Syria’s Slow-Motion Humanitarian Disaster Falls Off Media Radar

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Remember Syria? That infernal tomb for, by one count, more than 190,000 people? The government that U.S. President Barack Obama warned would cross a “red line” of heinousness should it use chemical weapons on its citizens, and did so anyway?

A consumer of mainstream American news might be forgiven for forgetting Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. The Israel-Hamas conflict, the downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane over rebel-held Ukraine, and the startling conquests of the Islamic State (of Iraq and Syria) have, for the most part, pushed the Syrian civil war and its begotten humanitarian crisis to the back pages and wee hours of American media attention.

But the humanitarian needs of Syria, especially its children, are at least as acute, if not more, than they were six or 12 months ago. More than 6 million Syrian children are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, a number that has jumped by a third over the last year, according to a July report from UNICEF. In all, nearly half of Syria’s population — 10.8 million — needs assistance. Another 3 million have fled, the majority of them women and children, in a mass exodus that has overwhelmed neighbors such as Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.

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Photo: © UNICEF/NYHQ2013-1390/Noorani
Ahmed pushes his daughter Safa, 6, to school in a wheelchair, in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp near the Syrian border on Nov. 26, 2013. Two of Safa's sisters are nearby. After the family's home in the Syrian city of Aleppo was destroyed, Safa, her parents, grandmother and five siblings fled to rural Damascus, where an attack that left Safa gravely injured — she lost her right leg and suffered burns and shrapnel wounds. She and her family now live in Zaatari, where Safa attends school in the mornings, goes to a child-friendly space in the afternoons and also regularly receives physiotherapy.

Despite the country’s role in destabilizing the region, a faithful follower of U.S. news networks can’t help but notice the tapering off of Syrian stories in recent weeks and months. Data for that dip in coverage are hard to come by; they are the kind of statistics that might appear in an academic paper a couple of years from now.

Some argue that the country’s civil war never really commanded the front pages to begin with, at least not in a way that reflected the scale of the disaster. There are myriad reasons why Syria’s tragedy hasn’t gripped the public as other crises have: The war was a slow-moving catastrophe, as opposed to the immediacy of a natural disaster. With hard-core Islamist militants committing atrocities alongside the regime in Damascus, it became hard to distinguish enemy from ally. And even when aid money did flow, for practical and political reasons, it didn’t always reach the people in need.

Syria also became increasingly difficult terrain for reporters. Practical constraints and questionable judgments account for the shift in media coverage, according to Bill Gentile, a journalism professor at American University. Syria has been lethal ground for accomplished foreign correspondents like Anthony Shadid and Marie Colvin, who died there while reporting for the New York Times and Sunday Times, respectively. More recently, American freelancers James Foley and Steven Sotloff were beheaded after being abducted from Syria. That danger has kept already short-staffed news outlets from sending traditional and freelance correspondents to Syria, Gentile wrote in an email.

Another possible reason for shortchanging Syria’s plight is the “collective — and, I believe, inaccurate — perception by management of mainstream U.S. media that the U.S. audience can pay attention to only a limited number of crises at one time,” wrote Gentile, a longtime correspondent in Central America and the Caribbean who spent time in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

While media attention can have a direct or indirect effect on public giving to a humanitarian cause, the attentions of aid workers are, in theory, independent of publicity. And after months of frustrated efforts to get aid to Syria’s most ravaged outposts, more relief has gotten through in recent weeks.

The Battle Over Aid

Of the 10.8 million Syrians in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, some 4.6 million are in “hard-to-reach areas” areas, while 241,000 are in “besieged areas,” according U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s July report to the Security Council.

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Credit: UN Photo / Mark Garten
A boy peeks out of a tent provided by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) at a camp for Syrian refugees in Turkey. Nearly 3 million refugees have fled Syria, overwhelming neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.

Kate Phillips-Barrasso, director of policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee, says the sheer disruptiveness of Syria’s violence, rather than any lack of attention, explains the desperate refugee situation.

“It’s not just getting aid inside Syria, but there are some areas that are just almost impossible to reach,” she said.

The often-uncertain sovereignty of Syria’s warzones has made getting aid like medical supplies and food to the far corners of the country especially difficult. The kidnapping of aid workers has also discouraged truck drivers from delivering relief, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos said last fall.

Critics of President Assad also accuse him of using aid as a weapon to punish his opponents into submission. The government has tried to control the flow of international assistance by demanding approval of all U.N. deliveries, funneling aid to Assad’s supporters to bolster his regime while starving rebel-held areas.

A U.N. resolution passed in February was meant to loosen the chokehold on humanitarian relief by demilitarizing schools and hospitals, although official aid still had to go through Damascus. More than three months after its passage, Amos admitted the resolution did not get the job done.

That U.N. relief efforts were only able to reach about 7 percent of people in besieged areas was a “stark reminder of the reality on the ground: active conflict, bureaucratic hurdles and conditions imposed by the parties on aid delivery, which have resulted in a decline in vital help for the most vulnerable people,” Amos said at a June press conference.

But a turning point came on July 14 when the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2165, which authorized humanitarian aid to be brought across the Syrian border through four crossings in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan — with or without Assad’s permission.

Bernice Romero, senior director of humanitarian policy and advocacy at Save the Children, says U.N. statements calling for the passage of aid into Syria have grown stronger and more specific over the last year or so.

