Time Is Running Out for Syria


The Syrian civil war is creating a humanitarian crisis beyond the reckoning of even the world's most experienced aid workers. But in the face of all the evidence of its truly catastrophic dimensions, I fear that we are sleepwalking towards a disaster -- not just for the Syrian people themselves but for the Middle East and the wider world.

We are now at the point where the humanitarian emergency exceeds the capacity to deal with it. The international community is paralyzed by political gridlock. Rather than taking the evidence of this catastrophe as an imperative for political action, it seems that we in the humanitarian community are being passed the burden of "managing the conflict" as best we can.

Today Syria is riven by factional fighting which has claimed the lives of over 70,000 men, women and children. Last month was the deadliest yet, with more than 6,000 deaths -- more than the number killed throughout the first nine months of the uprising against the Assad regime.

The conflict has left at least six million people in need of aid, the fighting forcing four million to flee their homes to seek safety elsewhere in Syria. As the task of humanitarians to deliver aid inside the country becomes increasingly dangerous the numbers of refugees seeking shelter in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan are rising to unmanageable levels. This will have far-reaching consequences for the region's stability.

We passed the millionth refugee mark far ahead of all expectations. In December when I visited refugees in Lebanon and Jordan with the UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres, this grim landmark wasn't expected until the middle of this year -- and the hope of course was that it would be avoided by a political solution.

But since then, the rate at which refugees are fleeing Syria has almost tripled. At current growth rates we may reach two million refugees within months.

Humanitarian organizations and donors are struggling to keep up with growing needs. Europe has already provided more than 460 million euros in humanitarian funding, and I am confident that this will rise to 600 million once all the pledges made in January at the Kuwait donor conference are fulfilled. The European Commission has honoured its 200 million euros commitments in full. And I plea for others to do the same -- it is shameful that of the 1.5 billion dollars pledged in Kuwait only half has been delivered to the aid agencies.

But even if all humanitarian aid pledges are met in full, it will not be enough. For Lebanon and Jordan, the most affected countries, the Syria crisis is already having a destabilizing macroeconomic impact. A massive comprehensive aid package is needed to support the suffering civilian population in Syria and the neighbouring countries who are generously hosting refugees.

But the problem we face is not just funding. Our most basic humanitarian principles of access to and protection of victims are being trampled upon and violated on a daily basis. Hospitals, bakeries, aid convoys and medical personnel are being targeted. Rape is a new weapon of war.

In the year we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, midwife at the birth of the 'laws of war,' its values are receding to a pinpoint on the horizon. Our aid is becoming polluted by the politics. The purpose of humanitarian aid is not to confer any advantage to one side against another -- we are not "with you or against you." It is about providing assistance to all civilian victims in a non-discriminatory way. Humanitarian aid is a lifeline: it should not be defined by frontlines.

We need a UN-supported international humanitarian diplomatic initiative to restore the independence of humanitarian assistance, freeing it from any political taint or tampering.

This must include a commitment by all parties to the conflict to allow humanitarians to work across frontiers of all description and to refrain from obstructing or hampering the delivery of aid, to commit themselves to the protection of civilians -- especially women and children -- and medical facilities and their personnel. Failing to agree on this minimum humanitarian consensus would be not only a moral disgrace for the international community, but a terrible political mistake. The deeper the wounds inflicted on civilians, the more difficult the political chances to rebuild a peaceful Syria.

There is a saying that you can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality. Time is running out.