Russia and Global Security Risks
Syria: The Economic Crisis as a Prologue to the Humanitarian Crisis
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall (16/1, Tsvetnoy Blvd, Moscow)
List of speakers

On June 17, the Valdai Club hosted a discussion titled "The humanitarian crisis in Syria: Is it just the beginning?" The Club’s experts discussed the humanitarian situation in Syria, the impact of sanctions, and the role of Russia and international humanitarian organisations. The moderator was Ivan Timofeev, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club.

Philip Spoerri, Head of Delegation in Syria of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), pointed to the difficult economic situation in the country that has persisted despite the stabilisation of the military situation. According to him, many Syrians say that in an economic sense, things are worse now than during the worst times of the war. Particularly difficult are the problems with the basic infrastructure. Its restoration and maintenance requires significant investments, and is threatened with collapse in the foreseeable future.

Maria Khodynskaya-Golenischeva, Chief Advisor of the Strategic Planning Department of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, described Russian diplomacy in Syria with respect to humanitarian issues. She noted that Western sanctions remain a serious obstacle to alleviating the humanitarian situation in Syria. According to UN human rights agencies, the sanctions target the most vulnerable segments of the population - women, children, the elderly, and the disabled. Speaking about the work of international humanitarian organisations, she also stressed that the UN humanitarian structures and international humanitarian agencies should work impartially and provide assistance to all Syrians without any political background, as stipulated by their mandate.

The damaging impact of the sanctions on the Syrian economy was outlined by Hames Zreik, CEO of the Damascus Centre for Research and Studies. According to him, Western sanctions paradoxically prevent assistance, not only to the government, but also to the allies of the West. Although they were supposedly introduced to weaken the political system, in reality their impact is such that only the Syrian people suffer. In particular, properly, the sanctions impede the maintenance of the infrastructure in an efficient state.

The speech of Guney Yildiz, IPC-Stiftung Mercator Fellow at the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP-Berlin) focused on the problem of refugees. He said that the flows of Syrian refugees have now decreased, but not because of the improvement of the situation, but due to Turkey’s tightening of border controls and its political decision to reduce the reception of refugees. Like other speakers, he considers the situation in the Syrian economy extremely dangerous, especially with respect to infrastructure. He sees the key reason for this in sanctions. Separately, he pointed to the ineffectiveness of many international humanitarian organisations. Most of the assistance they provide does not reach those in need and ends up in the hands of intermediaries.

Igor Matveev, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre of Arab and Islamic Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Science, listed a number of socio-economic challenges that Syria is currently facing and presented two possible scenarios for the further development of the economic situation in the country. The pessimistic scenario entailed the political and economic fragmentation of the country and a permanent economic crisis leading to dependence on external actors, while the optimistic scenario provided for the restoration of the unity of economic ties, institutional reforms and the independent advancement of Syria towards post-conflict reconstruction. Matveev emphasised the direct connection between the economic situation and the humanitarian one, adding that the worse the economic situation is, the less the country is ready for the return of refugees.

Sergey Shevchuk, General Director of the Russian Humanitarian Mission, spoke about the activities of his organisation in Syria and presented a practical view of the problem of providing humanitarian assistance to the Syrian population. He named school education, the restoration of infrastructure (primarily the provision of fuel, electricity and water), and healthcare as areas requiring special attention. He also pointed to the problem of lack of coordination between humanitarian organisations from different countries, which leads to a "duplication of aid". The provision of assistance by different organisations goes to the same circle of beneficiaries. To solve this problem, it is necessary to create a mechanism for coordinating humanitarian efforts.