It would be wrong to interpret the recent flurry of activity at the United Nations around Syria as a shining example of diplomatic progress. For nearly three years, the Security Council was seemingly paralyzed, while a popular uprising morphed into a dark and drawn-out conflict, punctuated by the kinds of atrocities that – one would think – inspire action in the face of stalemate. The baby steps now being taken, in some ways, only serve to highlight the international community’s collective failure to act sooner.
Still, the council has now moved – twice, in the space of a week – in a way which suggests that meaningful international intervention in Syria’s civil war is finally gaining momentum. First, the council adopted a resolution that seeks to rid President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of its chemical weapons. That opened a narrow window which spawned further action on Wednesday, when the council voted unanimously to urge all combatants in Syria to allow the free flow of humanitarian aid into the country.
These are both significant accomplishments, though they have come too late for more than a hundred thousand people who have already lost their lives in the conflict and the millions more who have been driven from their homes.
More than two million Syrians have fled their country and are now living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Another six million have been internally displaced inside their own country.
Canada, for its part, should seize on this fragile international unity and amplify its already substantial efforts around humanitarian assistance to make more of a difference to those struggling to survive the fallout of war.
Ottawa has already committed $203-million in humanitarian assistance – an admirable sum – but should look at how it might further help with specific tasks, as winter looms in the refugee camps and the temperature begins to drops.
Politically, Canada should press its allies to fully fund the pledges already made to the $5-billion United Nations humanitarian appeal. Canada, according to figures cited by OXFAM, is well on its way to contributing its fair share. However, other countries, such as France and Qatar, are not pulling their weight.
Canada should also use its sway with members of the Security Council to press for a timely testing of the willingness of both Syrian authorities and rebel groups to open humanitarian corridors, so that aid can flow freely.
The “presidential statement” issued by the council on humanitarian aid is somewhat problematic because it is non-binding, and lacks the weight of a resolution.
The statement asks the Assad government to “lift bureaucratic impediments and other obstacles” to international relief and aid workers. There are no real consequences, however, for non-compliance. Diplomats acknowledge the weakness of the statement, but say it was more important to produce something quickly that would move toward meeting soaring needs, than to try for another resolution, which might have gone nowhere.
Worryingly, the statement highlights Syria’s “territorial integrity,” which some NGOs worry will be interpreted by Damascus to deny the delivery of aid into opposition-held areas.
The statement also urges the Assad regime to “facilitate the expansion of humanitarian relief operations and lift bureaucratic impediments and other obstacles.” Again, these are admirable words, but until the Assad regime demonstrates its willingness to adhere to them, they are empty.
As it stands, aid organizations face a labyrinth of barriers. Inside Syria, they face difficulties securing visas and, more crucially, safe passage when crossing front lines. Health-care workers have been killed, arrested and tortured. Twenty-two Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have been killed since the conflict began. When aid does reach Damascus, vast amounts are marooned there, out of reach of the millions in the countryside and opposition-held areas who desperately need it.
Meanwhile, refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq are under enormous stress, as they swell with families who often arrive with nothing more than a single bag. A million homes across Syria have been completely destroyed. To these refugees, the camps offer a modicum of stability, but they are hardly a solution.
In Lebanon, refugees are obliged in many cases to pay user fees toward medical care and shelter. Many who can’t find jobs cannot afford the costs. Without money, or access to services or decent shelter, some are compelled to return to the war zone.
On his return from a recent trip to the region, Stephen Cornish, executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières in Canada, said the situation is such that pregnant women, unable to afford a caesarean section outside Syria, are travelling back to the country to deliver their babies.
Another Syrian man he met was forced to leave his wife and four-year-old son in Lebanon, returning to Damascus so he could earn money to pay their rent. His arm was shattered by a mortar. He survived and returned to Lebanon only to be evicted from his flat. “That family is now living in a tent under a bridge,” Mr. Cornish said.
The indifference that has hung over the crisis in Syria has only begun to lift. The United Nations has declared Syria the 21st century’s worst refugee crisis. Antonio Gutteres, the commissioner for refugees, described it as a “disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”
In the face of such suffering, Canada shouldn’t be asking itself, “Have we done enough?” We should be asking ourselves, “What more we can do?”