Raqqa: Avoiding Another Humanitarian Crisis

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Daryl Grisgraber


After his visit to Raqqa in northeast Syria in late January, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Mark Green highlighted efforts by the United States to facilitate Syrians’ return to the city and how U.S. support in the area helps make that possible. Raqqa is not under Syrian government control, and many donors and aid organizations are reluctant to engage in northeast Syria without explicit permission from the Assad regime. As a result, the United States has found itself largely alone as it has tried to help stabilize Raqqa and assist the local population to recover.

As the former capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Raqqa serves as an important barometer in measuring the progress of recovery in the wake of the liberation of much of northeast Syria. However, to date, efforts to stabilize the city and address the humanitarian situation have not kept pace with realities on the ground. Much of the city was destroyed during the fighting with the Islamic State, and what remains is heavily contaminated by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) set by the group before it withdrew from the city. Local authorities are struggling to help more than 100,000 returnees put their lives back together.

The nature and scope of that challenge are daunting. The decision by the United States at the end of March to suspend and review $200 million in funding for stabilization and recovery activities in northern Syria – including Raqqa – is therefore both very significant and deeply concerning.1 A team from Refugees International (RI) arrived in Raqqa shortly after the United States made the decision that it would freeze its assistance. While the resilience of the local population was extraordinary to witness, frustration with the pace of recovery was evident.

It is not yet clear which U.S. programs will be permanently cut during the assistance review.
Indeed, the State Department told Congress in mid-June that the funding “continues to be subject to review.”2 However, it is all but cer-tain that the total amount of money available for Raqqa will shrink. The Trump administration is eager to have other international donors share the burden of northeast Syria’s recovery, but aside from some interim support from France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, no firm and public commitments have been made.