A fortnight ago, commenting on the ceasefire about to come into effect in Syria, I noted, cautiously, that while it might lead to a significant reduction in conflict, it would not be an easy process and that there would be many stumbles along the way.
As we know, it didn’t survive beyond a week. The aerial attack by United States and allied planes on a Syrian army position shook it badly. The US claimed it was a mistake and, given the information so far revealed, that may have been the case. The response from Bashar Al Assad’s regime and his allies has been a deliberate unleashing of perhaps the most brutal offensive of the war in poor, benighted Aleppo, with civilians, inevitably, suffering the greatest number of casualties. To describe it as horrendous and shameful is a gross understatement.
International efforts, so far fruitless, to achieve a new partial ceasefire continue. There is, however, little reason to trust in the good faith of Mr Al Assad, responsible for the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands so far killed in the conflict, or of those behind him, in Moscow and Tehran, who could stop him with a single telephone call, if they wished to do so. A new agreement will be reached, eventually, and then another, then another, before the guns, rockets and barrel bombs, or most of them, finally fall silent. Many thousands of new casualties may occur before that happens.
We in the UAE can do little to help to end the fighting, beyond offering support to the initiatives by the United Nations and others. What we can do, and have done, is to help those displaced or driven into exile. That was emphasised yet again at last week’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees held at the UN.
Since the conflict erupted in early 2011, over 123,000 Syrians have been welcomed to the UAE, to join 115,000 fellow citizens who were already here. All of the new arrivals are, in a real sense, refugees, fleeing the devastation in their homeland. Over the same period, the UAE has provided over US$750 million (Dh2.75bn) in humanitarian relief to others who have stayed closer to home, in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere, as well as to the internally displaced.
Last week, as the European Union continued to display its inability to cope with the flow of migrants from Syria and elsewhere into Europe, the Emirates Red Crescent announced the opening of its first camp for Syrian refugees in Greece.
The UAE has long argued that humanitarian support for those fleeing the conflict is best directed to those who have remained in the vicinity of Syria itself. As Reem Al Hashimi, Minister of State for International Co-operation, put it last week: “Ultimately, we must offer a source of hope for displaced persons that allows them to maintain dignity, return home, reintegrate themselves into their societies, and rebuild their countries and their lives.” In that process of rebuilding, when it commences, the UAE is committed to play its part.
Now, as the conflict continues to rage, it has been announced that the UAE is to take a further step – that of allowing up to 15,000 Syrians to enter the country as refugees over the next five years, to add to those who have already arrived, but do not have formal refugee status. Compare that with the promise from Britain, whose population is over six times that of the UAE, and over 50 times greater than the number of UAE citizens, to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 – a target that appears unlikely to be met. The United States, with a population of over 320 million, has so far admitted only about 12,000 since the conflict began.
There is much about the UAE of which we can be proud. Our contributions to the people of Syria are high on that list.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture