Syria is dead, long live the Syrians

The approach of prioritising the ‘hard politics’ of conflict and diplomacy has failed.

Syrian army attacks on Duma district of Damascus
Smoke rises after an air-strike staged by Syrian regime forces on residential areas in Damascus [Getty]

Syria’s population has lost over 220,000 in the past four years and one million more have been wounded. Some 4.3 million are projected to have left the country by the end of the year – the equivalent to the whole population of Croatia – and more than half the population are aid dependent. 

Syria’s GDP has dropped by nearly $120 billion, 83 percent of lights have gone out and four out of every five Syrians live below the national poverty line. New reports have shown that Syrian life expectancy has dropped by 22 years during the conflict, from 79 to 55. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) have said that from the estimated 2,500 doctors who worked in Aleppo, Syria’s second biggest city, before the conflict, fewer than 100 now remain.

Syria four years on: What is the prospect for peace?

When I lived in Damascus I remember hearing the story of an Irish tourist who had his camera stolen, the police spent a few hours roughing some suspects up and the camera was recovered and handed back with a policeman reassuring the man that “we have no crime here in Syria”.

Today those brave or foolhardy enough to cross into the country from Turkey may come across people on crucifixes, streams of people fleeing for their lives or the distant plumes of smoke from barrel bomb attacks rising from the debris of Syria’s broken cities.

A new approach

Syria, in any sense as to the country it was, is dead and as we mark the 4th anniversary of the Middle East’s most bloody conflict in a generation it is time to foster a new approach for the future. The focus must shift from the future of Assad and the relatively minor, though hugely profiled, role of ISIL towards a more strategic focus on the beleaguered Syrian people.

Let us not forget that the average time spent as a refugee is now pushing 17 years. With this in mind, new modes of representation are needed for Syria’s refugees and internally displaced that would give them better agency over the future of their lives. In essence, a “third way” of politics that avoids the prism of being seen solely as pro or anti-regime.

More thought must be given to what it means to lose generations. Half of all Syrian school children have not attended school for the past three years. Crucial formative years are being spent coping with loss, upheaval or sheer terror. Neighbouring host countries (especially Lebanon) are terrified of the consequences of their Syrian guests becoming politicised.

Yet empowering the moderates who’ve fled the country can give dignity and agency to a growing diaspora that are viewed as passive recipients of aid rather than people who have any choice about the future direction of their lives.

This new approach puts the humanitarian component of the crisis front and centre. It moves the debate away from the seemingly irrelevant discussions over division, partition or decentralisation to the creation of safe spaces where Syrian people can again have agency over their lives.

More thought must be given to what it means to lose generations. Half of all Syrian school children have not attended school for the past three years.


More effective policy

Ensuring major UN appeals are met, giving the Syria’s neighbours all the support they need and taking a heavier burden of what must now be acknowledged to be a long term refugee population across Europe and beyond are things that can be done given the will to allocate the resource.

If only a fraction of the urgency and high level political consensus that was gathered to fight ISIL was given to this new approach then a more effective global Syria policy may emerge. An approach defined by being WITH Syrians rather than for or against any particular vision requires serious global leadership that has so far been characteristic by its absence.

This leadership, instead of finding itself solely reactive to the myriad of crises that have emerged from Syria – be it home grown extremists or refugees dying in their hundreds trying to cross the Mediterranean – can instead focus on a more strategic proactive vision of supporting a people whose country has died in their lifetime.

After 1,460 days of bloodshed the approach of prioritising dealing with the “hard politics” of conflict and diplomacy has failed and instead a new approach must be address the “soft politics” of the humanitarian fallout from Syria’s death.

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.