Catastrophe in Southwest Syria: The Urgent Need for Humanitarian Action

Syria is in the midst of one of the largest and fastest displacement crises since the start of the country’s bloody civil war eight years ago. In the last two weeks, the Assad regime has launched a full-scale offensive backed by Russian airpower to recapture the remaining opposition enclave in Syria’s southwest Dara’a and Quneitra provinces. As many as 330,000 Syrians have been displaced and are fleeing toward Jordan and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights to escape the Syrian government’s rapid advance. But despite the worsening crisis, international borders remain closed.

The offensive marks the collapse of the de-escalation zone established last year by Jordan, Russia, and the United States in southwest Syria. To date, diplomatic efforts to salvage the de-escalation zone or broker a ceasefire have had no tangible impact on the fighting on the ground.  While efforts to stem the humanitarian catastrophe are mounting, aid groups have little access to the displaced populations.

A decision by Jordan to allow a new wave of Syrians to seek refuge clearly offers the best humanitarian outcome short of an end to the fighting. Admittedly, this this will be a tall order, as Jordan already hosts some 660,000 Syrian refugees and its deteriorating economy recently triggered some of largest popular protests in years. While RI believes that Jordan is obliged to permit fleeing Syrians refuge, humanitarian actors must prepare for the worst-case scenarios if the Government of Jordan does not do so. Donors and stakeholders should be ready to provide the necessary resources to standup a rapid emergency response that can reach internally displaced persons (IDPs) stranded along the borders. Specifically, the following steps should be taken:

  • Jordan should allow Syrians displaced by the offensive to enter the kingdom.

  • The United States and other key donors should immediately commit to surge funding and other resources to support Jordan in providing assistance to those fleeing the fighting.

  • Israel should allow the UN and other humanitarian organizations to deliver assistance to displaced Syrians massing along the border in Golan.

  • The Israeli authorities should be prepared to allow Syrians fleeing the regime offensive to seek refuge in areas they control in the Golan.

  • Jordan and Israel should allow immediate entry for medical evacuations of displaced Syrians where life-saving treatment is necessary.

  • The United States and other donors should increase financial and logistical support for local aid actors, such as the White Helmets, who are assisting IDPs on the ground.

  • The United States should lead a diplomatic effort to press Russia for an immediate end to the hostilities in southwest Syria in advance of the July 16 Trump-Putin summit.

Background

Southwest Syria Map 2.jpg

In July 2017, Jordan, Russia, and the United States instituted a de-escalation zone inside southwest Syria, a highly volatile region with a mixed presence of regime forces, the opposition fighters of the Southern Front, Iranian-linked militias, Islamist groups, and one of the remaining Islamic Stateheld enclaves bordering Jordan and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. The de-escalation plan aimed to stop conflict between the opposition and the Syrian government and to create the conditions for a voluntary and safe return of Syrian refugees and internally displaced Syrians.

The de-escalation agreement reduced violence and enabled donors to bolster stabilization efforts in the southwest. Moderate opposition factions also organized a border force to secure the Syrian side of Jordan’s northern border. These efforts created a semblance of stability and prompted thousands of refugees in Jordan to return to the southwest. However, these efforts faltered after the Trump administration abruptly froze stabilization funding and financial support for the Southern Front rebels. While the Trump administration threatened “firm and appropriate measures” if the Assad government pushed south, the United States ultimately withdrew its support for the opposition.

Meanwhile, Russia’s attempts to pressure the opposition to “reconcile” with the Syrian government—capitulation in exchange for peace—have failed to bring either party to the table. Ahead of Assad’s offensive, a series of multilateral and bilateral negotiations between the United States, Israel, Russia, and Jordan aimed to prevent widespread violence. Ultimately, these efforts failed, and the regime in Damascus launched a full-scale assault on the south.

