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Ten years of conflict in Syria – Seven questions for German foreign policy

The ten-year-long conflict has had a devastating impact: more than 500,000 people have died, while more than half of the Syrian population have had to leave their homes.

The ten-year-long conflict has had a devastating impact: more than 500,000 people have died, while more than half of the Syrian population have had to leave their homes., © WFP/Abeer Etefa

15.03.2021 - Article

The conflict in Syria has been raging for ten years. What began with demonstrations against the Syrian regime is now a conflict with an international dimension. Here, we provide answers to the seven most important questions.

1. What is the situation after ten years of conflict?

The ten-year-long conflict has had a devastating impact: more than 500,000 people have died, while more than half of the Syrian population have had to leave their homes. The Syrian economy is in ruins due to corruption and mismanagement. What began in 2011 as a peaceful demonstration against President Assad quickly turned into an armed conflict with an international dimension. Despite the ongoing efforts of the United Nations, there is no political solution in sight. The Syrian regime is still hoping to win the conflict with repression and military means and is therefore trying to draw out the UN-led political process. The regime’s main aim is to hold on to power – at the expense of the Syrian population. 

Many families continue to live in completely unacceptable conditions in tent camps and other makeshift types of accommodation
Many families continue to live in completely unacceptable conditions in tent camps and other makeshift types of accommodation© WFP/Rein Skullerud

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in Syria is catastrophic. According to the United Nations, the number of people reliant on humanitarian assistance in 2021 has increased from 11 to more than 13 million. The dire economic situation and the COVID-19 pandemic have made matters worse. The situation of the almost three million internally displaced persons in north-west Syria is especially dramatic. There, many families continue to live in completely unacceptable conditions in tent camps and other makeshift types of accommodation. Often, they have no access to basic infrastructure such as running water or electricity. Humanitarian assistance can only reach these people via Turkey – on the basis of the UN Security Council’s Cross-Border Resolution. This Resolution expires in July 2021. If it is not extended, hundreds of thousands of people could be completely cut off from humanitarian assistance.

The reign of terror of the so-called Islamic State (IS) also left behind devastation, especially in north-east Syria. Although the IS has lost control of the territory it held, huge challenges remain: the terrorist organisation continues to carry out attacks in almost all parts of the country, most recently in central and north-east Syria in particular, in an attempt to keep on destabilising the situation. 

2. What are Germany’s foreign policy aims?

The German Government believes that true and lasting peace in Syria is only possible through a political solution which takes into account the interests of all Syrians equally. Until such a credible political transformation has taken place, Germany and its European partners will not normalise relations with Syria, nor will they provide any support to the regime for the reconstruction of the country. Reconstruction efforts need this very political transformation if they are to be viable and sustainable.

Against this background, Germany is strongly committed to a political solution to the Syria conflict based on Security Council Resolution 2254. In particular, it is supporting the important work done by UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen – both politically and financially. One example of this is the financial funding provided for the organisation and conduct of the negotiations in Geneva. The Syrian regime, the Syrian opposition and Syrian civil society have taken part in the five sessions to date of the Syrian Constitutional Committee. So far, however, it has not been possible to draw up a new draft constitution, mainly due to the Syrian regime’s obstructionist stance. Germany is seeking to lend the negotiating process fresh impetus – on the one hand, by fostering mediation efforts and strengthening constructive players within the framework of the Syria Peace Initiative. On the other hand, it is trying to persuade the regime’s partners and allies to bring their influence to bear to get it back to the negotiating table.

3. How is Germany supporting people in Syria?

Syria and help in overcoming the effects of the conflict are a focus of German humanitarian assistance.
Syria and help in overcoming the effects of the conflict are a focus of German humanitarian assistance.© WFP/Hani Al Homsh

Syria and help in overcoming the effects of the conflict are a focus of German humanitarian assistance. Last year, Germany provided around 672 million euro for humanitarian assistance measures in Syria and its neighbouring countries, more than half of which for measures within Syria. It has already made available more than ten billion euro since the start of the conflict. The humanitarian assistance is deployed via the United Nations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement as well as various humanitarian NGOs. The aim is to improve the food supply, healthcare and sanitation for people and to ensure that they have accommodation as well as protection from sexual violence, persecution and the like. The assistance is provided in accordance with needs and based on humanitarian principles. It reaches people in all 14 Syrian provinces.

