Thursday, October 23, 2014
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Syria’s Humanitarian Lifelines

NEW YORK – After more than a thousand days of death and misery, two important recent public statements show why policy toward Syria must enter a new phase of intensity and focus. Last month, US President Barack Obama, in setting out his broader foreign-policy stance, spoke of Syria’s three evils – brutal military tactics, the terrorist threat from the opposition, and the need to support refugees. A week earlier, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported excruciating details of Syria’s humanitarian crisis, including citizens under fire from all sides, sustained government barrel-bomb attacks, and shortages of food and medicine.

Over the past three years, at least 160,000 people have been killed, nine million displaced, and three million refugees have flooded into neighboring countries. Many have suffered untold horrors, from repeated chemical weapons attacks to the bombing of hospitals and bread lines.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, growing ever stronger, is acting with impunity. The opposition is fragmented, comprising more than a thousand armed groups. And Syria’s neighbors are struggling to cope with the conflict’s spillover.

Three years ago, few would have believed that the world would do so little to prevent such a situation. But diplomatic efforts during this time have been lamentable. Indeed, the UN still has not replaced Lakhdar Brahimi, who recently resigned as its peace envoy to Syria.

With little hope for a political solution, we must focus on relieving the humanitarian crisis. The Norwegian Refugee Council and the International Rescue Committee, for example, are doing important work, delivering cross-border humanitarian supplies into Syria and helping refugees and host communities in four countries. They currently aid more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, including a half-million who are internally displaced, traumatized, angry, and bewildered by the lack of outside assistance.

More can and must be done. First, we must focus on the four million civilians trapped inside Syria and cut off from aid. Some are being starved into submission, while others are being subjected to unspeakable atrocities. Aleppo is our “Srebrenica” – the site of Serbian forces’ 1995 genocidal massacre of Bosnian Muslims – except that in Aleppo, more lives are at stake and no international witnesses are there to report on what is happening. Despite the UN’s ill-fated observer mission, the Security Council must seek ways to increase the international community’s presence on the ground.

Second, we need to address the Security Council’s insufficient attention to the humanitarian situation, and specifically its failure to implement Resolution 2139. We propose that the Council’s permanent members, along with key Middle Eastern states, appoint humanitarian envoys whose sole purpose would be to secure access to those in need. The envoys would be senior diplomats and politicians who could tap the highest levels of government to challenge abuses of international law, cut red tape, and apply pressure on warring parties to agree to local ceasefires.

Third, we must intensify cross-border operations. Of course, there will be concerns over sovereignty and consent, but there are millions of desperate people within just a couple of hours of those borders. Simple measures –including easier registration, swifter visa procedures, improved information-sharing with Damascus-based aid workers, and predictable funding mechanisms – would allow colleagues in the field to concentrate on reaching those in greatest need. This would make a huge difference, especially when coordinated with aid packages that are delivered to border crossings.

Finally, we must recognize that the refugee crisis is a collective international responsibility. Jordan has more than 600,000 registered refugees, and a similar number who are unregistered; it expects a half-million more this year. Lebanon has more than one million, the world’s highest refugee population per capita – equivalent to the combined populations of Germany and France migrating to the US. Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq are also severely affected.

However, only 26% of the funds needed to support Syria’s neighbors have been pledged, resulting in a patchwork of short-term aid. As resources dwindle and tensions rise, these countries need help to ensure that refugee assistance is aligned with longer-term national development plans, such as Jordan’s National Resilience Plan and Lebanon’s Stabilization Plan. Half-funded, half-coordinated, and half-committed international responses not only threaten regional stability, but also endanger millions of lives.

Syria’s seemingly endless civil war, waged without regard for international law, has left countless civilians at fate’s mercy. We should have done more to prevent this disaster; now it has become this generation’s greatest humanitarian challenge.

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