 

Pre-offensive Refugee and IDP Flows

The regime offensive is targeting two principal areas in the southwest—Dara’a and Quneitra—which are home to roughly 1 million Syrians. Prior to the offensive, monitors estimate that roughly 360,000 Syrians from the southwest were internally displaced, either by previous government offensives in the south or from previous conflicts elsewhere in the country. Another 100,000 are Syrian returnees—IDPs and refugees from other governorates and neighboring countries—who returned due to improved security conditions. These conditions were largely a product of the de-escalation efforts.

A small but steady stream of Syrian refugees in Jordan return to Syria on a regular basis—by choice and by coercion. For example, in the first half of 2017, nearly 400 Syrians in Jordan per month were sent back to the south, prompting their families to follow. In the second half of 2017, an additional 6,500 returned from Jordan to the southwest. The majority of the civilians in the southwest have chosen to remain in opposition-held areas. Those displaced in the southwest were dispersed between host-communities, informal settlements, and IDP camps. The majority of IDP camps are concentrated on the borders with Jordan and the Golan Heights.

 

The Southwest Offensive and Widespread Displacement

 Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The first wave of Syrian airstrikes and artillery bombardments in southwest Syria began on June 19 at the conclusion of the Eid holiday. Russia formally joined the offensive five days later, carrying out intense strikes on targets throughout southwest Syria in violation of the U.S.-Russia-Jordan de-escalation agreement. Strikes have targeted critical infrastructure including hospitals and medical clinics. On July 2, UNHCR estimated that as many as 270,000 Syrians had been displaced in Dara’a and Quneitra. One international NGO called it the “largest and fastest displacement in Syrian history.”

 

The Eastern Front:

The first wave of concentrated strikes in the southwest were against opposition-held territory in the northeast Dara’a province. Regime forces largely recaptured this area over the course of the past week. Currently, the worst displacement is concentrated in eastern Dara’a. Roughly 40,000 IDPs were registered in the area on June 29, but the number is climbing swiftly. The rapid advance of Assad’s forces on this front produced widespread displacement, forcing Syrian civilians to flee to rural areas in and around Syria’s southern border with Jordan. Currently, some 60,000 displaced Syrians are located at the Nasib-Jaber crossing on Jordan’s border. On June 26, Jordan’s Foreign Minister reiterated that the kingdom’s border would remain closed. Basic needs including temporary shelter, blankets, and mattresses are limited or wholly unavailable in some displacement locations in eastern Dara’a.

If Assad’s forces intend to push into southeast Dara’a to recapture the critical Nasib border crossing with Jordan and secure the Amman-Damascus highway—a strategic thruway linking the two capitals that has hereto remained closed—the humanitarian situation will deteriorate rapidly. The frontlines of a southeast advance by regime forces and Russian airstrikes would push into an area with the highest concentration of IDPs in Syria. Significant civilian casualties could be expected and force IDPs to flee once again to avoid the frontlines.

 

The Western Front and Dara’a City:

While the Assad regime’s primary effort is to secure eastern Dara’a, ongoing strikes at the Quneitra, Dara’a, Rural Damascus tri-border area—colloquially known as the “triangle of death”—had displaced over 60,000 Syrians. Furthermore, an additional 15,000 Syrians were displaced from Dara’a City on the same day, some of whom fled westward toward the Golan. In total, some 164,000 displaced Syrians are located in Quneitra bordering the Israeli-controlled Golan. The amassing of refugees in the Golan is a source of concern for the Israeli army, which raised its alert level in the area. The Israeli Defense Forces have reportedly carried out a cross-border delivery of critical humanitarian aid, tents, and more to Syrian IDP camps on its border, noting that conditions in the IDP camps are “dire.” It is, however, unlikely that Israel will allow displaced Syrians to enter into Israeli-controlled territory.

