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Is Iran the Cause or the Solution to Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis?

The United States and Iran, having clinched a landmark interim deal suspending some aspects of Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, turned their attention this week to addressing the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The long-standing adversaries were scheduled to attend a dinner tonight hosted by Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva ...

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Syrian civilians evacuate the war-battered suburb of Damascus, Moadamiyet al-Sham, with the help of the Social Affairs Ministry, as fighting between pro-government troops and rebel fighters continues in districts of the capital, on October 29, 2013 . AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States and Iran, having clinched a landmark interim deal suspending some aspects of Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, turned their attention this week to addressing the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

The long-standing adversaries were scheduled to attend a dinner tonight hosted by Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and participate tomorrow in U.N.-sponsored conference at the Palais de Nations aimed at persuading Syria’s combatants to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The conference — which will bring key regional and international powers together — will provide the first major test of whether progress on the nuclear front can be converted into political progress and an improvement in living conditions for millions of needy civilians in Syria.

Syria is coping with one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades, with more than 9 million civilians in need of assistance, and more than 2.5 million people largely cut off from aid. Nearly 300,000 civilians are living under a state of siege, mostly at the hands of government forces, forced to forage for leaves to survive.

Humanitarian relief advocates expressed hope that the diplomatic progress in Geneva, combined with a recent pact to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, can refocus international attention on the plight of Syrian civilians. "The diplomatic breakthrough, first on chemical weapons, and now on nuclear energy demonstrates a political solution is possible," said Noah Gottschalk, senior humanitarian policy advisor at OxFam, America. "And it gives us hope that they can reach a deal on a cease fire and improve humanitarian access and ultimately achieve a political solution to the conflict."

But other observers cautioned that Iran’s diplomats can only go so far without provoking hardliners at home who view the country’s alliance with President Bashar al-Assad as vital to Tehran’s national security interests. "Iran can score some easy points with the West by showing flexibility on issues like humanitarian access, but Tehran is not going to desert Assad completely," said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. "That would alienate hardline critics of the recent opening to the West inside Iran."

In advance of the meeting, Syria pledged for the first time during the conflict to allow the U.N. to run aid convoys from Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon without having to channel them through the capital of Damascus. But Syria has refused to permit goods to enter through southern Turkey, a conduit for the rebels’ military supplies, but also one of the most concentrated areas of civilian humanitarian need. It remained unclear whether the aid would be delivered directly to the needy along the border or would have to be delivered through Damascus first, a condition Syria had previously placed on the United Nations.

"The Syrian government has formally notified the [U.N.] resident coordinator of its decision to allow the entry of humanitarian aid through official border crossings with Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq," according to an unpublished copy of a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council from Syria’s U.N. envoy Bashar Al Ja’afari. "In the case of the border crossings with Turkey, however, it has been impossible to open an official crossing because armed terrorist groups are active along most of the border with the support of the Turkish authorities," the letter said.

The Syrian envoy accused anti-government "terrorists" with responsibility as being responsible for the humanitarian crisis, and pledged to streamline its own procedures for issuing visas for international aid workers and approving tours by U.N. aid convoys.

"There has been increasing discussion regarding cooperation between the government of the Syrian Arab Republic and the United Nations in order to deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians affected by events in Syria," Ja’afari wrote. "At the meetings, an agreement was reached to intensify cooperation by overhauling administrative procedures and removing so-called bureaucratic obstacles. The Syrian government affirmed that it would make every possible effort to facilitate the humanitarian work of the United Nations and international organizations."

The United Nations has faulted both sides in the conflict for denying humanitarian relief to civilians. But they have accused the Syrian government of preventing the delivery of medicines to rebel-controlled areas, imposing siege conditions on civilians, and enforcing a range of bureaucratic impediments that severely restrict the delivery of aid. One U.N. diplomat said that Syria’s latest offer of cooperation reflects its concern that the U.N. Security Council may impose tougher measures on the government if it fails to expand humanitarian access. "They fear a resolution," the official said.

The humanitarian aid conference will open one day after Ban and the U.N. Arab League special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, announced plans to schedule a long-anticipated Jan. 22 peace conference between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition. The aim of the meeting (referred to as Geneva 2) is to implement a June 30, 2012 political communique (known as Geneva 1) calling for the establishment of a transitional government in Syria, including representatives from the government and opposition.

"At long last and for the first time, the Syrian government and opposition will meet at the negotiating table instead of the battlefield," Ban told reporters in New York today. "Even though the conference will take place in about eight weeks, all parties can and must begin now to take steps to help the Geneva conference succeed, including toward the cessation of violence, humanitarian access, release of detainees and internally displaced people to their homes."

But shortly after Ban’s announcement, Brahimi acknowledged that he has yet to secure commitments from two of the rival combatants’ key supporters, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to attended the peace conference. The United States and other Western powers have insisted that Tehran only be invited to the political meeting if it endorses the Geneva Communique, and its proposal for a political transition in Syria. Saudi Arabia has refused to discuss the political conference with Brahimi, fearing the peace conference would grant legitimacy to Assad’s government.

But it remained unclear whether Saudi Arabia, which has drafted a Security Council resolution compelling Syria to grant unfettered access throughout the country to humanitarian aid workers, will attend tomorrow’s session.

Tuesday’s talks, which will be chaired by the U.N., Australia, and Luxembourg, includes a growing roster of foreign governments (including the five permanent members of the Security Council: the United States, Britain, China, France, and Russia), key regional powers (Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, and Kuwait), and European governments (Norway, Germany, and Italy).

The meeting will open with a speech by Valerie Amos, the U.N. relief coordinator, and involve a more detailed briefing on the situation by John Ging, the director of operations for U.N. relief efforts. "If Amos’s intention is to bring all these countries together to put pressure on the Syrian regime to lift the siege then we welcome it," said Najib Ghadbian, the U.S. and U.N. representative of the Syrian National Coalition. "But ideally we would have liked to see a Security Council resolution on humanitarian access [that threatened] consequences for non-compliance. Period."

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch