This is how we failed Syria

Four years into the largest humanitarian crisis on our watch, the conflict in Syria is worsening.

Syrian refugee children play with a wheelchair at the Al Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq
Syrian refugee children at the Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria [Reuters]

Last year three UN Security Council resolutions were passed aiming to protect and assist civilians in Syria. But, a year after the first resolution was passed, the words ring hollow.

In a report being released today, my organisation, Norwegian Refugee Council, along with several other organisations, present a report card that compares the demands made in the resolutions with the reality we see on the ground. The grim statistics reveal how the warring parties, countries with influence in the region and other UN member states have completely failed to implement the resolutions – and by doing so, have also utterly failed Syrian civilians.

We have failed to protect people from indiscriminate attacks and displacement.

Struggle for survival in Syria’s Aleppo

The resolutions and international law demand that that the parties to the conflict cease all attacks against civilians, that they stop shelling and bombarding populated areas, and cease firing on schools and medical facilities.

Increase in attacks

Still, at least 160 children were killed at school last year. There was an increase in attacks on health facilities. The use of explosives worsened, claiming thousands of civilian lives. Innocent men, women and children were murdered, raped and tortured. 

Regional and international powers continue to fuel the conflict, by sending in arms and ammunition. We urgently need to halt the supply of arms and ammunition to groups who are using these weapons to commit horrifying crimes against civilians. And the people committing these crimes need to be held accountable.

We have also failed to assist those who need our help the most.

The resolutions demand that parties to the conflict immediately lift sieges of populated areas, and allow aid agencies rapid, unhindered and safe access to people in need. It furthermore urges all UN member states to increase their humanitarian assistance.

Humanitarian access

Still, humanitarian access to large parts of Syria actually diminished last year. Some 4.8 million people are currently living in areas defined by the UN as “hard to reach”, and too many of them receive only sporadic or no support. People are dying not only from bullets, but also from the recent cold winter weather, from a lack of clean drinking water and a lack of access to medical assistance. Some 212,000 people are still trapped in besieged areas, where parties to the conflict are using hunger as a barbaric tool of war.

The government of Syria, and often some neighbouring countries, continue to hamper humanitarian work by imposing bureaucratic hurdles, restricting travel across borders and across frontlines, and making it difficult for civilians to access aid. The worsening security situation and lack of respect of the humanitarian work is furthermore blocking us from delivering assistance to many of those who need it the most.

That said, heroic aid workers, most of them Syrian, are every day continuing to deliver assistance to people in need. And we could do much more, if it was not for the chronic lack of funding.   

About $8.4bn are needed for all relief work inside Syria and in neighbouring countries this year. It is less than the price of the Olympic Games in London, about a fifth of the price of the Olympic Games in Beijing, and a sixth of the price of the winter games in Sochi. While these Olympic Games were fully funded, the international community has not been willing to provide even the minimum of assistance to the more than 16 million Syrian civilians in need inside Syria and in neighbouring countries. Last year’s appeals became only about half funded, resulting in severe cuts in the assistance.

Some 4.8 million people are currently living in areas defined by the UN as 'hard to reach', and too many of them receive only sporadic or no support.


A generation of Syrians

We need to understand that a generation of Syrians living in precarious conditions, without access to education and without any hope for the future, is a recipe for disaster. Additionally, countries with influence in the region need to put pressure on the parties to the conflict, to make them end the attacks on humanitarian workers, and they need to demand that the government of Syria and neighbouring countries remove the red tape that is currently hampering assistance.  

Last, but not least, we have failed to find a political solution.

The Security Council’s demand for all parties to work towards a genuine political solution has been met with piecemeal efforts and little progress. The talks in Moscow in January were not attended by the major opposition groups. UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s plan for a freeze in Aleppo may provide a glimmer of hope, but is currently in jeopardy.  

Those with influence, including Russia, Iran, the US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, all who have leverage on key actors, need to put pressure on parties to the conflict – for them to come to the table and negotiate a political solution. This political process needs to be inclusive, allowing those without guns to be heard so that the future of the country respects the rights and aspirations of the Syrian people.

Time for action

In short, the score card shows how the Security Council, and the parties to the conflict bound by these resolutions, have failed. The resolutions, which provided a framework for how we could end the suffering – have been ignored or undermined by parties to the conflict, powerful members of the Security Council and other UN member states.

And the bitter reality is that we are failing not because we lack solutions, we are failing because we are unwilling to do what is needed.

Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and other UN member states together have the necessary influence to make the changes set out in the resolutions a reality.

It is about time we end the civilians’ suffering. 

Jan Egeland is secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. In 2006, Time magazine named him one of the 100 ‘people who shape our world’.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.