Syrian people’s screw of torment is tightened

Syrian people’s screw of torment is tightened

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A truck passes from Turkey into northern Syria through the Bab Al-Salam border crossing. (Reuters)

World-weary politicians, diplomats and those agencies that deal with the consequences of conflict know the score with Syria. Once the Syrian government opted to meet calls for reform, not regime change, in 2011 with torture and violence against its own people — and once any window for internal political resolution was effectively lost in a mire of competing militias, a retreating West and the determination of other external forces with their own agendas — the country became a test bed for the proposition that wars in the Middle East could now last for a timescale beyond comprehension, and that the capacity to inflict harm on a community was almost infinite. 

The figures of destruction bear repetition, if only to make us aware of what the rest of the world ignores daily. There are 5.6 million refugees, 6.2 million internally displaced persons, and 12 million people reliant on humanitarian aid from an original population of about 20 million. The people of Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan carry the burdens of the Syrians’ movement. 

But, with no end in sight, historic atrocities are still being added to, and these in the age of the new horror of a pandemic. Conflict has left Syria drastically ill-equipped to respond to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). After nearly a decade, the deliberate targeting of health facilities has decimated Syria’s water, sanitation and health systems. According to the World Health Organization, there were 494 attacks on health facilities across Syria between 2016 and 2019. Some 84 facilities in northwest Syria alone have had to close in the past four months because of violence. In the northeast, only one of the region’s 16 hospitals is fully functioning. To compound this situation, there is a lack of protective equipment, intensive care beds, and ventilators.

Following last December’s upsurge in violence, nearly a million people were displaced, with a significant proportion of these still displaced today. Women and children make up four out of every five Syrians displaced during this conflict.

In 2014, the UN resolved that those in need in Syria could not rely on their government to provide humanitarian assistance in areas it did not control, so it began cross-border aid operations. However, the UN Security Council (UNSC), with vetoes recorded by both China and Russia, has steadily whittled away at such relief opportunities, instead insisting that cross-line aid provided by the regime would be forthcoming, with no serious evidence to support this proposition. More than 4 million Syrians rely on cross- border operations to receive humanitarian assistance, including aid related to COVID-19 preparedness and response. Cross-border assistance not only facilitates the delivery of supplies, but also establishes a framework for assistance across the region, including funding and coordination structures. 

The UN last week witnessed the further tightening of this screw of seemingly interminable torment for the Syrian people. Following further vetoes from Russia and China against resolutions that would have ensured continued cross-border access from Turkey to Syria at three points, the limited resolution that eventually passed allowed just one crossing to do the job. This was roundly condemned by aid agencies and other states. The Bab Al-Salam crossing, which in May alone supported 1 million people by providing direct access to parts of northern Aleppo that have some of the highest concentrations of displaced persons, will now close. The crossing supporting the northeast of Syria at Yarubiyah was closed in January, and an effort to reopen this was similarly vetoed. This leaves just Bab Al-Hawa to shoulder the burden. The vetoes had a clear political, not humanitarian, aim.

The UNSC has had enough difficulty in recent years. The relentless use of the veto from a variety of states has frustrated its overall aim of ending conflict and maintaining the stability of the world. In former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold’s words, repeated at the organization’s 75th anniversary last year, its objective is “not to take mankind to heaven but to save humanity from hell.” The never-ending misery in Syria, Libya and Yemen are scars on all of us. 

The relentless use of the veto from a variety of states has frustrated the UNSC’s overall aim of ending conflict.

Alistair Burt

Aid agencies worry that the inability to deliver on international humanitarian law is now becoming embedded in the inevitable complexity of political decision-making and compromise that are the stuff of diplomacy. UN voting leaves little hope for despairing civilians and those who exist to keep them alive. UN peacekeepers and the secretary-general’s representatives just cannot do their work in such circumstances. Ghassan Salame’s despairing recent interview — in which he recounted efforts to evade the arms embargo of Libya by the states sitting across the table from him publicly advocating it — is another example. 

It is not too late to respond to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ plea for a global cease-fire, as evidence increases that the pandemic remains virulent and expanding. But, in the absence of this, it would be good if the UNSC made a start by upholding humanitarian law and getting behind its own representatives to bring conflicts to a conclusion, while starting to repair the lives of those left in their wake. 

  • Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK
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