The U.S.-Russian agreement to remove Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal has led many observers to hope for a political breakthrough. A more immediate and realistic objective, as well as a more reliable yardstick by which to measure various parties’ good-will, should be on the humanitarian front, where the situation is deteriorating rapidly and relentlessly. As the conflict’s third winter fast approaches, it is past time for this to become a priority and for all involved – the Syrian authorities, but also the rebels and the two sides’ respective sponsors – to take steps to relieve the civilian population’s intolerable and entirely man-made suffering.
There is more than one paradox. Even as chemical weapons inspectors enjoy unhindered access to some of the country’s most sensitive locations, UN humanitarian aid cannot reach civilians in besieged areas. This is true even only a few miles from the international organisation’s offices in Damascus, where the regime deliberately and systematically starves people in a new tactic of modern war. Regime troops that are holding on to pockets of territory in remote parts of the country suffer a similar fate at rebel hands.
Likewise, even as borders remain wide open to foreign fighters, weapons deliveries and cash transfers – whether in support of the opposition or the regime – the flow of humanitarian aid routinely is inhibited or blocked. Reasons abound: UN unwillingness to circumvent the regime, which in turn prohibits cross-border assistance to rebel-held areas; the regime’s cynical use of aid, incompetence and red-tape in handling foreign assistance; Western ambivalence at working with the regime; opposition radicalisation and fragmentation; the reluctance of neighbouring states to have their territory serve as a logistical base for international NGOs; the global economic slowdown which reduces available funds; and the behaviour of countries most deeply involved in the conflict – notably Iran, Russia, and Gulf Arab states – whose enthusiasm in backing the war effort is not matched on the humanitarian front. Europe, which has every reason to fear that Syrians fleeing violence and poverty will ultimately wash up on its shores, has been unimaginative in finding ways of helping them before they depart the region.
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The need for outside assistance is all the greater insofar as the parties in conflict have done so little on their own to care for the civilians they at one point purported to be protecting. This is particularly true of the regime which, despite emphasising the state’s sovereignty and integrity, has abdicated most state responsibilities. It focuses exclusively on a struggle for survival and treats large segments of its population as if they no longer were civilians and citizens but rather enemies to be destroyed at any cost and by all means. For its part, the exiled opposition – although it claims the right to replace the regime – essentially has ignored the urgent task of providing humanitarian aid and basic services to so-called liberated zones. This in turn has contributed to the disruption of their social fabric, weakening of activist networks and empowerment of radical armed groups more focused on accruing resources for themselves than providing for civilians around them.
All this must end. If, as some claim, the diplomatic and political climate has changed sufficiently to make compromise even remotely possible, the first gauge of such a shift must be swift and tangible progress on the humanitarian front.
A first priority must be adoption by the UN Security Council of a resolution calling on all parties to guarantee safe, full and unhindered access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance, including through cross-border operations if and when provision of urgent humanitarian aid proves impossible from within Syria. The resolution should include establishment of a monitoring mechanism to name and – optimally – sanction any party that resorts to starvation as a war tactic or hinders, steals or diverts humanitarian assistance.
There is much else that can and should be done. But this action is long overdue. All it requires is for the Security Council to demonstrate the same unity of purpose with which it addressed Syria’s chemical arsenal and for Russia in particular to implement in practice the commitment it repeatedly voices to the well-being of Syria’s citizens.