Why the international community could be on the cusp of a humanitarian breakthrough in the Syrian conflict.
The Middle East suffers a new trauma every week. Iraq is disintegrating, as the Syrian conflict crashes across its borders. Gaza is in flames, as long-term neglect takes its toll. No wonder it seems difficult for policymakers, never mind the public, to get their priorities straight.
One consequence is that the humanitarian crisis in Syria threatens to become a sideshow — not because things are getting better, but because complexity has become an excuse for inaction. Suffering on an appalling scale is now the new normal: In the last few days, upwards of 700 people have been killed in Syria, a fact that has gone unremarked in most news outlets.
For three years, humanitarian action and political progress have been put in separate boxes. On both counts the international community is failing. U.N. appeals are not funded, and U.N.-sponsored peace talks are going nowhere. Aid convoys are blocked, and U.N. resolutions are ignored.
Yet two recent developments — one humanitarian, one political — have provided a potential for a breakthrough.
First, a new U.N. Security Council resolution has given an explicit mandate to U.N. officials to deliver aid across borders from Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq to rebel-held areas. Second, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed a new political negotiator, seasoned diplomat Staffan de Mistura, to try to hash out a negotiated settlement between the Syrian regime and opposition. Throughout a long career that stretches from the Balkans to Iraq, de Mistura has shown an acute understanding of how to balance humanitarian and political imperatives.
The key now is that the resolution’s humanitarian impulse is joined with the opportunity created by de Mistura’s appointment. For too long, a focus on the humanitarian situation was seen as a diversion from the political track. In fact, progress on the humanitarian front needs to be the first step toward political progress.
This has happened before. Operation Lifeline Sudan, launched in 1989, saw southern Sudanese rebels and the Khartoum government agree on the safe transportation of aid along designated "corridors of tranquility." In its early days, it also created an atmosphere conducive to the reopening of peace talks. The same thing happened in Angola in 1990, when the United Nations’ Special Relief Program delivered assistance to Angolan civilians — and also allowed the government and the armed opposition to test each other’s trustworthiness and gauge the viability of potential political deals.
To give due priority to humanitarian outcomes, we propose that the governments of the permanent members of the Security Council, and other countries concerned with the crisis, each mandate and empower a "humanitarian envoy" to work to secure access to those in need. In place of episodic attention by foreign ministers and senior officials, who are overstretched by multiple crises, this would be a chance to bring political muscle and humanitarian concern together.
These envoys would be senior diplomats and politicians with a clear responsibility to bring global attention to the human consequences of inaction and to the policies undertaken by all parties to the conflict that worsen the humanitarian situation. They would meticulously detail and challenge the restrictions on humanitarian access from all sides and advocate for the full implementation of international law, as embodied in U.N. Security Council resolutions 2139 and 2165. They would support the work of U.N. humanitarian coordinator Valerie Amos by engaging supporters of the belligerents, listening to the experiences of NGOs, and counseling all sides on their responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law.
The envoys must be the kind of high-profile figures who can slice through red tape. The United States enlisted former presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in South Asia and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, charging them with overseeing recovery efforts and raising funds for those in need. As former foreign ministers, we see no reason why the establishment of such positions should be limited to natural, as opposed to man-made, disasters.
There is no time to waste. The Syrian conflict has already resulted in 11 million people displaced and in need of aid, 175,000 dead, nearly 3 million refugees in neighboring countries, and a quarter of a million people in the Damascus suburbs and the governorate of Aleppo living under siege. If we had described such a catastrophic scenario three years ago, even the wisest of diplomatic minds would have doubted that the international community could allow for such suffering and neglect in the 21st century.
After the last decade of interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, we are now witnessing the price of inaction — and it is a price that is rising. Every new day brings only worse options. Achieving what we can on the humanitarian front is the bare minimum for people suffering on an extraordinary scale. Importantly, it could also set the scene for political negotiations and an end to the conflict. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.