Taking bold steps to deliver aid in a broken Syria

The Geneva II peace talks ended just a week ago with no major political breakthrough

Dr. Theodore Karasik

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The Geneva II peace talks ended just a week ago with no major political breakthrough. Participants, if they showed up, continued to bicker. The first round of talks in the Geneva II meeting ended on Jan. 31 without a concrete strategy on ending the violence, an agreement on a political transition or an agreement to ensure humanitarian aid.

Nevertheless, a small, yet important, agreement was reached—outside of the Geneva II process- based on humanitarian necessity: an international aid operation to bring food and medicine to thousands of Syrians plus the requirement to evacuate civilians trapped in Homs over three days was heralded as a step in the right direction. The point here is that despite the fact Syrian representatives were sidelined due to infighting, the international community - led by the international aid organizations spearheaded by the United Nations, under the courage of U.N. Humanitarian chief Valerie Amos - took a necessary and risky step to mitigate outbreaks of death, disease, and starvation in the fractured and broken state. Of course, a three-day humanitarian pause agreed between the parties to the Syrian conflict was broken almost immediately, illustrating sharply the chaos on the ground.

Not an easy matter

Humanitarian operations in a warzone are not an easy matter. The logistics and risks to all parties are, let’s face it, dangerous and ultimately may be deadly. The shrinking humanitarian space of neutrality no longer exists in today’s conflicts, especially in Syria. Immediately, nine Red Crescent and U.N. vehicles convoy came under fire in Homs threatening the lives of U.N. aid workers as well as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Attacks damaged two trucks but the team managed to deliver 250 parcels and 190 hygiene kits and chronic disease medicines. This delivery is an important first step but barely scratches the surface of the most serious humanitarian crisis in recent years, far out pacing those in Africa and other parts of the world from man-made, inflicted, warfare. To be sure, the first attempts to deliver humanitarian supplies to the Palestinian district of Yarmouk in south Damascus were suspended after clashes.

The multi-layered Syrian battlefield sees the deliverers of humanitarian aid as belonging to, or associated with, a party to the conflict.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

The situation in Syria is dangerous for aid workers. Just as in other warzones where humanitarian operations occur, major problems erupt. Primarily, the multi-layered Syrian battlefield sees the deliverers of humanitarian aid as belonging to, or associated with, a party to the conflict. Syrian “opposition” or “fighters” see humanitarian aid as an opportunity to re-supply themselves with food and medicines. Syrian factions are likely to raid current and future convoys to restock their own clandestine clinics and first aid stations plus replenish their food stocks if need be. If the aid and food is not required, then those materials will enter into the black market, where profit can be made plus the rebranding of supplies could occur to win the hearts of minds of the potential receivers. We have seen this type of activity throughout Middle Eastern conflicts for decades, in Chechnya, and even in Latin America. Solutions are tough to manage and multiple actors can manipulate the situation for political advantage. In fact, one could argue that the insurgent and terrorist goal in Syria is to disrupt and delegitimize the stabilization attempts around local populations. Thus, humanitarians and their operations are a candid threat and authentic targets. If true, even the Assad government will take advantage of the situation—from both angles—looking angelic and helpful versus bombing and killing those enemies of the state that are flushed out of their hiding places in search for medicine and food.

Hands full

Today, a fresh round of talks begins in Geneva on humanitarian aid issues. U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has his hands full. He is relentlessly trying to find a solution to the ongoing, expanding, Syrian crisis. But let’s be honest, this effort is not a Geneva III or even a Geneva II, but instead a valiant attempt by state actors and international organizations to stop the suffering outside of the Geneva I and II process by building on the humanitarian requirements as a launching point for cooperation.

Nevertheless, there are key stumbling blocks. The usual suspects are refusing to back today’s meeting because of politics selfishness. The National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, and the Syrian National Council, a coalition of Syrian opposition groups based in Istanbul, said they would not participate. Most of the rebel groups fighting inside Syria, including Islamic Front and the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front, have refused to support the talks. These facts all create doubt over the National Coalition’s ability to hold various armed parties to a ceasefire for humanitarian deliveries, which has already been broken. Nobody expects the warring sides, which are protracted and fragmented, to help humanitarian aid into Syria; instead, they will only hinder the process for themselves and for political gain. There may be progress on aid programs to the most needy in Syria, but the aid only touches the tip of the iceberg—if the aid reaches its intended victims intact.


Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.

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