An Uncertain Future: Fragility and Humanitarian Priorities in Northeast Syria
After almost eight bloody years, the war in Syria finally appears to be reaching the endgame. The Assad regime controls some two-thirds of the country. In the northwest, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has launched an offensive against opposition-controlled Idlib governorate under the cover of a brutal Russian bombing campaign. Upwards of 3 million Syrians in Idlib are under threat. Meanwhile, in northeast Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces—the Syrian Kurdish dominated militia backed by the United States—have dislodged the Islamic State and now control one-third of the country. However, the humanitarian situation in the northeast remains extremely fragile and could deteriorate quickly. Indeed, over a third of the 4 million people in this area need humanitarian assistance and some 600,000 are displaced.
A patchwork of international relief groups and local actors are working hard to meet the needs of this population. However, their efforts are being hampered by a series of factors. At the top of this list is the continued uncertainty over U.S. engagement in northeast Syria. In December 2018, the Trump administration abruptly announced that it would pull troops, civilian staff, and funding out of Syria. Shortly thereafter, it partially reversed course, opting to slow the drawdown and leave some 400 U.S. troops in place for an unspecified period. These troops reportedly would become part of a 800 to 1,500 strong multinational force, which the administration would solicit from NATO countries and other partners. While France and Germany have reportedly indicated that they would contribute new troops, formal commitments have yet to be announced.
Some of the larger international aid organizations initially responded to the December 2018 announcement by preparing to evacuate. Local groups braced for the worst. Although such anxiety has lessened, the lack of clarity over American intentions makes it difficult for humanitarian actors and the communities they serve to plan. The consequences are on display in key population centers like Raqqa, the former capital of the Islamic State. Over the last year, important progress has been made in Raqqa. More than half the population that had been displaced by fighting has now returned, most streets are clear of rubble, and markets are open. Until recently, those efforts were stalled as donors withhold recovery funding in response to the uncertainty in U.S. policy.
The humanitarian situation in the governorate of Deir ez-Zor—Syria’s oil and natural gas region and the last redoubt of the Islamic State—is of greatest concern. While the fighting has ebbed, few aid groups can access a civilian population in desperate need of assistance. The remnants of the Islamic State continue to destabilize the area. So, too, does the Assad regime, reportedly through connections to the governorate’s Sunni Arab tribes. Relations between the local population and the governance mechanisms set up by Syrian Democratic Forces are deeply problematic and have impacted relief efforts.
The fighting displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians in Deir ez-Zor. Over 70,000 of these internally displaced people (IDPs) remain crammed into Al-Hol camp along the border with Iraq. The vast majority of camp inhabitants are women and children—mainly family members of Islamic State fighters. While services are being scaled up, the response remains inadequate. Of greater concern, however, is the lack of a plan to provide sustainable solutions for the camp’s population—particularly the Iraqis and third county nationals.
Finally, tensions between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds continue to complicate the situation. The specter of Turkish intervention looms over relief and recovery efforts. Turkey has repeatedly massed troops along the border of northeast Syria, most recently in mid-July 2019. Intervention could also take the form of a buffer zone along the border. Negotiations between Turkey and the United States over a proposed zone reportedly continue. However, humanitarians and local community leaders believe that a zone could plunge northeast Syria into renewed conflict, displacing hundreds of thousands and forcing most international aid organizations to evacuate.
All these elements have helped make northeast Syria what the United Nations has called “one of the most complex operating environments in Syria for humanitarian organizations.” When Refugees International returned to the area at the end of May 2019, relief workers and local leaders alike were muddling through as best they could. However, the United States, international donors, and humanitarian actors must act quickly to keep the situation from deteriorating further.
The United States should sequence the withdrawal of U.S. troops with the deployment of the envisaged multinational residual force in northeast Syria: The United States should condition the timeframe for the drawdown to 400 troops on the commitment and arrival of capable military contingents from other NATO countries to constitute the multinational residual force. Avoiding a precipitous drawdown will be key to preventing further destabilization and the ensuing humanitarian suffering.
The United States should reinforce its civilian presence in northeast Syria and resume stabilization funding: The United States should ensure that it has a full complement of diplomats and aid workers in the northeast to spearhead stabilization and recovery projects. It should also make new funding available for stabilization. The United States should channel new assistance to local groups, particularly proven partners in Raqqa and new ones in Deir ez-Zor.
The United States and other donors should fund the transition to early recovery in Raqqa: European donors should accept a degree of risk and release funding to support Raqqa’s transition to early recovery. As one aid official put it, “it’s time for the donors to be brave. Trump’s tweet did not change the needs of the local population.” For its part, the United States should use the “Relief and Recover Fund” to support such programming and encourage European donors to step up their assistance. Priority sectors include livelihoods, education and agriculture.
Donors and aid groups should focus on community engagement in Deir ez-Zor: Humanitarians will need to invest time and resources to build relationships with local communities and to hire locally within these communities. While this may slow down the pace of programming in the short-term, it offers a pathway to sustainable humanitarian engagement. International aid groups and donors should seek to partner with local communities in order to reach those in need.
The United States should work with the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) to improve governance and humanitarian coordination in Deir ez-Zor: The SDC should, as a matter of priority, strengthen local governance structures in Deir ez-Zor and make them more inclusive of the local population. The SDC should strengthen outreach to local communities and bolster humanitarian coordination with local humanitarian and community-based groups throughout the governorate.
Iraq should ensure that its plan to repatriate its 30,000 citizens from Al-Hol Camp is transparent and conducted in a safe, dignified and voluntary manner. The government of Iraq should support their repatriation, afford them rights enjoyed by all other citizens, and ground any deprivation of liberties in due process of law.
The governments of the 11,000 third-country nationals in Al-Hol Camp should establish a formal process for repatriating their third-country nationals currently in Al-Hol: Governments should establish formal processes for repatriating the 11,000 family members of the Islamic State fighters currently in Al-Hol camp who came from third countries beyond Syria and Iraq, unless these family members are to be prosecuted for crimes in accordance with international standards.
Any buffer zone between Turkey and northeast Syria should do no harm: In seeking to address Turkey’s security concerns along its border with the northeast, the United States should prioritize the principle of “do no harm.” Specifically, whatever arrangement may be negotiated with respect to a buffer zone must prioritize the well-being of the civilian population in northeast Syria. The United States should refuse to facilitate any such arrangement that would likely trigger hostilities or widespread displacement.