The ongoing strikes by the international coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) make this an opportune moment to critically assess the international assistance given to the Syrian people since the start of their revolution against President Bashar Al-Assad’s murderous regime. It must also be acknowledged that the current strikes do not really count as “direct assistance” to the Syrian people—even if the results of the strikes could work in their favor—because they specifically aim to destroy ISIS and other groups like it, not to support the Syrian people in their fight against the Assad regime.
Leaving aside the current strikes, we can see that all the international assistance offered to the Syrian people over the last few years falls into one of three categories: political, military and humanitarian. Each of these led to different results, reflected different parts of the reality in Syria, and affected the development of the conflict throughout the recent period.
Since the very beginning of the revolution in Syria, it was obvious the Syrian people needed outside help, both from within the region and beyond. The reason for this was that the Syrian people, with their peaceful, civil calls for freedom, were up against one of the world’s worst dictatorial regimes, ever-ready to unleash the forces of terrorism and oppression upon its own people. It was thus clear the Syrian people could not resist this regime, which would likely pulverize them into submission as it did in the 1980s in Hama and elsewhere, and with the Palestinians and the Lebanese during the civil war in Lebanon.
The first of the three forms of support, the international political support for the Syrian people, came very late. This was due to either or both of two reasons: first, no one could quite believe that the Syrian people had revolted against this regime that everyone had deemed unshakeable; second, many in the region were fearful of retaliatory attacks against them by the Assad regime if they supported the Syrian people’s revolution. And so in this way, a vague, wary, uneasy and somewhat embarrassed trickle of international support began to emerge. Its tentative nature was one of the factors that allowed the Syrian regime to unleash an armed onslaught on its own people, which then led to the revolution to arm itself, transitioning from a peaceful to an armed stage, then passing into the next stage which saw the emergence of violent, extremist groups on the scene, along with a quickly rising death toll, and then to its third and current stage with the international action.
Military support for the conflict was a little different, however. After the appearance of the first armed groups towards end of 2011, it was clear that foreign players had now become involved. A number of countries offered support to these groups with help from their own security services, as well as through politically motivated “NGOs” and Syrians living abroad. But their main form of support was through supplying arms, ammunition and cash to these groups. Indeed some of this support sought to establish particular armed groups on the ground, not just aid existing ones. All of this was politically motivated of course, and all of it significantly altered the contours of the Syrian conflict thereafter.
This military support for Syrian armed groups did not differ that much from the international political support offered to the Syrian people. It was, once again, tentative in nature, and offered in return for the establishment of certain political ends compatible with the aims of the benefactors. Moreover, the help offered to these Syrian groups was limited and eventually helped the Islamist strand become entrenched within them. With more and more Islamist fighters joining their ranks, this led to tension, infighting and splits, all of which weakened Syria’s armed revolutionary groups in their fight against Assad.
But there have also been suspicion regarding the international humanitarian assistance, the third form of support offered to the Syrian people since the start of their revolution. There are four main benefactors of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people: countries, international aid organizations, NGOs and civil society organizations, and the Syrian diaspora (which includes a number of wealthy expats). This humanitarian support varied, from food and medical supplies to a number of small-scale development projects. Of course, this aid was much less than was needed; it was also poorly organized and irregular—and, once again, often politically motivated. More important than this, however, is the way some of the countries that have been hosting Syrian refugees, such as Jordan, have actually been preventing some of the aid meant for these refugees from reaching them. In some cases the aid was doled out to local organizations instead, or limited to particular groups, as happens with the aid that is distributed via the Assad regime, which blocks aid to its opponents or areas where they are numerous, such as the Ghouta or southern areas of Damascus, redirecting it to its own pockets of support. Such a tactic has also been used by some of the armed groups holding areas of the country outside government control.
There have been many complicated problems associated with the humanitarian aid being offered to the Syrian people over the last few years. Some of these problems are “close to critical,” such as that of the size of UN aid. Even though this has clearly been inadequate in alleviating the sufferings of the Syrian people, the UN is now saying it will be slashing this aid by around 40 percent due to the lack of international donors. Some observers even predict the aid will stop entirely in the course of 2015.
Summing up the issue of international support to the Syrian people, we can say that the political support has been severely lacking in helping to end the conflict or at the very least sway it in favor of the Syrian people, which has resulted in the war dragging on and on and causing more suffering for Syrians. International military support has not fared much better, leading to the weakening and fragmentation of armed Syrian groups, who are now under intense pressure to take particular political directions. The humanitarian aid, moreover, is not even able to fulfil the minimum requirements of the people, and it is even in danger of being reduced or cut off.
It is now essential the international support being offered to the Syrian people is strengthened, in order to end the conflict or at the very least to stop it from spiraling out of control