad forces, including Russian and Syrian planes bombing civilian targets. Many of them are refugees from other places. Five hundred thousand of those fleeing are children. Most of them are crammed into a narrow strip of land near the Turkish border, which is sealed. And, as I look at this story, David, I’m struggling to figure out what I consider— the Washington Post has actually written an editorial about this—to be the muted reaction to the recent events.
David: Yes, I think we’ve almost come to the point in Canada and in North America where we expect this news to come out of Syria now. Your first issue of The Charity Report is on March 18th. That means on the day you publish, a nine-year-old Syrian child will have only known war, because the war started, I think, on the 15th.
Gail: That’s right. Exactly. 2011. That was nine years ago.
David: It’s gone on longer than the six years that we were in World War II and more than twice as long as World War I. We tune it out. Where I see more happening now in that area of the Middle East is on the Turkish/Greek border. When things are encroaching on the west via Western Europe or North America, then we get anxious. These are possibly the final days of the war. Things are very muted, yes.
Gail: The Civil War in Syria was born out of the so-called Arab Spring and became a stage for so many external actors. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah’s support of Al-Assad and the involvement of countless rebel groups, as was the United States supporting Syrian Kurds in the ISIS fight until late 2019. And then there’s Turkey’s expansive role in housing refugees, providing some defence in to the northern Syrians and negotiating the recent ceasefire with Russia, all while clamping down on the Kurds. What in your view needs to happen politically?
David: A couple of thoughts. When we look at all these politics, it’s never monolithic. We say, for instance, that Turkey is caught in a difficult spot. The government of Turkey has done a lot to help the refugees. They host the greatest number of refugees of any country, and they are trying to make room for children in their school system. That’s hundreds of thousands, if not a million kids. At the same time, there’s other gamesmanship going on. So, the question is how do you stick handle through all this? You ask how can I help the greatest number of people? That’s where your stick handling comes in. Sometimes, it’s going to be naming and shaming. Sometimes it’s going to be saying I have to work around this because, if I name and shame, I’m not going to get the help in. I wish we didn’t have to do all that. But that’s the reality of it.
We have to remember there is no humanitarian solution to a humanitarian crisis. The solution is political.”
We talk about a Band Aid solution. And, you can see here that I hurt my finger, so I want the band aid because it’s going to help. With the great powers, it feels like those late 19th century great power games, but you just wanted it to end so people can build things together.
Gail: And to rebuild that beautiful ancient country.
David: Being at a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq, I met a family, and they had some books. There was a little girl who was like 11 or 12. And I asked her to read her book to me. She told me, “I haven’t gone to school for three years, I’ve forgotten how to read.” Syria was a well-educated country. It was a middle-class country. So many of the Syrians I’ve met, either in Jordan or Iraq, describe a life that is not dissimilar to life here. There were teachers, drivers, clinics and artists.
Syria was a middle-income country. But now you’re in this orgy of destruction that’s happened.”
Gail: When I was trying to decide what to spotlight in our inaugural feature of The Charity Report, I happened to read—and was struck by—UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore’s briefing on northern Syria to the UN Security Council. She talked about what UNICEF was doing, but the solutions she promoted were all political solutions Does she present to the UN Security Council on a regular basis? Or was this a special briefing?
David: This was a special briefing and rare. When the United Nations was created, they created UNICEF within the first year. And the very first executive director said they would only take the job if they could help any child anywhere (there were certain people in the UN who didn’t want to help German or Japanese children at that time). Speaking to the Security Council is rare, but it’s a responsibility for an agency like us. Henrietta Fore is truly a remarkable person.
Gail: What contingencies are you planning for?
David: We’ll be working a lot, I’m sure, on water and sanitation. In Aleppo, a couple of years ago, while horrific battles were going on, we were there and trying to rebuild the water supply and water purification system. So, I am assuming that water sanitation is going to be part of it, which is both humanitarian and the beginnings of development. We’ll be looking at getting in there with World Food Programme which, if this conflict goes on, we’ll still have to be doing that. But you’re always trying to do this in a way where you’re thinking about—especially in a country like Syria—how are we are going to start to re-build.
Gail: What do you worry about?
David: We’ve seen incredible progress where there’s peace and it has helped government’s ability to focus on under-five mortality. The rates of under-five mortality is about a third of what they were, but you need to have peace. Because if you don’t have peace and humanitarian access, things get worse. And when there’s finally the cessation of hostilities, you can start re-building.
Gail: How do you choose what to do?
David: We have a mandate to focus our work, and there’s a formula we apply that is a combination of the children mortality rate under five years old times gross national product times population. That’s because some countries, some of the oil producing countries, have a very high Gross Domestic Product, but many children are dying. Then there are other countries that have a lower GDP, but kids are doing pretty well. But that formula is how we figure out who to work with. Being UNICEF, we are able to work with government ministries, usually ministries of education and health, that is when they’re functioning, and we also work with partners on the ground, which would be local NGOs.
Gail: How many international NGOs are still operating in the Idlib area in northern Syria around the border?
David: In these complex situations, you always will find MSF, the Red Cross and the World Food Program. You really have to be built for it, which means you have to have really good logistics. If you’re going to be useful, you have to have good logistics. And you have to have good security systems. You have to have the local perspective. If we have to negotiate, we negotiate and negotiate and negotiate. It seems, from what I’m reading, that command and control of the various parties to this conflict is such that you can negotiate with a commander and that will cover it.
Gail: Is your security armed? Are you surrounded by armed guards?
David: No, no. We are not armed or with armed guards. You’re safer not to have guns. When guns aren’t in there, nobody’s going to get shot. We’ve learned you’re safer.
Gail: What is Canada’s current role in the region?
It’s hard for a country like Canada that doesn’t have much of a presence. That being said, we welcomed Syrian refugees. But with everything that’s going on now, foreign aid can be easy to cut and that’s a worry. We’re not going to be a big player in that region. But it sure as hell doesn’t mean that our humanitarian assistance doesn’t save lives and make a difference.
Gail: Thank you so much for this, David.