Syria. A three-year commitment

23 July 2019, 13:06

We opened our first office in Syria three years ago, in 2016, when we were not confident that we would be able to get into the country. After years of hard work in Iraq, we were not entirely sure that we could take on this new challenge. But three years later it is clear what UPP has achieved there and just how important our work has been.

Here is a summary of last year’s key events and UPP’s response. Since this was mainly an emergency situation, our priority was to deal with the crisis.

There have been many changes in this period and we are now active in a much larger area. Our project area – initially known as Rojava – was the north-eastern part of Syria characterised by democratic federalism, with Kurdish elements expanding to include all the country’s Arabic territories. A series of constitutional developments resulted in a new name: our intervention area is now known as “The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria”. Great efforts were made to unite the Sunni tribes along the River Euphrates, where Daesh had flourished years before. Today our challenge is to bring them together in their joint respect of democratic principles,  in the spirit of integration.

One of the most important events of the year was the end of the war with Daesh. We saw the dramatic exodus of tens of thousands of people who chose – and many others who were forced – to flee the war zones.

The Al Hol camp alone represents a massive challenge, as it is is enormous and houses between 60,000 and 70,000 people, most of whom are women and children, because most of the men are under arrest. Our NGO has played a key role in the camp since 2017, so we found ourselves helping our partners the Kurdish Red Crescent as they tried to cope with this state of emergency, by setting up a system of ambulances on the frontline, in the Al Hol camp itself and also at the main border crossings, building on the foundations of our previous collaboration. We also dedicated awareness-raising campaigns to the plight of these camp-dwellers.

At the start of the war, the major donors assumed the people in the camps were Daesh collaborators, and were planning a different approach. But together with other International Organisations working on the ground, we started advocating for the respect of their rights, which are just as important as everybody else’s.

But even though Daesh has been defeated, the war is not over. Different tactics and ways of fighting are being used. There are still regular attacks on Kurdish and Arabic areas, above all around Raqqa and Deir Ez- Zor, where it is very difficult for us to work because these last bastions of Daesh are still not completely under control. A frequent problem is the presence of thousands of unexploded all over the area. Another tactic we have witnessed in war zones is burning wheat fields: these indiscriminate attacks against the local population have increased in recent months.

There was another important event in December 2018, when the United States threatened to withdraw their troops from North-East Syria. On this matter, we, like all the other international NGOs, remained neutral: we did not ask the United States to stay in Syria. We did however, highlight the possible consequences of an immediate and unexpected withdrawal, as announced by President Trump.

But it was the population of North-eastern Syria who protested, with demonstrations in many different towns in Syria and also in the Kurdish diaspora around the world. These demonstrations, together with concerns within the US government, resulted in a reversal of this plan, which would have had a massive impact on relations with this nation already wearied by 8 years of war.

This was also a good opportunity to try and unite the Arabic tribes with their Kurdish counterparts: there was even a – failed – attempt at negotiating with the government. However, the Kurds did not try to use the Arabs as a bargaining tool during these talks, which was important when the different groups converged at the Conference in Ain Issa, an Arabic town north of Raqqa, which became the new site of the local government – a highly symbolic development.

Nonetheless, there are still many internal crises, including the plight of the IDPs and the Iraqi refugees who fled to Syria in 2016: there are still more than 200,000 people living in the camps and no apparent chances of returning home. An International Court is yet to pass judgement on Daesh fighters: the issue of whether this should take place in Iraq or Syria is still being discussed, but both countries still have the death penalty.

Meanwhile, in 2018/2019, we have taken on ever greater responsibility, as coordinators of the humanitarian response, while also facilitating a rather different approach to emergency work. The foundation of our work is capacity-building of our local partners so that they will be able to continue the project even without us. We also foster strong links with European solidarity groups who raise money for the Kurdish Red Crescent.

We are constantly improving the quality of our projects. Important undertakings include the  renovation of part of the public hospital in Raqqa, where we were active during and after the war. We manage 6 maternity wards in Syria’s public hospitals; we established a network of 30 ambulances which operate throughout the conflict zone and provide civil protection services when necessary – like for example after the recent floods.

We operate mobile healthcare units in refugees and IDP camps. We provide free healthcare to more than 100 patients every day in our clinics. And perhaps our most important achievement is the provision of a broad range of healthcare services, covering internal medicine, paediatrics and gynaecology – thanks to the dedication of our international staff.

Our doctors’  hard work and the continuity we ensure is paying off: the healthcare model we are building with our local partners is working well and we can are now invest more in prevention through our Community Health Workers who go from house to house and visit schools and public spaces.

We have even set up a monitoring system called PIS, to ensure the highest possible standards for the services our doctors provide. This was developed through the joint efforts of our Syrian team and required a shift in mind-set for doctors who had become used to working for years in a crisis situation. Our goal now is to build on what we have achieved rather than revert back to the old system, and try to improve the services we offer every single day. It is a massive undertaking but it is also our responsibility.

We are strengthening our protection efforts. Our most recent projects already reflect this new focus. We are working on Women’s Shelters, with a referral system and follow-up for victims of abuse. The next step will be to develop and integrate our mental health projects.

The future undoubtedly holds many new challenges but we stand ready to face them together, without forgetting the importance of showing our solidarity and linking our humanitarian and healthcare projects to the political developments in northeastern Syria.

By Luca Magno, UPP Syria Desk Officer