There are times in history when, because of the horrors of the events, the international community is forced to take stock.
In recent history, the Biafran crisis of the late 1960s was one such time, out of which Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was formed and a new way of responding to humanitarian crises began to take shape.
With the Syrian crisis, I sense we are approaching another such time when we will need to ask ourselves: Is there another way of doing things?
However, we are not there yet and probably won’t be for another few years, because the brutality of this conflict has not seeped into our consciousness yet.
There are four observations worth considering on the present crisis and where it is going. I’ll share two here and two in a subsequent column.
1. The Syrian crisis and its overflow into Iraq and the surrounding countries is the defining humanitarian crisis in the world today.
It will enter the vocabulary of humanitarian workers on par with the Biafran crisis, the Ethiopian famine, the Rwandan genocide, Cambodia, the Balkan conflicts, Sierra Leon, Liberia and many others.
Since the Rwandan and the Balkan crises, this is the largest displacement of people.
Eastern Aleppo today is being compared with Sarajevo as the place where the international community lost all credibility and its moral conscience as a result.
A whole generation of children has no access to education, and most of them are on the streets begging or working so that the family would have enough to live on.
The crisis is no longer limited to the neighboring hosting countries, the camps and the settlements. The refugee influx into Europe is stretching the social fabric of countries in Europe with the rise in xenophobia and racism, fear of terrorism and questions about national identity.
The human impact of this conflict will be felt for generations.
2. The Syrian crisis is not just another war.
It is one of the most complex politically. Logistically, it is one of the most challenging to implement.
Research shows that if a civil war is not resolved within the first two years, they will then drag on. The data indicates that half of all civil wars lasted at least 15 years or more, while others averaged about seven years.
We are now only into the fifth year of the Syrian conflict, and there is no political will to end this conflict.
The complexity of having multiple countries involved – each with their own agenda – does not allow for much common ground.
Each of these countries or groups are either directly engaged in combat or are funding and arming proxy militias. At last count, there are at least 1,000 militias operating inside Syria.
Humanitarian agencies must figure out how to fund the humanitarian response over this length of time and deal with donor fatigue.
The U.N. agencies repeatedly show that they are significantly underfunded, which then translates into fewer beneficiaries and less aid to those who receive assistance.
There are an increasing number of cases of chronic malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, which has a significant long-term impact on children and their well-being.
More and more mothers are reporting that they are unable to breastfeed because of the stress and trauma they experience.
The conflict is being fought in three theatres:
There is the military conflict, which most have followed with varying degrees of understanding.
The second theatre is in the media.
Early in the crisis, groups of opposition members were being trained in Turkey by Western governments to become journalists who would provide an alternate version of the conflict to what was being provided by the Syrian regime.
This conflict is intense and yet subtle, with manipulations of stories, images and half-truths. Language and words are critical.
When do civilians who are killed become a war crime, and when is it collateral damage? Somewhere in the legal jargon of trying to differentiate between the two and justify our actions, we have lost our humanity.
One of the reasons journalists are being denied access to the war zones is so that each party has the freedom to portray reality as they would like it to be.
The third theatre is the humanitarian sector.
Agencies in government-controlled areas require approval from the Syrian regime and are then restricted in what they can do and where they can go.
Those operating in rebel-controlled areas either have to negotiate access with the rebels under very strict restrictions or have to hand over the humanitarian supplies to the rebels to distribute.
It is extremely hard to be neutral in this conflict and to use “do no harm” principles.
If we abide by the Red Cross Code of Conduct and believe that the humanitarian imperative comes first, does that override the fact that by doing so I will need to affirm the legitimacy of a rebel group or of the regime?
The loophole we found in the first year of the conflict was that local churches inside Syria did not have to get government approval to provide humanitarian aid.
So, we set up an underground operation of getting funds into Syria, training people, doing assessments and ensuring accountability for funds and supplies.
But this has huge risks.
The same standards for procurement, accounting and audit, and verification of data for assessments and monitoring cannot be maintained. This is not to mention the issue of protection of staff and partners as well as trying to implement the People in Aid Code.
Rupen Das is global field staff with Canadian Baptist Ministries (CBM) based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He is also research professor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto, Canada. This article is a shortened version of a plenary presentation Das made at the ACCORD 2016 annual meeting to the 70-plus Christian U.S. relief and development member nongovernmental organizations. The full-length version is available on his blog.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.
Rupen Das is research professor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto and the national director of the Canadian Bible Society. He is author of several books, including “Compassion and the Mission of God.”