The strategic situation in the Golan remains tense. Israel is not likely to intervene more deeply in southwest Syria unless Iranian-linked or Hezbollah forces advance toward the Israeli border. Indeed, the threat of military confrontation with Israel may limit the Syrian army’s advance in this area. Ongoing talks between Israel, the United States, and Russia may yet produce a buffer zone on the Golan. However, it is too early to say if such an outcome is tenable.

 

Humanitarian Response Scenarios

The window to prevent a worst-case scenario is rapidly shrinking. The parties of the de-escalation agreement must try to prevent a wider humanitarian catastrophe. However, no coherent high-level effort involving all the parties appears to be proceeding. Moscow has reportedly reached out to Washington to broker a deal under which opposition fighters would turn over positions to government forces. Meanwhile, Russian delegates are meeting with the Syrian opposition in Amman to establish terms for an agreement. However, none of these discussions have produced a meaningful cessation of hostilities. In the absence of an agreement, humanitarians should prepare for multiple scenarios in order to respond to the ongoing catastrophe in the southwest.
 

1. Jordan opens the border

Jordan is not signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol. However, in keeping with customary international law, Jordan has the capacity to open its borders and provide shelter for Syrians. Opening the Ramtha and Jaber border crossings for thousands of displaced Syrians is the most immediate solution for protecting vulnerable civilians before Assad’s forces reach the border. Instead, Jordan has reaffirmed its refusal to do so and called for the United Nations to assist the displaced inside of Syria. However, the Jordanian government is facing increasing pressure from donors, aid groups—and, interestingly—domestic civil society, to let Syrians fleeing the current offensive to enter.  

Jordan should open its border to allow Syrians to enter, and the international community should be prepared to reciprocate immediately by increasing aid beyond current bilateral commitments and pledging funding for the Jordan Compact. More specifically, the UNHCR would need a rapid injection of resources to stand up an expanded operation in the north. This would include: 1) a new registration site in the north or the expansion the former northern registration site, Raba al Sahan; and 2) an influx of personnel to manage the border crossing and registration site, shelter for refugees, and humanitarian assistance and services.

In turn, donors would provide financial resources to the Jordanian government for registering new refugees, carrying out its routine security checks, and expanding or opening new shelter sites to house Syrians. In addition, Jordan could be further incentivized to cooperate if donor countries offered economic relief, such as relaxed benchmarks for IMF austerity measures or access to new markets for Jordanian products. However, if Jordan continues to refuse to permit refuge for fleeing Syrians, the UNHCR, the United States and other governments should press the GOJ to reconsider this unfortunate position.

 

2. Jordan keeps the border closed

If Jordan does not open its border, access to IDP settlements along Jordan’s border will be necessary to provide critical assistance. The Jordanian government should authorize and facilitate cross-border humanitarian assistance missions—food, tents, blankets, medical aid, and other non-food items—in cooperation with UN agencies and their partners to sustain IDPs in the coming days before the frontlines shift further south. If Jordan does not oblige, the UNHCR should exert pressure from Geneva, as it did in 2015, through a formal statement from the High Commissioner calling on Jordan to provide humanitarian actors access to the border region. In tandem, the United States, EU, and UK should call on Jordan to open the border for Syrians in exchange for international resources to assist in carrying the cost of housing them.

In this scenario, the United Nations, international NGOs, and bilateral aid agencies would partner with Syrian civil society, volunteers, and groups like the White Helmets to deliver and distribute humanitarian assistance to IDP communities on the Syrian side of the border. This method of operation proved successful during the UNHCR response to the IDP influx at Rukban in 2016. It would involve multi-tiered coordination between UNHCR offices in Amman and Damascus to organize operations in cooperation on both sides of Jordan’s Ramtha and Jaber border crossings.

As part of this effort, donors would ramp up financial and logistical support to local, vetted Syrian humanitarian responders operating inside the southwest in order to help them provide information on IDP movements, transport aid, and distribute it to IDP communities along Jordan’s border. These should include Syrian subcontractors who previously worked with U.S. and UK development agencies during the de-escalation period and have a presence on the ground.

