VIEWPOINT: Focusing Solely On Syrian Humanitarian Crisis Risks Wider Political Solution

By Sarah Margon

The news from Syria is bad and doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Most recently, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan left Damascus without making any progress on the political front, U.N. Humanitarian chief Valerie Amos was unable to secure more than an agreement for a “limited [humanitarian] assessment by U.N. agencies and the Syrian authorities” and Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the U.N. Human Rights Council panel of experts, noted earlier today that the Syrian regime had subjected its people to “collective punishment.” In addition, pro-regime forces may be undertaking reprisal attacks in the recaptured city of Homs, where they appear to have killed at least 16 people — including a number of children.

Here in Washington, pundits, politicians and lawmakers continue to promote divergent recommendations for President Obama on what to do in Syria. But still, while the administration has been long on strong rhetoric and efforts to galvanize the international community, it has been short on action. Unsurprisingly, there is no international consensus on how best to proceed. Russia and China stonewall on a unifying plan in the U.N. in favor of quick bilateral negotiations. But their efforts have yielded nothing and the continued delay means governments in the region — and beyond — can change facts on the ground with weapons shipments to both sides.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is devolving quickly, with access to food, medical supplies, and other basic services worsening dramatically. More than 7,500 Syrians have already died — a number only expected to increase in the near term. Tracking displaced Syrians is very difficult but reports indicate approximately 500,000 have been directly affected by the conflict — with at least 25,000 having fled to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. The International Committee for the Red Cross has ostensibly reached an agreement with the regime for a daily 2-hour ceasefire but unfortunately in practice that has yet to bear fruit.


The U.N. Security Council seems to be losing steam on a potential draft resolution that would call for immediate humanitarian access. Public pleas from high level officials and backroom negotiations continue but concrete proposals seem few and far between. Worryingly, if the international community is unable to find common ground on Syria, the potential for ad-hoc, irresponsible, and even unhelpful policies mounts. In these situations, the government officials tend to shift their focus on efforts to end a humanitarian crisis — instead of the broader political situation — if only because it seems easier.

We’ve seen this shift in focus before — in Bosnia, Sudan, and even Zimbabwe — and while it can save lives it doesn’t resolve the situation wholistically because the humanitarian elements are being addressed in isolation, not as part of a broader diplomatic push. In fact, if a relief response were to become the primary policy, it could end up prolonging the conflict by diverting attention from the need to make hard diplomatic choices. As one long-time aid worker recently noted, “we should be wary of humanitarian solutions. They mean the major powers have given up.”

Regardless of whether the U.N. Security Council is able to pass its resolution, going forward, it will be critical to ensure there are clear links between the developing relief effort, which is a temporary measure to stop the bleeding, and any diplomatic response. Without centralizing a coordinated humanitarian response into a larger diplomatic effort, the international community risks perpetuating the crisis and delaying a more impactful approach.