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Summary Report | Self-recovery? Towards a strategic response to the humanitarian and economic impacts of the Ukrainian conflict on Syria
May 5 @ 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm
As part of the Brussels VI Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region, IMPACT Research hosted a panel discussion on the links between the wars in Ukraine and Syria, the impacts of recent developments on Syria, and possible roads to recovery.
Listen to the panel discussion
Moderator: Abdulla Ibrahim, Senior Researcher, adjunct fellow at CSIS and non-resident fellow at The Stimson Center
Keynote: Dr. Basel Termanin, Chairman of Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS)
Eric Mohns, Program Manager, Qualification Initiative for Syrian Civil Society Rural Rehabilitation Initiative in Syria GIZ
Joseph Daher, Researcher, University of Lausanne, European University Institute, IMPACT
Mohamed Shikh Ayoub, Director of Middle East Consulting Solutions (MECS)
Howard Shatz, Senior economist, RAND Corporation
Hand in hand: What the Ukraine war means for Syria
“Syria will not be forgotten because of Ukraine”, says security expert Abdulla Ibrahim. Rather, Ukraine will remind us of the importance of Syria. As the effects of the Ukraine conflict sweep across the globe, the implications for Syria will be severe. Based on a discussion among experts at a side event to the Brussels VI Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region, this report will outline the interlinks between the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts, the expected humanitarian and economic reverberations of the war, and provide recommendations to mitigate the worst of the effects on the Syrian people.
Ukraine and Syria: Intersections and divergences in healthcare
Since the beginning of the war in 2011, there have been more than 600 offenses on Syrian healthcare facilities. In 2018 alone, 143 people died during attacks on healthcare facilities with 259 more injured. In Ukraine, the targeting of healthcare facilities has already been documented just two months into the conflict. This is a major point of convergence between both conflicts, observes Basel Termanini, Chairman of the Syrian American Medical Society. For starters, the perpetrators of these attacks are often the same, with tactics reproduced under different guises in situations that recur across borders. Russia has a long history of targeting hospitals and other healthcare infrastructures in Syria and is now re-deploying these methods in Ukraine. If its strategic trajectory continues to mirror that of Syria, this could entail the use of chemical weapons on civilians.
Prior to the war, Ukraine’s healthcare system was extremely outdated. While healthcare professionals are highly competent, much equipment is from the Soviet era. In particular, ICUs are “primitive,” with outdated ventilators and other shortfalls. In Syria, the health system benefited hugely from international support, developing facilities to surpass Ukraine’s. However, one potential obstacle to a similar intervention in Ukraine is that the Ukrainian health system has a clear central command, unlike in Syria, meaning it could be more difficult for donors to implement change.
That being said, the international community can contribute to progress in healthcare on a number of fronts. Firstly, improving the transport of supplies around the country would be of enormous benefit, as would updating equipment in hospitals, and providing online training for personnel. Health systems would be prudent to consider preparations for the use of chemical weapons.
While lessons learned in Syria can be implemented in Ukraine, Syria is still in need of a high level of support to combat ongoing difficulties. The reconfiguration of international priorities has diverted attention (and critically, funds) from Syria and other conflicts to Ukraine. In terms of healthcare, promised funding for pediatric care in Idlib was recently retracted as a result of the Russian invasion. Funds were being aggressively cut before the crisis. Now, there are even fewer resources available to Syria to mitigate the ongoing threat.
Exports and food insecurity
In 2020, Russia and Ukraine combined amounted to a quarter of global wheat and barley exports, notes Howard Shatz from the RAND Corporation. Since 2016, Russia has been sending between 1 and 1.5 million tons of wheat to Syria, a third of the wheat that Syria needs per year. 3.5 out of the 4.5 million tons of the necessary wheat stock in Syria is for food use. As Joseph Daher notes, most of this has been going to the SDF-controlled areas in the northeast, where control of wheat production is a consistent point of tension among groups.
These complications are not unique to the northeast, nor Syria more generally. Daher points out that we are seeing the mass land reform policies of governments across the Middle East in the mid-twentieth century come to a head today. These reforms made agriculture fairer, more liberalized, and productive but also contributed to an overreliance on export systems. For example, Egypt imports 70% of its wheat with Lebanon also importing vast quantities of wheat from Russia and Ukraine. During the 2000s, agricultural infrastructure was neglected by many governments in the region, creating a cycle that rendered it more difficult for Middle Eastern economies to produce domestically over time. In Syria, exports usually account for approximately 1-1.5 billion dollars, with imports amounting to 6 billion. Now, with Russia’s prohibition of exports, Syrians are going to feel the effects of these administrative oversights.
