We recently posed a series of questions on the ongoing crisis in Syria to our Advisory Council. We gathered their insights for the piece that follows. –Regine A. Webster

Easy questions, perhaps, but no simple answers. As the crisis in Syria rages on, even the experts struggle to say how long the challenges might last, what it will take to resolve conflict—and how to help in the most effective way possible.

“I have always been an optimist, but finding a silver lining to Syria has me stumped,” said Samuel A. Worthington, president and CEO of InterAction. “Syria may define humanitarian work the same way that Rwanda did a generation ago. Except this time there is no end in sight. The killing goes on and on with modern weapons used indiscriminately on what used to be a middle-income country. In the north, ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is filling the void with hardline Islamists, and the Assad regime has taken to routinely blocking access to humanitarian assistance with hunger, no medical assistance, and rape used as weapons that violate the rules of war.”

05-syria-1024x680Worthington, along with other members of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s Advisory Council, was asked to give an assessment of the situation from his unique vantage point. The council comprises experts from academia, as well as the not-for-profit, public, and private sectors.

Peter Walker, for example, director of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, said he sees “very little to stop Syria going the way of Somalia or Afghanistan.”

“If the warring parties cannot find compromise and a willingness to seek a peaceful solution, they are quite capable of fighting on until there is nothing left that resembles a state in Syria,” he said. Walker notes three specific challenges. First is the peace process, and second is access for humanitarian aid.

“On both sides of the conflict, aid agencies’ ability to target their aid, to ensure it reaches those most in need, and to ensure it arrives on time are desperately compromised,” he said. “Of course that does not mean you give up or pull out, but it is to recognize that there is a heavy price to pay on getting any aid through.”

Third, he notes the challenge of protection.

“Civilians, as always, carry the burden of suffering,” he said, “and restoring some form of policing, law, and order neighborhood by neighborhood has to be a priority.”

Relief versus need

This is not say relief activities aren’t being carried out. Dan Stoecker, president and CEO of National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD), points to work by members of InterAction, many of whom are also members of National VOAD, in addition to relief activities supported/coordinated by UN agencies, and deployment of teams and resources by response and humanitarian service organizations, particularly faith-based.

And Susan Martin, Donald G. Herzberg professor of international migration, executive director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration, and fellow at the Center for Social Justice, Georgetown University, said the crisis has engaged different donor groups; at Georgetown, Syria-related fundraising initiatives have ranged from meeting the needs of the nation’s children to infectious diseases and human security in the area.

But substantial needs remain.

“I was recently in Jordan, visiting the Zatari Refugee Camp, and my heart was breaking,” said Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF. “Easily upsetting were the children I met who were living on streets, having given up their homes and everything familiar when they left Syria. I do not quite know how to get the American people to see how awful the disaster is…. It seems to be the emergency that Americans are ignoring.”

Clay Whybark, academic advisor to the Institute for Defense and Business, also brought up the children in Syria who have been abandoned, isolated, or orphaned by the war—especially as a place where funders can help.

“There are short-term palliatives that are important,” he said. CharityWatch has graded organizations helping in Syria, he said, and though arguments can be made about the criteria used for evaluation, the information can help donors choose between alternatives.

Walker points out the need for increased education and training in camps.

“We know from past crises like this that border camps, full of angry and bored young men and women, are perfect recruiting grounds for men of violence (whether drug traffickers or war lords).” He also is concerned about the strain put on Jordan and Lebanon by refugees. Massive support is needed, he said, to ensure that the strain doesn’t lead to their disintegration, as well. He encourages donors to visit the ACAPS Syria Needs Analysis Project (SNAP) to learn more.

Bill Garvelink, senior advisor, global strategy, International Medical Corps, agrees that donors should focus on the impact of refugees on host populations. There are 1,400 settlement camps in and around Lebanon, but no formal camps. Rents and food prices in those host communities are going up, wages are going down, public services are being overwhelmed, and jobs are becoming harder to find due to increased competition.

“This is not going to end soon or well,” he said.

Help in the midst

Overall, Whybark considers the crisis “an incredibly intractable political mess” with diplomatic challenges at its core. He expects it to continue for four to eight years, offering plenty of opportunity for humanitarian aid. Ending the crisis will take large-scale coordinated intervention on behalf of the civilians, not something Whybark considers likely.

“This conflict is virtually intractable by the international community,” he said. “It discloses significant fissures in the international coordination and conflict resolution capability we have. Any positive effort to help focus intellectual and pragmatic effort on the ability to resolve international conflicts of this type are greatly needed.”

Worthington projects seeing half of the pre-civil war Syrian population of 22 million as internally displaced persons or refugees by the time it’s all over. What’s needed, in his opinion:

  1. A global advocacy campaign focused on the need to apply international humanitarian law in Syria.
  2. Large-scale development resources flowing into Jordan.
  3. Programs supporting women who have been raped and are now refugees, in addition to displaced children and their mothers.
  4. Philanthropic support of US NGOs quietly working in the area to maintain safety, as well as UNOCHA—particularly attempts to focus on the region’s humanitarian needs and violation of humanitarian  law.

“We are witnessing the 21st century’s first total war,” he said.