UN failures put fate of Syrians in Assad's hands

UN failures put fate of Syrians in Assad's hands
Comment: The UN's imbalanced and unjust structure is allowing Assad to weaponise aid to vulnerable Syrians, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
19 May, 2020
A record 9.3 million people are now food insecure in Syria [Getty]
Perhaps the greatest indictment of the UN's role and operations during the Syrian civil war is the fact that most of the actions that have best helped Syrians have circumvented UN processes and structures.

Of course, this mostly encompasses the humanitarian efforts that are needed to sustain Syrians in liberated areas of the country. But it's worth remembering that even the limited airstrikes undertaken by the US-UK-France in the wake of the Douma chemical attack would not have occurred if those parties went through the processes of the UN Security Council.

Given the presence of Assad's main patron, Russia, as well as China, on the Security Council, any such action would have been vetoed, and his chemical weapons capacity would still be strong and his incentive to use them unbowed. 

The main imperfection of the UN lies in the fact that it is an organisation that too often fails to subvert, and rather reflects and bolsters the world's imbalanced and unjust power relations. 

The Security Council was set up to limit and regulate the most powerful states, but when such states have mutually antagonistic agendas, the function of it breaks down. It's still a structure that is shaped by the interests and practices of states over the welfare of their people - no matter how nefarious or tyrannical the interests and practices of such states might be.

From the very beginnings of the conflict, the UN has effectively participated in this weaponisation of aid

And this deficiency has conditioned much of the UN's practice in Syria.

The most recent manifestation of this is the UN's decision to cut funding programmes to aid organisations delivering lifesaving services in Northeast Syria. The UN-funded humanitarian aid hub at the border crossing with Iraq in the town of Al-Yaarubiyah was a lifeline for the mostly Kurdish region of Syria at the best of times. 

But with the potentially catastrophic threat of Covid-19 in the region, Al-Yaarubiyah is key to getting the medical supplies necessary to best suppress the virus and save the already precarious, war-torn lives of the residents, many of whom live in poverty-stricken camps.

It will come as a surprise to few who follow the politics of the Syrian conflict to know that Russia is the main culprit behind the UN's decision, with Putin agitating on behalf of his junior ally, Assad. 

Read more: 9.3 million people food insecure in war-torn Syria: WFP

While Assad's eye has been firmly locked on Idlib, there had been increased cooperation between the PYD, Assad and Russia in pushing back Turkey, so one might wonder why Russia would pressurise the UN into cutting this particular humanitarian endeavour? 

The answer is brutally simple: the vision that Russia has for Syria is the total conquest of and control over every area of the country by Assad, no matter the cost in terms of lives or ethnicity of the victims.  In fact, as we know, Assad's priority is to cleanse liberated areas of the very demographics who first rose up against him. 

Now, since the closure of Al-Yaarubiyah, agencies funded by the UN to deliver such aid must go through the Assad regime, which has proven itself more than unwilling to disperse aid to areas that it does not control. Since the closure of Al-Yaarubiyah, aid that has come through Damascus has only been dispersed to state hospitals, such as that in Qamishli, where access is limited and heavily politicised, with those deemed to be loyal to Assad getting preference in treatment and resources.

But the only 'new' factor in Assad weaponising humanitarian aid, is that it is occurring during a pandemic of a deadly virus that wreaks havoc on vulnerable populations. Not only has this been common practice for Assad, but there are almost countless precedents of it being done with the tacit acceptance of the UN.

In fact, the 2013 polio outbreak provides a dark snapshot of not just how Assad has brutally exploited the vulnerability of liberated Syrians to infectious diseases, but also how the UN has complied with it.

Due to Assad's weaponisation of aid and WHO medical supplies and the deliberate targeting of hospitals and health facilities for bombing, polio once again began afflicting Syrian children. 

Billions of dollars' worth of aid never reached those who needed it most

All of the UN agencies were unwilling to act without Assad's consent and thus UNICEF's polio vaccination programme in Syria was entirely run through the regime, meaning it was deliberately withheld from rebel-held areas. 

Again, it was only the efforts of Syrian NGOs working from Turkey and circumventing the UN that allowed children in rebel-held areas to be vaccinated. If left to UNICEF, they would have silently followed Assad and allowed an untold number of Syrian children to become infected.

From the very beginnings of the conflict, the UN has effectively participated in this weaponisation of aid.

It was back in 2012 when the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) bowed to pressure by Assad and Russia and based its operations in Damascus, allowing the regime to commandeer vast swathes of humanitarian aid. The regime then forced the UN to disperse such aid strictly through the regime-controlled Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

This meant that billions of dollars' worth of aid never reached those who needed it most in liberated parts of the country, allowing Assad to more easily besiege these populations, causing them to flee, die or surrender.

In order to partially curb this weaponisation of aid, the UN Security Council was given responsibility for renewing the use of cross-border aid hubs in Syria. But as Assad's chances of total conquest have become more realistic, Russia and China have opposed such renewal, claiming that it violates the sovereignty of Assad's UN-recognised rump state. This is what led to the closure of Al-Yaarubiyah. 

One thing's for sure: the UN certainly won't be intervening to ensure this particularly cruel agenda can't occur

Given Assad's use of chemical weapons and his willingness to deliberately neglect the control of infectious disease, fomenting a situation where both the populations in the Northeast and Northwest are hit hardest by Covid-19 doesn't seem beyond him. The virus running amok might end up doing much of his wicked work for him. 

The Security Council is set to decide on whether to renew the Turkish cross-border hubs that allow humanitarian access to Idlib in July. In light of what happened with Al-Yaarubiyah, it must be expected that Russia and China will vote against renewal, which will leave one of the most vulnerable populations on earth severely exposed to Covid-19. 

One thing's for sure: the UN certainly won't be intervening to ensure this particularly cruel agenda can't occur. Though many who work in the UN humanitarian sector are noble and brave, such qualities are often entirely undermined by the structure of the UN itself. 

The UN actually puts the fate of the most vulnerable Syrians in the hands of the very forces working to exterminate them.

As with many other things, Covid-19 has led to a re-evaluation of the world and its institutions. Perhaps now more than ever it's time to look beyond the UN's imbalanced and unjust structure to stop yet another horror afflicting the lives of Syrians who have already suffered so much.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.