A “presidential statement” from the Security Council last October was ambiguous in that some relief groups saw it as sanctioning cross-border aid while others did not, Romero said. The latest resolution, in contrast with the one passed in February, “took it to another level of specificity by naming particular border crossings and particular areas,” she added.

Phillips-Barrasso agreed that Resolution 2165 had more teeth. It “laid out a mechanism for the United Nations to start providing cross-border assistance … which we hope will really get to those hard-to-reach areas,” she said.

In a matter of weeks since the resolution passed, the U.N. World Food Program has claimed “significant progress” in distributing food aid to Syrians, reaching 3.7 million people in July. More than 300,000 of those people are in “hard-to-reach areas,” the group said, double the number of people reached using “cross-line convoys” in June.

It may have taken years after fighting erupted in Syria, but the Security Council was able to overcome its geopolitical divisions to clear a path for aid — in part because this latest resolution doesn’t threaten any military or economic retribution if Assad doesn’t comply (a nod to Russia and China). It also promised to vet aid deliveries to prevent weapons from being smuggled to the rebels.

But the fact that Russia agreed to the resolution over Assad’s objections — after years of blocking similar calls for humanitarian access — may also be a sign of just how desperate the situation in Syria has become.

Children Bear the Brunt

Earlier this year, UNICEF called Syria “one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a child.”

The U.N. agency for children’s rights categorizes conflicts as Level 1, 2 or 3, with Level 3 being the most dire. “For the first time in my career in an affiliation with UNICEF, we have multiple Level 3s,” said U.S. Fund for UNICEF President Caryl Stern. Those four “Level 3s” are the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan and Syria.

As of March, the Syrian war had cast out about 1.5 million children to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and North Africa, according to UNICEF, which also says that well over 10,000 children have died since the conflict began.

But it’s not just lives, and limbs, that have been lost. An entire generation of psychologically traumatized children is growing up without health care, education or the trappings of the middle-class life to which many had become accustomed. Before the war, Syria had made positive development gains, with primary-school enrollment and literacy levels topping 90 percent. Today, children are increasingly working to support their families, young girls are marrying earlier and boys have been recruited to fight.

Stern brings back stories for anyone who will listen from the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which teems with over 80,000 people, mostly from Syria’s Daraa Governate.

On a visit to Zaatari, Stern heard from a lawyer who had represented anti-Assad demonstrators. When an explosion left the lawyer’s daughter with a severe head injury, Stern said, he carried her on his back for four days to a hospital in Jordan.

“So it went from one day he was a lawyer in a beautiful home with a wife and kids who were going to school, to living on the street in Amman with a daughter with a cracked skull,” Stern said. That dispossession is a psychological blow to the many Syrian refugees who were middle-class before the conflict, she added.

At a private fundraising event in D.C. last June, UNICEF Ambassador Téa Leoni told Washingtonians that the people she met in the Zaatari refugee camp during a recent visit were not so different from them. “One man reminded me that his kids had as many iPads as I do,” the actress said, noting that of all her humanitarian travels, Syria was the “most devastating and most difficult to talk about.”

Save the Children tried to help Westerners relate to the plight of these refugees in a video earlier this year that depicts the life of a young English girl as it devolves from blowing out birthday candles to dodging bullets and bombs. In its plea for donations, the eye-grabbing commercial asks how the world would have reacted if London had slipped into the kind of chaos that now engulfs Syria.

‘No End in Sight’

UNICEF’s fundraising goal for humanitarian needs inside Syria in 2014 is $194 million, Stern said. It had raised $53 million as of her interview with The Diplomat in late July, leaving her disappointed but intent on rallying more support.

More broadly, the group is seeking $770 million to cover all of its Syria funding for the year, although only 37 percent has been met so far. Likewise, the United Nations has raised $679 million for its 2014 Syria Humanitarian Response Plan, only about 30 percent of its $2.27 billion target.

Some governments have been relatively generous, aid workers say. The single-largest donor has been the United States, which announced a new tranche of $378 million in aid on July 30, bringing its contributions to about $2.4 billion over the course of the conflict.

But private donations may be a bigger challenge.

Romero said private aid for Save the Children’s Syria work has been “very low.” Corporations and individuals are typically more willing to give money to victims of a natural disaster than a politicized conflict, she reckons.

The U.S. Fund for UNICEF’s Stern has drawn the same conclusion. “Refugee situations are a lot harder to fundraise for. And they’re even harder when they’re an ocean away; and they’re even harder when they’re culturally less well known, when there are conceptions of the countries and terrorism that make it difficult,” she said.

The seeming interminability of the 3.5-year conflict is another possible hindrance to fundraising. Syria is a bottomless well of humanitarian needs, but the shock value of its citizens’ suffering may have diminished over time. “The longer this goes on, the higher the number of people needing assistance is and the less interested the public is,” Romero said.

Observers of the conflict often point out that there is no humanitarian solution to the fighting, only a political one. But until that elusive goal is reached, the tireless and solemn effort to save lives goes on.

“There is no end in sight, no end in sight for this conflict, which is such a hard thing to say out loud because it’s so upsetting,” Phillips-Barrasso said.


About the Author

Sean Lyngaas (@snlyngaas) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on September 4, 2014