The precise implications on the population will be difficult to assess, observes Mohamad Sheikh Ayoub from MICS. Food insecurity and other non-combat mortalities are not being documented in Syria, unlike in other conflicts. In Yemen, for example, deaths due to starvation are being quantified. However, given that 90% of the Syrian population are currently living below the poverty line, the 50-60% price rise in fresh produce in the weeks following the invasion can be expected to have far-reaching, fatal consequences.
For Syria and its neighboring countries, the coming wheat crisis as a result of the Ukraine war should serve as a wake-up call to drastically ramp up local production. The political economy of the region must shift to focus on food production and other productive sectors of the economy. This is even more crucial given the looming climate crisis, which will have far deeper, wide-reaching ramifications for the region’s food security in the years to come. Mohns notes that drought and severe water scarcity are not issues restricted to the distant future, but are coming in the mid-term and will exacerbate displacement. Immediate response mechanisms are needed to combat the looming food crisis, but long-term development of infrastructure is necessary to sustain this overhaul over time. These changes will require time-intensive investments. Up until this point, programs have largely been humanitarian, with the neglect of development programs preventing technical capacity building. This is exacerbated by the pervading perception in the international community of local populations as aid recipients, rather than active participants in their economy. Agricultural support should be coupled with livelihoods, argues Mohns. This could reduce dependence on imports.
Donors and funding gaps
Experts disagreed on the potential funding fallout due to the Ukrainian conflict. With most mentioning the coming cuts for Syrian funds, Erik Mohns from the GIZ stated that there is no evidence yet that resources will be redirected from Syria to Ukraine. However, he also pointed out that there is no evidence that funding will increase.
The international community has pledged €6.4 billion to Syria in 2022, more than last year, but it remains to be seen what the final contributions will amount to. In 2021, for example, the required funding was estimated at 10 billion USD, with just 3.6 billion granted. This figure includes overhead costs of large organizations and cannot be assumed to reach people on the ground. Whether or not the funding pool will remain static, it is certain that prices will soar due to the Ukrainian conflict. This will mean that purchasing power will decrease regardless of whether direct funds are cut. Humanitarian organizations will have to contend with both increased programming costs due to global market fluctuations as well as less funding for Syrian causes. However, as Mohns notes, no amount of external support will be sufficient to satisfy the needs of the Syrian people.
Rather than continuing to alleviate poverty through emergency aid, developing local capacities is recommended. This is even more prudent given the difficulties in delivering the necessary funds and supplies to the population with the barrage of sanctions on the Assad regime. Now, the U.S. is considering a general license for North Syria (excluding Afrin and Idlib). This could be an area in which to begin building infrastructure and investing in sustainable food security systems. However, as Shatz warns, the AANES will find it very difficult to attract private investors to the region regardless of whether or not sanctions are eased. In such a fragile environment, the potential for profit is not secure enough to tempt stable investors to set up in the northeast. To raise the necessary funds, he recommends stabilizing the taxation system and working towards the granting of an import/export license, potentially from Iraq. Moreover, the lifting of U.S. sanctions on the north of Syria cannot even be depended on. Indeed, the U.S.-administration is rethinking how its sanctions are hurting people without achieving political aims but it also wants to deprioritize Syria on the national agenda. In this unstable environment, the AANES could well be left to combat the effects of the invasion without further international funds. Matters are even more challenging in the northwest. With no state viewing the HTS as anything other than a terrorist group, the capacity for trade is virtually non-existent.
Immediate measures the international community can take
While the Ukraine war poses monumental challenges for Syria, the Syrian population has shown extreme resilience across the eleven years of war, Mohns notes. For this to continue, measures must be taken by the international community. Firstly, a renewed commitment to the Syrian crisis is necessary. Europe and the U.S. should not deprioritize Syria as other conflicts emerge and a re-engagement from Gulf states is also recommended. The international community needs to overcome its fear of committing to longer term strategies on Syria. The U.S. in particular should take this on board and decide on a position on sanctions so the humanitarian sector can plan its activities sustainably.
Needless to say, food assistance should be increased to prevent further fatalities. As well as this, the opening of cross-border operations would simplify humanitarian work, and enable necessary coordination. Joint efforts could also be fruitful at the state level, potentially increasing synergies. Engagement with the private sector should also be prioritized.
At a later event, human rights expert Fadel Abdul Ghany noted that the lack of accountability Russia encountered in Syria paved the way for its invasion of Ukraine. Now, it is clear that the international community must refrain from deploying a zero-sum logic to these crises. Funds for Ukraine should not detract from those for Syria. Support should be framed as part of a larger strategy that serves the interests of Syrians, Ukrainians, and democratic values at large.