BRICS Leadership Will Be Tested by Syria

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Syria is probably the most serious crisis facing the world today. And yet, the international community is struggling to find a way forward. With more than four million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance and three million internally displaced – a conservative UN estimate based on surveys of 6 out of 14 governorates in Syria – the humanitarian response to the plight of civilians so far has been entirely inadequate. A recent UNICEF report highlighted the two million children maimed, orphaned, and suffering from malnutrition as a result of the conflict – an entire generation “scarred for life”. Meanwhile, over one million refugees are seeking asylum in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. This number will likely hit the three million mark by the end of 2013 – a ticking bomb for countries based on delicate social, ethnic, and sectarian balance.

Humanitarian access in opposition-held areas, where assistance is most urgently needed, is extremely limited. The humanitarian policy dilemma has shown what a mess we are currently in. Under General Assembly resolution 46/182, the United Nations cannot operate inside rebel-held territory without the explicit consent of the Syrian government. As that government’s authority is waning, however, many wonder whether we should be bound by the sovereignty of a tyrannical regime that continues to aggravate the crisis. Others, meanwhile, are advocating for direct humanitarian cross-border action in coordination with the internationally recognized Syrian National Coalition. With the election of Ghassan Hitto as the interim prime minister of a transitional government in “liberated” areas, this call will no doubt grow louder.

It is time for the international community to overcome this obstacle and allow for a more effective humanitarian response in Syria – whenever and wherever it may be required. One way forward would be for key countries such as Brazil, South Africa, and India to support a more aggressive effort to ramp up the UN’s cross-border aid operations inside the country. Such an opportunity presents itself at the forthcoming 2013 BRICS summit in Durban next week. These countries should use their influence to secure a Security Council endorsement of this approach, principally by applying pressure on Russia and China.

Furthermore, they should use their direct channels with Assad to insist that the regime allow for cross-border operations and give full humanitarian access to all areas of the country.

Why the BRICS? Given their rising prominence on the world stage, it’s become clear that these nations play a key role in steering the international response to this crisis. Bouthaina Shaaban, political and media advisor to Assad, travelled to South Africa last week to deliver a message to President Zuma, urging BRICS nations to intervene to stop the violence in Syria and encourage the opening of a dialogue. Three weeks ago, she was in India, doing the same. It goes without saying that such cynical diplomacy on the part of the regime should be met by more purposeful calls to spare the lives of civilians. This is a strategic opportunity for the BRICS to use their influence and play a more decisive, helpful role.

There is no time to lose. To date, the international community has failed in its responsibilities to protect the Syrian population. Even with regard to the funding of UN humanitarian operations, only 20% of the $ 1.5 billion pledged by international donors in Kuwait in January has been honored. International inaction in Syria will leave a lasting legacy of insecurity and suffering, while the spillover effects of this humanitarian crisis will only contribute to the growing instability in Syria’s neighborhood and across the greater region. The BRICS nations, along with the international community, have a responsibility to act now.

Given the state of emergency on the ground, however, humanitarian cross-border access alone may not be sufficient. In order to protect civilians, guarantee the safe passage of relief organizations as well as refugees attempting to leave the country, there is a growing imperative for the establishment of humanitarian corridors and civilian safe areas along the sensitive borders of Syria. Make no mistake, such safe areas will have to be secured and protected by all means possible. Here, there will be much to learn from the UN’s experience in Bosnia in the 1990s – involving an assessment of what went right as well as wrong.

The BRICS and their international partners should be ready to endorse such measures. The situation demands it. Yet at a minimum, they must now demand that Assad allows the UN to cross Syria’s borders to reach civilians in need. The UN has the required institutional knowledge to deliver aid to fragmented areas making it the organization that is best placed to do so in Syria. Enabling the UN to undertake a country-wide response would help prevent the politicization of assistance as well as ensure a coordinated response in crucial sectors such as water, sanitation, infrastructure reconstruction, food assistance and education. The end goal would be to ensure that the UN is able to meet the basic needs of all civilians and upholding fundamental humanitarian principles in this bloody conflict.