Syria: What chance to stop the slaughter?

Kenneth Roth writes: Close to seven million Syrians in the country now depend on humanitarian assistance for basic necessities.

The Assad government has acted with callous disregard for them, placing bureaucratic obstacles in the way of desperately needed relief. It has refused to register all but a handful of the most capable and experienced international aid agencies. It has held up urgently needed assistance in customs, and required multiple official sign-offs that doom aid shipments to extreme delays. Most harmful, it has insisted that aid be sent from government-held territory. The most direct route to many of those in need would be across the borders of neighboring Turkey, Jordan, or Lebanon, but Damascus insists on circuitous routes that require aid workers to travel up to ten times farther through dozens of checkpoints. As a result, only a trickle of aid reaches civilians in rebel-held territory. The proliferation of rebel groups, some hostile to foreign assistance, has also impeded aid delivery.

Some governments, including the United States, have begun quietly funding private humanitarian groups to provide cross-border assistance. But the quantities required are too great, and the threats of violence too grave, for private groups to meet these demands on their own. A major UN-led operation is needed.

The United Nations will ordinarily not undertake such operations without the consent of the government whose population requires assistance. The Syrian government has been loath to permit such cross-border humanitarian aid because that would undermine its efforts to make life miserable in rebel-held areas. The UN Security Council could order Syria to allow cross-border assistance, but through the end of September, Russia would have none of it. Nyet prevailed.

The chemical weapons accord provided an opportunity to address these humanitarian needs. Just five days after the Security Council resolution affirming the deal, on September 27, Russia accepted a Security Council presidential statement urging Syria to “take immediate steps to facilitate the expansion of humanitarian relief operations,” including, “where appropriate, across borders from neighboring countries.” A presidential statement is less authoritative than a formal resolution, but that should not obscure the fact that Russia, Syria’s most important ally, has now effectively ordered it to allow such aid. The Security Council asked the UN secretary-general to report back on how the statement was being implemented, opening the way for additional steps by the council should blockages persist.

The United Nations should seize this opportunity, make concrete demands for access by specific deadlines, and report any further resistance promptly to the Security Council. Unfortunately, Valerie Amos, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, has remained vague in public about the main obstacles to distributing humanitarian aid. Apparently fearful that blaming the Syrian government would jeopardize UN access to government-controlled areas, Amos has too often resorted to anodyne statements about the problem. One can only hope that, with the Security Council now behind it, the UN will find a more assertive voice.

Yet even if the disastrous humanitarian situation begins to improve, no serious effort is underway to stop the killing of civilians by conventional weapons. As front lines have hardened, the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths has dropped, but some two thousand of the recent average monthly death toll of five thousand have been civilians. What can be done to stop this slaughter?

The Obama administration’s primary answer has been peace talks. Kerry has revived efforts to convene “Geneva II” negotiations — a follow-up to the accord negotiated in June 2012 under UN and Arab League auspices that called on the warring parties to agree to a cease-fire and begin a political transition. Yet prospects for Geneva II are not encouraging. The rebel groups are not unified and say they won’t negotiate with Assad. Assad, in turn, says he won’t negotiate with most of the rebel groups.

A negotiated peace may well be the best way to avoid a complete collapse of the Syrian state. Mindful of the disastrous precedent of Iraq, even many die-hard Assad opponents hope the basic structure of the state will remain intact, though without Assad and his senior lieutenants. A negotiated peace also would provide a chance of ensuring the security of all Syrians, without regard to the sectarian animosities now dividing the country.

But few believe a negotiated peace is anywhere near. Civilian deaths continue, making it urgent to find some way to curtail the slaughter in the interim. Most paths for doing so go through Moscow. The chemical weapons deal shows that when Russian President Vladimir Putin tells Assad to do something, he does it. In view of the rapidity of Lavrov’s acceptance of Kerry’s outline of a chemical deal, there seems to have been little if any negotiation with Damascus. Moscow simply set the terms. But if Moscow has the power to stop the killing by chemical weapons, why not also stop the slaughter of civilians by conventional means? Why not insist on a new “red line” against the deliberate and indiscriminate killing of civilians? Even if the fighting continues, why not force Assad to concentrate on limiting civilian casualties — to attack only the fish and leave the sea alone?

Russia has not given a remotely adequate answer. Conversations on the subject tend to turn to atrocities committed by the rebels and to the growing numbers of extreme Islamist groups in rebel ranks. These are serious concerns, particularly in light of Russian fears that Syria has become a magnet for disgruntled young men from the former Soviet Union who might eventually attack their home governments. But they cannot justify Syrian government atrocities. [Continue reading…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email