On April 6, two U.S. destroyers off the Syrian coast fired a total of fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles against a military air base east of Homs. The strike came in response to what the White House says was a Syrian air force attack with nerve gas that had killed dozens of dozens in the Idlib region of northwest Syria earlier that week.
The apparent use of banned chemical arms and the U.S. retaliation have sparked intense debate. As usual in the Syrian conflict, all sides seek to portray themselves as protectors of Syrian civilians against the death and destruction unleashed by their opponents.
In practice, the Syrian people often seem to serve as a rhetorical prop for governments whose primary interest is in the military side of the conflict—because while uncounted billions are frittered away on the war effort year, the UN struggles to persuade these same nations to fund aid work for refugees and suffering civilians.
Underfunded Aid Efforts
The past six years of war have devastated Syria. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives and approximately 6.3 million civilians have been displaced inside Syria’s borders, as an additional five million fled to the neighboring states. The costs of economic reconstruction are now estimated at around 200 billion dollars. And yet, aid groups have never managed to fully fund aid efforts for the now nearly 13 million civilians who depend on international support.
The UN runs two separate but related aid plans for Syria, one focused on alleviating the situation inside the country and the other seeking to sustain refugees in the wider region and to boost the resilience of nations hosting them. The first of these programs has only been half-funded since it began in 2012, with between 43 and 62 percent of estimated needs covered per year. The refugee-focused efforts have done slightly better, reaching somewhere between 62 and 73 percent of the fundraising goals since 2013.
Due to these constant shortages, money tends to run out toward the end of each funding year, which leads to cuts in food aid and the cancellation of basic support programs, including for pregnant women and others in dire need.
While the short-term effects of underfunding aid to Syria are severe enough, the less-visible long-term effects are likely be even more damaging. For example, more than 40 percent of Syrian refugee children in Turkey remain out of school and the situation is even worse in Lebanon. With the war now in its seventh year and few of these refugees likely to return soon, if ever, it virtually guarantees future friction and instability.
The cost to fully fund UN aid programs is easily within reach for the nations involved with fighting or fueling the war, yet it is not being done. So far in 2017, the UN has only received around a fifth of what it needs and the year is likely to end in another underwhelming show of support for Syrian civilians.
The Brussels Conference
Though it was overshadowed by the controversies surrounding the reported use of poison gas and the U.S. air strikes, an international aid conference was held in Brussels on April 4–5 that showed who does and who doesn’t spend on humanitarian support for Syrian civilians.
Co-chaired by the Germany, Kuwait, Norway, Qatar, the United Kingdom, the EU, and the UN, around seventy nations and international organizations attended the meeting. Forty-one of them pledged financial support to the UN aid efforts, for a total of 6 billion dollars promised out of the 8 billion required by the UN in 2017.
Promising three-quarters of what the UN had asked for may seem like a big step forward, but aid pledges should not be confused with actual payouts. Some nations are notorious for publicly pledging money and then failing to deliver it. This discrepancy was highlighted by UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien, who noted that the UN needs “as soon as possible, to see these pledges turned into cash for action.”
The list of pledges makes clear that most of the funding for aid to Syria is provided by a small group of donors, with nearly two-thirds of the 6 billion total coming from only four sources: Germany, the EU, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Other generous contributors included Canada, Norway, Japan, the Netherlands, Kuwait, and Qatar, all of whom pledged to give more than 100 million dollars.
It bears noting that most of these governments support the Syrian opposition and that some of them are also involved with funding armed rebel groups. Allies of the Syrian government tend to show less interest in the humanitarian aspects of the war: China promised to give 29 million to needy civilians, but Russia and Iran both left the conference without pledging a single dollar.
The Cost of Conflict
For a snapshot of the contrast between how frivolously outsiders spend on military action in Syria and their simultaneous reluctance to fund humanitarian operations, let’s compare the aid money promised on April 5 with the cost of the missile strike the next day.
At 1.59 million dollars apiece, the price tag for fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles would have been nearly 94 million dollars—not including the ships and personnel needed to move the missiles into range and fire them. A single volley of missiles therefore represents more than 16 percent of the 566 million dollars in humanitarian aid that the United States pledged on April 5, as one of the biggest donors at the Brussels conference.
Or put it this way: if an equivalent amount had been spent on bread and blankets for refugees instead of on cruise missiles, the U.S. Navy would have been just a few missiles shy of being the world’s tenth most generous humanitarian donor in 2017. All in an evening’s work.
That’s not an indictment of the U.S. government only. The same could be said about Russian, Turkish, Iranian, or Saudi involvement in the Syrian conflict, and it is neither here nor there to the controversial question of whether this particular missile strike was legal, moral, or meaningful.
But the vast discrepancy between how the international community approaches humanitarian and military expenses in Syria is as instructive as it is appalling. While there will apparently always be money for bombs and bullets, global generosity seems to grind to a halt as soon as the conversation moves to food packages, schools, health clinics, or the hosting of refugees.