To Save Lives, or Not to Save Lives

The U.N. is debating whether it can legally defy Bashar al-Assad and deliver aid across Syria's borders. Meanwhile, millions of people are suffering.


Foreign Policy and the U.S. Institute of Peace are co-hosting the second PeaceGame on June 18-19 in Abu Dhabi. This article provides background for some of the issues to be discussed at that event, which will focus on how to build peace in Syria. 

The humanitarian crisis in Syria is incomprehensible — and getting worse. The United Nations estimates that 9.3 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian aid. Among those, approximately 3.5 million people are in "hard to reach" or besieged areas. Exact numbers of deceased, injured, and displaced Syrians are difficult to verify, but there is relative consensus that real figures are higher than estimates reflect.

The international community is acutely aware of the need for humanitarian assistance to reach all parts of Syria, yet there are at least three obstacles standing in the way: first, a lack of funding; second, the Syrian government limiting access to humanitarian aid providers; and third, indecision at the U.N. over whether or not to defy the Assad regime’s restrictions on getting into and working in the country. If these challenges are not overcome, another generation of Syrians will be lost to violent conflict.

Funding. The amount of assistance required to meet the basic needs of Syrians affected by conflict is astounding — and very little of it has been found. On June 7, 2013, the United Nations announced its largest ever appeal: $2.5 billion dollars, to cover the expected humanitarian needs for the following year. The amount requested has since risen to $6.5 billion for 2014. The U.S. is the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance, having provided approximately $510 million in humanitarian assistance as of May 2014. But according to a joint statement by five heads of U.N. humanitarian agencies released on April 23, "that appeal has gone largely unanswered." Only 25 percent has been funded.

"The situation for millions of desperate people has not improved," said U.N. Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos on March 28, 2014, just after the conflict entered its fourth year.

The international community is struggling to meet the U.N.’s request for many reasons, including the request’s size, the fact that demand only continues to grow, and politics at both the state and global levels. Issues of access, too, play a role.

Access. U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSC) 2139, which passed in February, recognized the "urgent need to increase humanitarian aid access in Syria." It called on all parties to allow rapid and unhindered humanitarian access to all parts of Syria, across conflict lines and across borders, as well as to ensure the safe passage of humanitarian aid providers. It provided the international community, aid workers, and human rights advocates a glimmer of hope after years of being denied the ability to do their jobs.

Unfortunately, cross-border access continues to be a problem. Due to regime blockades and insecurity, reportedly, approximately 85 percent of food aid has remained in regime-controlled areas of Syria. At least 241,000 people are trapped in besieged areas without access to food, according to U.N. reports. International NGOs are only able to reach 65 of 262 U.N.-classified hard-to-reach locations, according to a U.N. report released May 23.

There have been other moves by the government targeting specific humanitarian groups and limiting their reach. In April, for instance, following nearly two years of operations in-country, Mercy Corps closed its office in Damascus after it was told by the Syrian authorities to cease delivering humanitarian aid across the country’s northern borders into non-government controlled territory. If it did not stop, it would no longer be permitted to operate in the capital city. Mercy Corps lost access to the over 350,000 civilians it was serving in and around Damascus, but it continues delivering aid to over 1.7 million Syrians in northern Syria.

Indecision. International legal scholars have debated whether the U.N. has legal authority to carry out cross-border aid missions absent consent from the Syrian government, on the basis of international human rights law and in light of UNSC 2139. On April 28, the International Bar Association (IBA) issued an open letter arguing there is no legal barrier to the U.N. undertaking cross-border humanitarian aid operations, irrespective of Syrian government consent. United States Senator Tim Kaine then sent a letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urging the U.N. to pursue large scale cross-border assistance missions, based on the legal opinions of the signatories to the IBA letter. A counter-argument issued by Naz Modirzadeh, senior fellow at the Counterterrorism and Humanitarian Engagement Project at Harvard Law School, refutes most claims the signatories make. Modirzadeh accused the letter of being a "political argument dressed up in the language of IHL [International Humanitarian Law]." Without Security Council authorization to intervene, she argued, all U.N. bodies would need explicit consent of the Syrian regime to undertake any cross-border operations, even humanitarian ones.

To be sure, conducting cross-border assistance operations without government consent is not only potentially dangerous to the individuals involved, but it also exposes organizations on the ground to the risk of eviction by the Assad regime for flouting its authority. (This was what Mercy Corps was faced with.) If the U.N. were evicted from Syria, it would lose access to approximately 4 million people, according to John Ging, field operation leader for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as reported in the New York Times. That said, it seems unlikely the Assad regime would go so far as to evict the United Nations: Doing so would place responsibility back on the regime more directly to feed people the U.N. has been able to access, and it would attract enormous international backlash.

In a clear sign of frustration — and what may yet be an emerging shift in policy — the secretary general encouraged the Security Council to allow for cross-border humanitarian operations even without the consent of the Syrian government, in a report on the implemention of UNSC 2139, released in the New York Times on May 23. Included in the report are U.N. accounts of diminished access to government and opposition areas, confusion over new government policies around the transport of humanitarian aid, and significant delays in delivery of assistance. The report described UNSC 2139 as "demanding" that relevant border crossings be opened, that sieges by immediately lifted, and that medical supplies be allowed to reach all in need — and it said the parties to the conflict are not adhering to these demands.

Yet the Security Council remains stalled. In part, this is due to the legality debate, but it is also because the body has to identify a formulation for a resolution that Russia and China would not veto.


While debates continue over international law and whether the U.N. can defy Syrian regime preferences, the humanitarian situation in Syria will only continue to unravel. Consider the matter of food: The World Food Program estimate
s that it needs $41 million weekly to meet the food needs of Syrians affected by the conflict. In Aleppo and the surrounding areas alone, approximately 1.25 million people are deemed in need of food. Yet between a looming drought and severe damage inflicted to irrigation systems, as well as the lack of functioning machinery and fuel, the coming harvest is expected to hit a record low crop yield, which will cause only further food shortages.

A handful of NGOs are racing to find ways and means to respond to this disaster to the greatest extent possible, but their capacity is limited. The U.N. is the key body that needs to move faster — to do what the secretary general called for in his latest report. In the meantime, Syrians struggle, the Assad regime survives, and much of the international humanitarian community waits.

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