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International Intervention Needed To End Syrian Catastrophe

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DAVOS, Switzerland -- In gruesome conflicts such as the one that grips Syria, it is tempting to think of the humanitarian crisis as somehow discrete from the political conflagration.

The peace talks in Geneva are so rife with discord that an end to the violence anytime soon is unimaginable. But meantime, can't the representatives all agree to send in food, medicine and clean water to shattered communities? Can't they strike consensus on the urgent need to attend to the millions of refugees stuck inside Syria in addition to the millions already encamped outside?

If only. It will take some credible threat of international intervention to bring help to the victims of the Syrian war. There is no way around that.

At a gathering here at the World Economic Forum on Thursday afternoon, top officials overseeing the relief effort in Syria expressed grave frustration with their simple inability to gain access to areas of the country where people are in need.

They decried the spread of polio -- a malady not seen in nearly two decades, whose emergence speaks to the destruction of basic infrastructure. They decried hunger, trauma and neglect. Most of all, they decried the impossibility of getting to places where people need them, absent a binding resolution from the United Nations Security Council.

"Without the agreement of the country, it's simply not possible to go in because of sovereignty," declared Valerie Amos, the United Nations under-secretary general and emergency relief coordinator. "It's incredibly constraining."

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, complained that poor security, plus impediments by the Syrian government, "create a climate where it's almost impossible to get into besieged areas."

Despite more than a year of promises by the Syrian government to provide access, the Red Cross has yet to forge a presence in prisons, detention centers and other such facilities -- which is to say the places where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad systematically tortures its opponents, according to recent reports.

All of which raises a simple prospect: Why not use Geneva as a venue to at least hash out an agreement opening safe passages for refugees to get out while enabling the relief campaign to get in?

This seemingly common-sense approach runs headlong into a defining feature of the Syrian war: The systematic denial of aid has become a central tactic for key combatants, and especially the Assad regime. One can sooner expect the government to unilaterally surrender its chemical weapons stocks -- something Assad agreed to do only under clear threat of international military intervention. Rebel groups affiliated with al-Qaeda employ terror, executing those who do not accept Shariah law, making swaths of the country too dangerous for relief agencies. The government denies help for civilians in communities deemed friendly to rebels.

"The worst group is those who are in neighborhoods where the regime is implementing a starvation strategy, where the purpose of the regime is to kill them due to lack of food and medicine," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. "This is a crime against humanity. This is almost a holocaust."

His government is hardly a disinterested party. Turkey has been keenly working to engineer Assad's downfall. Yet the basic point he argued applies regardless of how one apportions the blame for the tragedy playing out in Syria. Without the threat of force from blue helmeted soldiers pursuant to a binding resolution from the U.N. Security Council, the people who can help won't be able to get where they're needed. The humanitarian crisis will worsen.

By now, the world may be inured to the staggering numbers that describe the toll in Syria -- more than 100,000 people dead and millions more displaced. The most striking voice heard Thursday tried to penetrate the fog of ambivalence that increasingly characterizes the global response.

"I'm no longer representative of Syrian youth today," said Rouba Mhaissen, the Syrian-Lebanese founder and director of Sawa for Development and Aid, a group that supports Syrian refugees living inside Lebanon. "I'm not under shelling ... I'm not in a grave or in prison."

We know about Syria, whether we are paying attention or not. As you read these words, people with small children are struggling to find clean water and a safe place to spend the night. People stuck in fetid camps worry about bombs that may land in the night. People with infected wounds that could be easily treated with antibiotics are sliding toward death for lack of such basic medicines.

And the architects of this horror sit at a hotel in Geneva, airing out the same arguments that reinforce stalemate, a status quo that condemns more to their deaths.

As comforting as a parallel humanitarian solution may be, it will not happen without international action that effectively challenges the political situation. The government must be forced to step aside and let the world deliver aid.

"The Security Council has failed the world," said Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations and former special envoy for the Syrian crisis, at a dinner Thursday hosted by George Soros. "The Security Council has failed shamefully."