 

3. Jordan restricts cross-border access for humanitarians

In the past, Jordan has at times restricted access to border crossings for humanitarian actors involved in cross-border assistance. Under such a scenario, the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF) would likely undertake occasional cross-border aid deliveries. However, Jordan is also prepared to halt even these operations if the security situation deteriorates—as it did after an attack by Islamic State affiliates against a JAF unit at Rukban in 2016. At this point, only the UNHCR in Damascus and its partners could, in theory, respond to the crisis—something the Assad regime is unlikely to permit. The final option would then be for the UNHCR and partner agencies in Jordan to work closely with Jordanian security forces to organize and transport aid deliveries across the border during highly limited windows of opportunity to support IDP communities. In this case, the UN, the United States and donors should continue pressuring Jordan to ensure aid flows across the border.

 

4. Situation in the Golan worsens

While the Syrian government has rapidly advanced in eastern Dara’a, Russian and Syrian aerial campaigns have targeted towns and villages in western Dara’a and Quneitra. As of July 3, nearly 164,000 Syrians are displaced in Quneitra At least 11,000 have congregated in informal camps on the border of the Israeli-controlled Golan. Access to this area is both challenging and complex. Israel is currently the only actor carrying out cross-border aid deliveries directly to IDP communities on its border. While Israel has taken steps to provide assistance, it could work more closely with the United Nations and international NGOs to provide greater access for humanitarian actors to enter and operate in the Golan.

International refugee and humanitarian law and principles require that the Israeli authorities allow Syrians displaced by the regime offensive to obtain refuge in territory they control. Israel should comply with this these obligations. However, like Jordan, Israel has indicated that its border with Syria will remain closed. Instead, Israel is more likely to make clear to the Assad regime and its supporters that Israel will not tolerate new military operations immediately adjacent to the areas it controls in the Golan. This would minimize any threat to Israel. It could also create a de facto buffer area or zone in which Syrians who are fleeing the front lines could seek physical safety. The Israeli authorities and humanitarian actors would then need to scale up cross border relief operations significantly. Such a policy would fall in line with the tenants of a reported agreement being negotiated between Israel, Russia, and the United States.

 

5. Assad Regime closes the border

If the Syrian government closes the border into southwest Syria in the coming weeks, the UN agencies in Syria would need to work through the regime to secure the necessary permissions to gain immediate access to IDP communities remaining in embattled areas. If the Assad regime does not agree, the issue would necessitate a UN Security Council resolution to ensure access to IDPs in these areas. The more challenging option, utilized by the United Nations earlier in the war, would be to deliver aid by air drop, but there are certainly logistic and operational challenges to this option.

 

Conclusion

Any outcome in southwest Syria short of a ceasefire and negotiated agreement to de-escalate conflict will result in widespread destruction and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. As displacement increases, informal IDP camps on Jordan’s and Israel’s borders will grow at a relatively rapid rate, producing deeper security concerns for both countries. The closer the Assad government pushes toward Jordan and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, the more likely IDPs will fall into the crossfire, increasing the risk of secondary displacement or death. Lack of humanitarian access could put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.

If diplomacy cannot slow the fighting, the humanitarian situation will deteriorate. Most assistance to Syrians in the southwest is delivered via UN cross-border relief operations from Jordan. But as violence escalates, these operations are in jeopardy. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the UN relief operations in Syrian government-held territory will gain access to vulnerable areas in the southwest. All eyes will then be on Jordan to see if the kingdom will reverse course and open its borders to allow a new wave of Syrians to take refuge.


This piece was authored by Jesse Marks, a consultant for Refugees International and a Fulbright Research Fellow based in Amman, Jordan, and Hardin Lang, vice president for programs at policy at Refugees International.

The numbers of the displaced and recommendations for addressing the conflict in this piece were amended on July 4, 2018 to reflect the swiftly changing situation on the ground.