The Syrian conflict: More than a humanitarian calamity

Nadeen Shaker , Wednesday 7 May 2014

Nearly three years into the Syrian conflict, experts at a recent AUC lecture insist we cannot keep 'turning the crisis into a humanitarian issue every time we are paralysed'

Panelists debate the Syrian question at Oriental Hall, AUC Tahrir, 6 May 2014 (Photo: GAPP's official Twitter page)

Conflicts that spiral into ungovernable conditions are often eventually reduced to humanitarian crises prompting UN agencies and other aid groups to operate in hyperdrive as they attempt to respond to the fast-changing realities on the ground.

A lecture at the American University in Cairo (AUC), however, sought to find other dimensions to the nearly three-year-old Syrian conflict that move away from defining the Syrian uprising as a humanitarian calamity. In a lecture titled: "Hyper Paralysis: Global Governance and the Syrian Question," experts condemned the faulty global governance system, the aid structure and the absent role of the international community, among other pivots.

“When we talk about Syria, we tend to humanise the Syrian question, but that takes the humanity out of Syrians and turns them into victims,” said Hani Sayed, assistant professor and chair of AUC’s department of law -- and moderator of the event -- urging other definitions of the crisis.

Most speakers contended that the crisis could not be named; it was either too complex and multi-layered, or the instrument for global governance -- international law -- had simply not been put to use.

Tamara Alrifai, advocacy and communications director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and Africa Division, said there was a severe lack of accountability in Syria, with no “sceptre of justice” sighted at the end of the tunnel. She considers this reality to be the gross failure of the international community.

But the international community, experts explained, has barely taken hold of the reigns.

“The UN has moved from regulating conflict to being a street sweeper, cleaning off the conflict at the end of the road,” said Georges Michel Abi-Saab, honorary professor of international law at The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. “The UN does not deal with conflict anymore, only with its consequence,” he stated.

Aid and Access

There are nine million internally displaced Syrian refugees, 4.25 million of which cannot survive without external food assistance. UN organisations such as the World Food Programme -- where Abeer Etefa is senior regional public information officer -- ensure that food packages and baskets reach the areas where supply is far below the people's needs.

Humanitarian missions are often shot through with criticism levelled at aid organisations regarding whether the unevenly distributed aid finds its way to regime- or rebel-controlled areas.

“What we are seeing is the politicisation of aid, where we always have to justify our actions to the international community,” Etefa said. She added that aid reached “some” opposition-held areas, but organisations like hers are legally bound to work with the Syrian government or risk being cut off.

According to Richard Spencer, Middle East correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, the regime has manipulated aid and used it in specific areas as a tool of oppression by controlling its flow and accessibility.

While the panellists agreed that humanitarian organisations take the fall for a lack of cohesive political solution and intervention, Alrifai responded that “we are also trying to disentangle a broader systemic problem with the humanitarian system,” citing cross-border assistance that would require the UN to partner with non-governmental organisations.

In conclusion, all speakers concurred that reaching an imaginative political solution was imperative in order to avoid “turning the crisis into a humanitarian issue every time we are paralysed,” as Sayed declared.

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