Syria: from corridor diplomacy to humanitarian corridors

With the larger substantive issues of ceasefires and political transition at an impasse, the ground broken over humanitarian access has suddenly become a metric for whether the first phase of Geneva II will be considered a success.

James Denselow
4 February 2014

Last week the UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi reported from the Geneva II peace talks that while no substantive progress had been reached so far "ice was being broken". Visions of what the conference aimed to achieve were vastly divergent from the start. The opposition hoped to implement the terms of the Geneva I agreement concerning a transition of power, while the regime framed the meetings within a narrative of support against counter-terrorism. In the absence of likely agreements as to either side’s primary aims there is hope that common ground can be found on securing humanitarian access to the beleaguered country.

Six and a half million Syrians are now internally displaced. Hundreds of thousands are stuck within a number of besieged areas of the country where reports suggest that starvation is being used as a weapon of war. In the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in the suburbs of Damascus, home to an estimated 20,000 people, things are getting desperate. While a record-breaking number of press credentials (+1,000) were issued at Geneva II, there are no journalists reporting from inside Yarmouk, where stories are emerging of people being forced to eat stray animals in the face of massive food shortages.

Far from Yarmouk and after a week of diplomatic soap opera Brahimi spoke at a press conference where he sought to manage expectations, saying that, “we never expected a miracle, there are no miracles here”. Indeed much of Brahimi’s job has been to stop people walking out or flying home. The gap between the two opposing sides means there is a clear interest in managing potential failure so it can be pinned on the other side if talks collapse. 

However during the summit there was apparent progress in reaching a deal regarding humanitarian access to allow civilians out of the city of Homs and to allow in an aid convoy. Seemingly both sides could find common ground in discussions over whether people should be allowed to eat in contrast to the thornier issues of how the country should be run and, crucially, by whom. With the larger substantive issues of ceasefires and political transition at an impasse this has suddenly become a metric for whether the first phase of Geneva II will be considered a success.

Both sides in Geneva marked a minute’s silence for all victims of the nearly three-year old conflict, but still access is being denied. However while there appeared initial agreement to allow UN access to the 2,500 people trapped in the old city of Homs, actual action has been delayed as the regime seeks assurances that the aid won’t end up in the hands of ‘terrorists’. This has led some to accuse the regime of not having any real interest in easing restrictions and adopting a “surrender or starve” strategy towards humanitarian access. 

The continued denial of aid has led some to suggest more dramatic steps. During Geneva II the French repeated the oft-heard call for humanitarian corridors. They are not alone: the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, joined the call for corridors at a session on the humanitarian crisis in Davos and the EU chief diplomat Catherine Ashton has urged all sides to expand humanitarian corridors.

Humanitarian corridors could mean a number of things. At present the most realistic form they will take is micro-agreements such as the stalled Homs initiative. However, considering that the regime has likely used aid denial as a weapon of war, such plans may prove to be a case of style over substance. A halfway house agreement could mean international consensus on aid access via a Chapter VI UN Security Council Resolution that ensures no mention of military enforcement that would scare off the Russians. This is of course something that again the regime could ignore, as it did the October Security Council Presidential Statement – a sub-resolution agreement which called for “safe and unhindered humanitarian access to populations in need of assistance” – but would then be in more flagrant breach of the world’s premier international body.

The international community has bled credibility on Syria since the start of the conflict. Initially a resumption of cold war diplomacy stalled UN efforts as the Russians and Americans argued over exactly what happened with the resolution on Libya that paved the way for regime change. With Moscow and Washington now if not on the same page at least reading from the same book, there are no such excuses. Instead the very premise of international order enforced by a collective body is under scrutiny.

The final, and presently most unrealistic, option is for humanitarian corridors to be enforced from the outside. The logistics of attempting to secure space within the chaos of a war defined by its multiple players are hard enough, but more importantly there appears again to be little political will from the international community to turn notions of humanitarian corridors into heavily protected spaces. Obama’s ‘red line’ moment has come and gone, and even the Security Council backed resolution around chemical weapon disarmament is stalling. As the thousands continue to suffer, the phrase is often said has never been more true: while the international community appear in control of the watches, it is the Syrian regime who has the time.

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