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The Worsening Humanitarian Crisis in Syria

Syrian refugees protest in Northern Lebanon

As the violence in Syria drags into its twelfth month, there is growing evidence that a humanitarian disaster is taking place and there are painfully few options for effective response. More than 5,000 people have been killed in the violence – although given difficulties in access, the actual number may be much higher. In Homs, there are reports of shortages of medical supplies, food, water and electricity. The UN estimates that between 100,000 and 200,000 people have fled the fighting, tending to seek refuge with family and friends within the country. At the time of writing, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Red Crescent had entered the city of Hama to supply 12,000 people with a month's supply of emergency assistance, and their negotiations were ongoing to provide evacuations and humanitarian assistance to the Baba Amr suburb of Homs. The top humanitarian official of the UN system, Valerie Amos, is still waiting for permission to visit Syria.

The crisis isn’t just in Syria. Some 80,000 Syrians have reportedly fled into Jordan in recent weeks where the government is considering constructing a camp for the refugees. In Lebanon, aid agencies are preparing for a major influx of people fleeing the violence in Syria in spite of reports that Syria has been laying landmines along its border with Lebanon. Reports from Turkey indicate that some 10,000 Syrians have already crossed the border. Almost forgotten in the news reports on Syria is the plight of Iraqi refugees, some of whom have reportedly been targeted in the violence. Perhaps 100,000 of them returned to Iraq in recent weeks while others have fled to other countries. The displacement of Syrians is taking place in a region already characterized by complex and politically-sensitive population movements.

Even though comprehensive, accurate information is lacking on the scale of the humanitarian crisis, the international community faces a depressingly familiar quandary: how to assist Syrians when the government is intransigent and the international community is blocked from taking needed political action?

The ICRC has called for a daily two-hour pause in the fighting to allow humanitarians access to evacuate the wounded and provide supplies to increasingly desperate people. So far its negotiations with the Syrian authorities have not been successful. The other alternative being discussed is the establishment of humanitarian corridors – areas respected by all sides as neutral zones where assistance can be provided. Unfortunately the record of safe areas – or as Anne-Marie Slaughter called them last week ‘no kill zones’ – is not a good one. Unless protected by UN peacekeeping or other forces, such areas are likely to become targets for military action by the Syrian government, particularly if such areas become havens for the armed opposition or are used to collect intelligence on Syrian activities (as Slaughter proposed last week). Even if such zones were to be protected by UN peacekeeping forces, UN forces would likely be drawn into direct conflict with the Syrian authorities, undermining any claim of neutrality or humanitarian principles. Safe zones or humanitarian corridors are an iffy proposition at best; mixing them with explicitly military objectives is a recipe for disaster.

These conundrums bring Srebrenica to mind, where even the presence of peacekeepers wasn’t enough to prevent the massacre of 8,000 men in 1995. There are other disturbing parallels between the Bosnian conflict of the mid-1990s and Syria in 2012. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria has concluded that gross violations of human rights amounting to crimes against humanity had been ordered by the highest level of the Syrian government and armed forces. Another obvious parallel is that when political processes are blocked, everyone looks to humanitarian assistance to fill the void. The recent Friends of Syria conference in Tunis wasn’t able to do much to stop the violence, but did agree to call on the Syrian government to allow humanitarian agencies access to those in need. The US government has pledged $10 million in humanitarian aid for Syria. Even the Russian government has expressed concern about the humanitarian situation in Syria, publicly supporting ICRC’s call for a daily two-hour humanitarian truce. But if we’ve learned anything from the past 20 years or so, it’s that using humanitarian assistance as a substitute for political action weakens humanitarian principles.

In the absence of political action, there aren’t any straightforward answers to the question of how to provide emergency humanitarian assistance to Syrians trapped in an increasingly violent and desperate situation – though ICRC’s call for a two-hour daily truce should obviously be supported. Actually, in a world where sovereignty is a linchpin of the international system, there are no straightforward answers about how to stop the violence of the Syrian state towards its people. The world can and should stand ready to provide all assistance possible to Syrians who are able to cross the border into neighboring countries and to the states that allow them to enter. And plans should be made to mobilize needed assistance inside Syria as soon as that is possible. This isn’t nearly enough, but feasible alternatives for assisting people in need against their government’s will are in dreadfully short supply.