What is more, the Federal Foreign Office has undertaken considerable efforts to help stabilise Syria. Around 250 million euro have been made available since the start of the conflict, of which 45 million euro were provided last year, to support the political process, stabilise the areas in north-east Syria liberated from the IS and bolster civil society stakeholders and structures.

At the forthcoming donor conference in Brussels, the German Government is planning to pledge additional substantial assistance and also to call on others to provide humanitarian support.

4. What assistance is Germany providing for Syria’s neighbours hosting refugees?

Germany is in close contact with Syria’s neighbouring countries, which have made an utterly amazing effort since the outbreak of the conflict: for example, Lebanon has taken in more than 1.2 million Syrians – although the country itself has only roughly six million inhabitants. Jordan and Turkey have also taken in many Syrian refugees. Germany is providing extensive humanitarian assistance in these countries, too. For instance, the German Government is supporting the World Food Programme’s food security measures and the UNHCR programme, which provides people with aid supplies and accommodation as well as help in legal matters. Furthermore, projects in Lebanon and Jordan aimed at improving relations and understanding between host communities and Syrian refugees are being funded via the Federal Foreign Office’s stabilisation engagement. 

5. What is the situation with regard to the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to Syria?

The German Government shares the UNHCR’s view that the voluntary return of millions of refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes in safety and dignity remains inconceivable. Although the large majority of Syrian refugees would, in principle, like to return to Syria, only a few of them believe this will be possible in the foreseeable future. This is mainly due to concerns about safety. For in many cases, their homes and possessions have been expropriated. They are also at risk of forced recruitment, arbitrary arrest or torture, mainly by the Syrian regime, as well as physical or sexual violence. The lack of economic prospects and the collapse of the education and health systems are further obstacles to an early return. The Syrian regime denies humanitarian organisations such as the UNHCR regular and permanent access to returnees. Only the Syrian regime can change the current situation by bringing about a political transformation. 

6. What is Germany doing about impunity in the case of human rights crimes in Syria?

The German Government believes that lasting peace in Syria is only possible if the war crimes and atrocities committed during the conflict are investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice.

For this reason, Germany is providing very concrete support for international initiatives and mechanisms targeting impunity in the Syria conflict. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (IICI Syria) established back in 2011, partly at Germany’s initiative, is key here. And the UN’s International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 (IIIM) also has a central role to play. The German Government provided one million euro annually between 2017 and 2019 for the establishment and development of this body and was thus one of its biggest backers. Last year, the funding was finally integrated into the regular UN budget.

What is more, in line with the principle of universal jurisdiction Germany is a pioneer in the prosecution of the most serious crimes committed in Syria. In February 2021, a Syrian defendant was convicted for the first time by the Koblenz Higher Regional Court for complicity in crimes against humanity.

Furthermore, Germany is promoting several civil society organisations and initiatives which are documenting human rights crimes committed during the conflict and are hereby ensuring that these crimes may be prosecuted and that society comes to grips with them. These include the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, the International Commission on Missing Persons and the Syria Justice and Accountability Center.

More on Germany’s engagement against impunity

7. Sanctions: What is the EU sanctions regime intended to achieve?

There has been an EU sanctions regime against Syria since 2011. The sanctions are directed against individuals and entities that are responsible for serious crimes in Syria, support the regime or profit from the armed conflict. At the same time, the sanctions prohibit the export of certain goods to Syria which, for example, could be used to repress the population or luxury goods from which the regime can benefit.

The aim of the EU sanctions is to prevail on the Assad regime to halt its violent and brutal actions against the Syrian civilian population and to play a constructive role in the UN-led political process. The overriding priority is to ensure that people in Syria do not suffer as a result of the sanctions. For that reason, humanitarian goods and medical equipment are explicitly exempt from the EU sanctions.

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