Between expectation and cynicism: Will the UN walk the talk on Syria?

Syrians in besieged towns such as Moadamiya and Waer, in the suburbs of Homs, have suffered silently over the past four years

Leila Alwan

Published: Updated:

Syrians facing death feel cynical and find humor as world leaders meet at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), highlighting Syria as one of the main topics this year.

A media activist in Moadamiya, a besieged rebel-held suburb of Damascus, tells Al Arabiya English that he is not expecting any progress from the UNGA. According to Dani Qapani, and a photo circulating on social media, when the UN finally sent aid to the besieged suburb, regime soldiers at the checkpoint cross-contaminated the substances, tarnishing the food.

Locals say UN employees were aware of the soldiers’ action, but proceeded to deliver the ruined aid anyway. This was highly offensive to the starving people of Moadamiya. “My only expectation is to hear and read powerful words from the so-called defenders of humanity,” Qapani said sarcastically.

Syrians in besieged towns such as Moadamiya and Waer, in the suburbs of Homs, have suffered silently over the past four years as President Bashar al-Assad continuously strikes with barrel bombs and napalm, and uses starvation tactics to force residents out of their own homes.

Qapani says he believes the US and Russia only make changes in Syria to their benefit, and international political and humanitarian bodies are not ready for big change in the country.

“Playing chess with Syrians is a good fun game they amuse themselves with while keeping Israel safe and sound.” He highlights previous occasions when the UN delivered aid to the area, saying it needs Assad’s permission to provide aid to the same people his regime is killing.

He said when the UN came to Moadamiya a few months ago, a civilian asked one of the team members why they did not bring more food, since many were dying from malnutrition. The aid worker replied: “You have to negotiate with the Assad regime and agree on a cessation so we can help you.”

Qapani said whenever Assad would send a delegation to meet with the opposition in the area, it would always propose terms that were threatening to civilians and rebel fighters. He echoes many Syrians in the country who are fed up and have little to no hope in the UN. He says most think the UNGA is pointless, and their main concern is to survive, protect their children and escape Assad’s attacks.

“We are a million years away from such meetings. We view them with amusement, and ridicule their acting skills,” he said. “I wish, hopelessly, that they break sieges, point out what they know, that Assad is the problem, release detainees, stop supporting him from under the table, and dismantle the UN because it has been a shame on the humanity they preach.”

He said the Syrian opposition attending the UNGA are “working on the shape of the matter rather than the core.”

Assembly voices

The UN’s goal this year is to unite various state efforts and responses to the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. Non-binding declarations are issued for countries to take in more refugees, and to create guidelines to protect and treat them.

Mohammed Ghanem - senior political adviser, government relations director and strategist for the Syrian American Council - tells Al Arabiya English that these declarations may help refugee advocates raise political pressure on their opponents in some countries.

He says credibility among Syrians will not decide the success or failure at the UN, whether it be at the summit or throughout the rest of the year. “We’ve seen peace plan after UN peace plan fail in Syria, even though Syrians desperately want peace,” he said.

“This is because Russia and Iran enable Assad’s crimes against humanity, and the US would rather hide behind the UN than hold Russia, Iran and Assad to account for their atrocities.” Ghanem says the only way for UN resolutions to be implemented is if world leaders who are supposed to enact them wish to do so.

“For example, because the world community was unwilling to airdrop food to civilians Assad was starving to death without his permission, multiple UN resolutions on aid access failed to prevent the starvation and forced population transfer of Daraya. Future UN resolutions will fare no better.”

Ghanem, who is currently at the UNGA, says its goals are “very” limited - a marginal improvement in how nations treat the minority of Syrians who managed to flee “Assad’s killing machine.” He says the conference only covered roughly 4 percent of the Syrian population that managed to flee to Europe.

Ghanem says it may succeed in its limited goal, adding that another 11 million refugees and internally displaced people will not return to Syria safely as long as Assad stays in power. Ghanem says he wants the UN to be honest: “Stop besmirching your institution and the entire edifice of international law by sponsoring peace conferences that lie to the world and provide political cover for pro-Assad murderers.

“Stop pretending that your agencies are exercising humanitarian impartiality by allowing the regime to dictate where aid goes, and more important, where it does not go, to civilians starving under siege. “Stop prioritizing the illusion of lifesaving work over the thing itself. Perhaps then, at least you will do no more harm.”

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