The Growing Tension Surrounding Humanitarian Intervention in Syria

by Claude Bruderlein

[Claude Bruderlein is the director of the Harvard Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research]

The deteriorating security situation in Syria has had dramatic consequences on the civilian population. While the international community debates different ways to respond to the violence against civilians and the rising humanitarian needs, a growing tension has emerged around the means and methods to provide humanitarian protection. On the one hand, protagonists of traditional humanitarian access, such as the ICRC, hope to establish consensual arrangements to provide relief to populations in need on the basis of an ongoing dialogue with the parties. On the other hand, proponents of a more robust international intervention, including several members of the UN Security Council, are calling for authoritative measures for the protection of civilians, in particular, the creation of “safe zones” or “militarized corridors” established by the Council, as securitized spaces of refuge and assistance in and around Syria.

These proposals illustrate divergent views about the role that the international community should play in this context. The call from ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger for a daily humanitarian truce is in stark contrast with arrangements proposed by commentators such as Anne-Marie Slaughter and by some members of the UN Security Council. The latest initiatives for the creation of “safe zones,” reminiscent of the “safe areas” of the former Yugoslavia, would be based on a decision of the UN Security Council providing credible guarantees of enforcement and military protection. Inspired by UN interventions in East Timor and Kosovo in 1999, such an initiative would aim to provide temporary security and life-saving assistance to populations in need. This option, however, has faced objections from China and Russia, two veto-wielding Security Council members, in view of the potential intrusion entailed in the creation of such zones, into the sovereignty of the host State.

Paradoxically, over recent years, actors on both sides of this debate have contributed to blurring the distinct character of their respective humanitarian approaches. In Darfur, Somalia, and Pakistan, protagonists of a consensual approach to humanitarian access became increasingly cognizant of the limited sustainability of such arrangements in internal armed conflicts, in which insurgents can gain tactical advantages from these truces or corridors, obtaining access to much needed resources. Consequently, to ensure the demilitarized and neutral character of humanitarian truces and corridors, humanitarian organizations have been calling not just for the consent of the relevant parties to humanitarian arrangements, but also for the deployment of an international, independent military presence facilitating and supervising the delivery of assistance in contested areas. Evidently, the discomfort among humanitarians grows as such military arrangements become intertwined with political and security agendas, as in the case of Libya.

The mobilization of the international community for the protection of civilians in Syria is therefore based on contradictory arguments: (1) humanitarian corridors depend in principle on the consent of parties for the delivery of relief to populations in need, implying that such assistance, to remain truly neutral, should not interfere with the parties’ political and security agendas; and (2) to be credible, humanitarian corridors should be based on a robust, international and regional intervention, short of a full R2P mandate, as a first step in a long-term stabilization, development, and transformation project.

UN/Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has been given the mandate to mediate among the parties on both political and humanitarian fronts, a fact that suggests a continued integration of humanitarian and political perspectives by the international community. Over time, humanitarian agencies and professionals will need to devise their own terms of engagement in these circumstances and be ready to conceptualize humanitarian arrangements that remain amenable to the parties and credible on their own terms. Likewise, UN Security Council members would gain by being more explicit regarding the requirements of setting up safety zones, as well as the limitations in the deployment and use of military forces for these purposes. Experiences in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and East Timor demonstrate the strategic importance of proper planning and resource mobilization to the success of these security operations.

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