The untold driver of Syria’s enduring humanitarian crisis

Gaza, Ukraine, Syria

More than 13 years have passed since the onset of the Syrian civil war, yet the suffering in Syria has rarely been further from the headlines. Global attention has shifted to other crises, such as those in Ukraine and Gaza. Despite the conflict in Syria being largely frozen and the peace process stalled, the humanitarian crisis driven by Bashar al-Assad’s brutal campaign against his people remains devastatingly real.

What is particularly unusual about the Syrian humanitarian crisis is one of its key drivers: oil. Once a cornerstone of the Syrian economy, oil has now become a source of misery for the Syrian people, impacting the environment, public health, and long-term prospects for recovery.

In 2011, international sanctions were imposed on Syria’s oil industry. These sanctions, intended to weaken the Assad regime, have had the unintended consequence of allowing the country’s oil wells and refineries to fall into the hands of unsavory private actors. This includes groups like the self-proclaimed Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which, according to their 2022 statements, derived more than three-quarters of its $780 million operating budget from oil revenue.

Tracing the destinations of this illicit oil is challenging, but it is believed to reach entities such as the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Damascus regime. Thus, vast quantities of Syrian oil are being stolen and the funds misappropriated, rather than being used to support the Syrian people in any meaningful way.

This situation also has severe environmental consequences, particularly in northern Syria, creating a growing social crisis. The groups that have seized control of oil extraction operations lack the ability or willingness to adhere to proper industry standards of production and refining. Makeshift refineries, some no more sophisticated than huts, are common. These inadequate facilities lead to frequent oil spills, contaminating the soil and poisoning northern Syria’s waterways.

An investigation by the pan-Arab magazine Al-Majalla revealed that the region lacks proper facilities for managing the byproducts and waste from oil refining. This results in haphazard disposal methods, including mixing waste with water. Disposing of oil refining waste into rivers and canals has contaminated the soil with toxic substances like arsenic, lead, and mercury. These toxins are absorbed by plants and vegetables, decimating agriculture and exacerbating existing food shortages.

The toll on human health is devastating. Although exact figures are hard to determine due to the sparse and makeshift nature of Syrian healthcare provision, cases of cancer have increased dramatically, especially in the oil-producing north. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, cancer cases and deaths are expected to double in the current decade. Respiratory diseases and other health issues associated with toxic emissions are also on the rise.

One individual quoted in Al-Majalla’s investigation, whose young nephew is battling leukemia, highlighted the severity of the issue: “In the past, (oil) companies treated harmful gas and oil waste. Nowadays, no one treats the source of these cancer-causing emissions.” This statement underscores the human cost of the current situation.

Oil is driving suffering across large swaths of Syria, but it can also drive a radical and impactful solution. Sanctions are often described as a blunt tool, and Syria is a prime example. Although they aim to target the Assad regime, these sanctions have inadvertently contributed to an environmental and social catastrophe affecting hundreds of thousands of Syrians. Therefore, a reconsideration of these sanctions is imperative.

This does not mean lifting valid restrictions on individuals and bad actors, but it does mean finding a way to allow the country’s natural resources to be produced safely for the benefit of Syrians. Through the selective lifting of sanctions or the granting of specific waivers, international energy companies could return to parts of Syria and restore safe operations. This approach would require effective independent oversight and buy-in from local populations. Proper industry standards could be reintroduced, beginning to reverse the terrible environmental and health damage.

Moreover, the revenues generated from safe and legitimate oil production could be channeled into a humanitarian fund dedicated to meeting Syria’s critical needs, including healthcare, water, and education. This complex prospect faces numerous political challenges, but continued inaction is unacceptable, and the growing consequences are intolerable.

The United Nations’ humanitarian appeal for Syria for 2023 sought $5.4 billion but raised only a third of that. Compare this to the $15 billion estimated by Gulfsands, an independent energy company, that could be available annually for reinvestment if oil operations were returned to legitimate parties. This potential is currently being squandered and stolen.

It is time for the international community to implement a radical solution. Targeted sanctions relief with appropriate oversight must be explored to help end this human tragedy. By allowing Syria to harness its natural resources responsibly, we can address the humanitarian crisis, protect the environment, and restore hope to millions of Syrians.


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