It began 6 years ago, with protests on March 15, 2011. Since then, the Syrian uprising, as it was then called, has devolved into a brutal and complex war which created a global refugee crisis and fueled the rise of IS/ISIL/Daesh. As it stands now, the situation in Syria remains dire.
At the political level, the UN-led intra-Syrian talks have resumed, but few, including the Special Envoy to Syria Stefan Di Mistura, were expecting a breakthrough in Geneva on Thursday 23 February. Indeed, talks over a political transition are difficult between representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition. Even more concerning is the fact that Last December’s ceasefire, brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey, is fragile and reportedly falling apart.
As diplomacy is stalled, the humanitarian needs are huge. The death toll is approaching 500,000. 13.5 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance. Of these, 5.7 million are facing acute needs due to multiple risks to which they are exposed. Furthermore, half of the Syrian population has been displaced, including 4.86 million refugees.
In their efforts to address both the geopolitical and humanitarian consequences of the Syria conflict, many if not all major powers have adopted strategies mainly focused around fighting IS/ISIL/Daesh. Humanitarian organisations have been calling for a long time for a cessation of hostilities and a full access to civilians. Unfortunately, while many actors in the past declared that there was no military solution (1,2), negotiations of any kind and, notably over ceasefires, have always been difficult. And, when they succeeded, they were regularly breached as it is has been the case recently.
Such dire situation is not only exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, but it is also nurturing the breeding ground for extremism and violence, which directly benefits groups like IS/ISIL/Daesh. The efforts should therefore be put on working towards stopping – or at least reducing – the hardship on the ground. This implies focusing on two main steps.
The first one is enforcing the current ceasefire and put it under UN auspices as ceasefires have regularly been used, particularly by the Syrian government and Allies, for both propaganda and troop movement purposes, coupled with regular breaches of an organised nature. To be effective, a mechanism, such as observers or a peacekeeping mission, would have to be deployed into the country with the task of monitoring and enforcing the ceasefire as well as holding responsible those who would violate it. This would also require international actors, notably, the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to put pressure on all parties to the conflict, to immediately stop attacks on civilians and civilian’s infrastructures.
The second step would consist on having an unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to civilians. As a short-term solution, permission for airdrops and airbridges needs to be secured. As a long-term solution, the commitments for full humanitarian access need to be implemented, notably for Syrian humanitarian organizations, both registered and unregistered with the Syrian government, as they are the only humanitarian actors supporting many communities in Syria, particularly in hard-to-reach and besieged areas, where 4.9 million people live.
While these two steps might sound simple, implementing them is no easy task. And for such a highly complex situation with many actors having competing interests, they do not guarantee a compromise on a political transition. However, with seemingly no military solution to a conflict entering its sixth year, the implementation of an effective ceasefire and the alleviation of the hardship would facilitate dialogue and especially provide crucial support to the people in need.
As the UN envoy underlined when talking about the ongoing UN process, there might not be a breakthrough but the momentum needs to be kept. The UN talks along with the Conference on Syria foreseen in Brussels in April both constitute windows of opportunities to end six years of suffering.