500,000 innocent people have died in Syria since the beginning of the Civil War in 2011, six million more have sought refuge, and over twelve million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Yes, you read those numbers right.
In May of 2011, in the midst of a wave of democratic uprisings all over the Middle East, protests began to take hold in the streets of Syria, demanding more governmental transparency, greater economic freedom, and a transition to a more liberal system. Since then, Assad’s harsh retaliation, including torture and chemical weapons, has led to the rise of the revolutionary Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) and escalated the conflict into a bloody civil war.
While the media tends to glamorize the herculean efforts of our troops, our drones, and our generals, our most important work has stayed hidden in the shadows. We’ve silenced the heroism of our diplomats, volunteers, and local partners who’ve all work tirelessly to rebuild a country perpetually in flames. In fact, in the past eight years, we’ve spent over 10.5 billion dollars stabilizing the nation, becoming the single largest donor in the region worldwide. That’s more than three times the entire GDP of Liberia! More specifically, through the Department of State (DoS) and USAID, we’ve pivoted our efforts in seven major areas: food relief, shelter resettlement, access to essential services, health and sanitation improvements, agricultural reconstruction, demining efforts, and political stabilization.
The American government began by providing direct humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of people as an immediate response to the crisis. This came in two forms, promoting shelter rehabilitation and combating food insecurity.
First, the US government actively helped to mitigate the refugee crisis by helping tens of thousands of people resettle and build new homes from the ashes. With the help of local partners, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) organized shelter rehabilitation activities while distributing shelter repair kits, which supported and reached over 29,000 people just in October of 2019. The Department of State also partnered with international institutions such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide more than 177,000 people with core relief and winter items across northeast Syria, between the months of October and November.
Second, the United States partnered with international organizations such as the UN World Food Program (WFP) to increase access to food in the region. Over the month of October of 2019, US/WFP emergency food assistance reached over 381,000 recently displaced people in northeast Syria and one million people across the northwest of the country. Often going through neighboring countries such as Turkey, our assistance also targeted children in need by distributing nutrition products and assistance to over 164,000 Syrians under the age of 18. Providing malnourished children and hungry parents with much-needed emergency food assistance as well as refugee relief in a country with six million internally displaced people has constituted some of the most critical and consequential work of our humanitarian efforts.
Apart from humanitarian aid, the American government also aimed to create a safer country and to restore access to essential services throughout the region. To do so, it rehabilitated hospitals, refurbished power lines and water pipes, and helped to demine thousands of acres of land.
First, it worked with local and international groups to provide Syrians with stable access to healthcare services and sanitation products. In October 2019 alone, USAID partners reached over 48,000 people with “hygiene promotion activities,” including the distribution of hygiene kits and maintenance of water and sewage systems. This critical work helped reduce the risk of diseases like diarrhea, which are especially deadly in rural regions of the country. At the same time, it’s rehabilitated the Tabqa Hospital and rebuilt over 30 other health care facilities with medical supplies, providing critical health support to nearly 123,000 people.
Second, the US and its partners also worked to bring back stable access to basic necessities such as safe drinking water and sanitation. Through its Water Investment Plan, USAID attracted foreign donors and investment and worked hand-in-hand with local governments such as the Raqqa Civil Council (RCC) to “repair damaged water pumping stations, power stations, and irrigation networks while empowering locals to deliver essential services to their communities”. As a result, it restored potable water to over 350,000 people in a span of half a decade, a monumental accomplishment Similarly, USAID’s Electricity Investment Plan managed to attract international investment to rehabilitate power lines and restored electricity to over 70,000 people living south of Raqqa, helping to restore the city to its pre-war condition. Lastly, USAID created the Syrian Essential Service II (SES II), a program which worked with local officials and private organizations to rebuild critical civilian infrastructure to ensure that “essential services were restored and managed equitably.”
Moreover, the DoS worked actively to de-mine much of the previously war-torn territory and ensure that it is safe to live in. In an 80 million dollar program, the DoS “removed more than 30,000 landmines (…) and IEDs from over 25 million square meters of land,” and “cleared 214 sites identified as critical infrastructure by the START Forward team.” This helped to facilitate the stabilization of important infrastructure and the “return of agricultural land previously denied by ISIS-placed explosives”. Overall, by ensuring stable access to health facilities, reestablishing power and water lines, and de-mining much of the country, our aid has laid the basis for progress toward post-war Syria.
Lastly, and arguably most importantly, US assistance has targeted the long-term return of political stability in the country through the establishment of local governments and the revitalization of food production and agriculture.
In the 2019 fiscal budget, the Department of State allocated over 315 million dollars to “Syrian stabilization assistance,” which was primarily championed under its START program. This vital program worked to support local governments and institutions, in the hope of rebuilding the country from the ground up. In a panel for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, START director, Karen Decker, explains that the program worked “with local actors to manage what would [be] see[n] as the post-liberation phase of Raqqa” and that, “starting in 2016, [it] began to absorb responsibility for stabilizing communities liberated from ISIS”. In doing so, the State Department explained that they “provided stabilization assistance in support of the Syrian opposition (…) to counter the influence of al-Qa’ida affiliate groups [and] bolster the de-escalation arrangement”. More specifically, the program created reconstructed buildings for local governance entities, increased regional and state-wide cooperation, and provided non-lethal support to the Free Syrian Army. Overall, the incredible work of the DoS and START laid the foundation for local governance and political autonomy in a long-term aim to stabilize the country.
Ultimately, USAID increased regional stability by reestablishing food production and redeveloping the agricultural sector in Syria. It has done so through both the Advancing Agricultural Markets in Syria (AAMS) and the Supporting Livelihoods in Syria (SLS) programs. Through AAMS, USAID has provided over 1,400 farmers small agricultural grants to enable them to invest in basic infrastructure and technology needed to start farming. Through SLS, USAID undertook a much broader effort, helping with everything “from animal feed and vaccinations to drip irrigation systems,” from improving livestock health to building greenhouses. Conclusively, the START Director finds that USAID “clear[ed] miles of canals, [and] work[ed] with cooperative groups of farmers as well as with local authorities to try and figure out how [to] (…) address food security needs.” Overall, that’s why a comprehensive review from the Office of the Inspector General found that our ability “to bring together civilian and military personnel contributed positively to pre-liberation stabilization planning of [Syria]”.
While it is nearly indisputable that much attention has been focused on Syrian stabilization and assistance over the past decade, there is still much work which remains to be done. Trump’s recent decision to withdraw all troops from the region certainly hasn’t helped to foster peace. While we’ve cowardly deserted the country, the Kurds are still being slaughtered at the Turkish border, conflict between Assad and the SDF still remains rampant, and the presence of international actors, such as Iran or Russia has sky-rocketed ever since our departure. However, by providing immediate assistance, refurbishing essential services, and leading the way towards long-term stability, our critical work has helped to take an important first step in the right direction and paved the way to the reconstruction of a peaceful and stable Syria.