Fragile Progress: Humanitarian Assistance and the Stabilization of Northeast Syria

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Refugees International Senior Advocate Daryl Grisgraber and Vice President for Programs and Policy Hardin Lang authored this report, based on their mission to northeast Syria, Turkey, and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in April 2018.

The international community - and the United States, in particular - has an important opportunity to consolidate significant but fragile gains in northeast Syria. As this part of the country has largely emerged from the crisis fomented by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), hundreds of thousands of people have begun to return home.

However, even with the defeat of ISIS, significant humanitarian challenges remain in northern Syria. Tens of thousands of Syrians are still displaced, and major population centers like Raqqa must be cleared of mines, health care systems must be rebuilt, and access to clean water must be restored. And in the face of these challenges, the United States has frozen $200 million in funding for recovery and stabilization in Syria.

The United States has frozen $200 million in funding for recovery and stabilization in Syria. During Refugees International’s (RI) recent mission to Syria, local authorities, humanitarian groups, and displaced people all expressed serious concerns over the funding freeze. In addition, they were also deeply worried about the implications of President Donald Trump’s recent announcement that he would soon pull U.S. troops out of northeast Syria.

In this report, Fragile Progress: Humanitarian Assistance and the Stabilization of Northeast Syria, Refugees International examines the conditions in post-ISIS northeast Syria. RI’s researchers found general agreement that an abrupt disengagement by the United States would create a destabilizing power vacuum, which might allow the Assad regime, regional powers, and even remnants of ISIS to compete violently to fill this vacuum. Despite the gravity of this scenario, there appears to be no real contingency plan in place to respond to the potential humanitarian consequences.

In addition, only a handful of international nongovernmental organizations are operational in northeast Syria. Those that are present often lack a footprint in the areas that have been hardest hit by the conflict—like Raqqa city—or have yet to access those areas closest to the front lines, like Deir ez-Zor.

As a result, the humanitarian aid capacity remains inadequate for returnees and for the internally displaced people (IDPs) in the region’s camps and informal settlements. And though some are returning, substantive humanitarian aid is still needed. Both these facts are already fostering community tensions that threaten the fragile progress that has been made.

Modest investments and predictable policies from donors and other international stakeholders would go far to shore up the fragile stability of northeast Syria and meeting the humanitarian needs of local populations. Specifically, the importance of the United States for the northeast’s continuing stabilization and humanitarian assistance must not be underestimated. For the United States to maintain a presence there while the country recovers is a small price to pay to consolidate progress in this strategic corner of Syria’s catastrophic civil war.