Politics of Poverty

5 steps the US can take to end suffering in Syria

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A view of Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. In addition to our work in Syria, Oxfam is working In Jordan and Lebanon to improve access to clean water and sanitation and providing vulnerable families with cash assistance to help them pay for housing and other essentials. Photo: Sam Tarling / Oxfam

It’s a time for soul-searching, but more importantly, action by the US.

It’s very, very sad that I leave this position and leave Syria behind in such a bad state.”

With those words, UN-Arab League Special Envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi resigned his post, after a frustrating 21 months of failed peace efforts and a humanitarian catastrophe that gets worse by the day. The 80-year old Algerian diplomat and long-time Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General took over the peace-facilitation role formerly played by Kofi Annan, but faced almost impossible odds “with a Syrian nation, Middle Eastern region and wider international community that have been hopelessly divided in their approaches to ending the conflict.”

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres recently called the Syria crisis the greatest threat to global peace and security since the Second World War. Guterres noted that our collective response demonstrated that our conflict prevention and resolution tools developed since then have failed. His agency supports the more than 2.7 million Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries and who have the sad distinction of being the largest refugee population in the world.

But now is not the time to give up. The people of Syria—including the 9.3 million people in need of assistance and the thousands of brave Syrians who are risking their lives every day to build peace and deliver humanitarian assistance—cannot afford a rudderless international community. President Obama reaffirmed US commitment to Syria in his recent West Point speech, but details were scarce.

Here are five things President Obama and the US government can do to resolve the conflict and support the millions of Syrians in need:

1) Urge Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to move swiftly to appoint a new special envoy. for Syria

The appointee by the UN Secretary General must share Brahimi’s diplomatic experience and re-commit to an inclusive process to end this bloody conflict.

2) Release a clear strategy as demanded by the United States Senate in April.

Passed unanimously in April, Senate Resolution 384 set a deadline of early July for the President to submit to Congress “a strategy for United States engagement in addressing the Syrian humanitarian crisis, to include assistance and development, and protecting human rights inside Syria and in the region.” A version of the resolution in the House of Representatives, H. Res 520, goes even further, demanding the release of a broader “strategy for United States engagement on the Syria crisis” including, but not limited to, humanitarian assistance and human rights.

3) Focus on stopping all arms flows into Syria.

Shortly after his resignation, Brahimi reportedly urged the UN Security Council to end the flows of arms to both sides of the Syrian conflict. Weapons transfers only fuel the conflict in Syria and undermine the political process, which Secretary of State Kerry has said is the only solution to the Syrian conflict. Humanitarian and diplomatic efforts by the US have also been hampered by the continued flow of weapons and ammunition to the parties to the conflict.

Meanwhile, some commentators in the US continue to press for the Obama Administration to increase the flow of weapons into the Syrian conflict and have demanded that the President agree to requests by Syrian opposition leaders for shoulder-fired missiles.

But weapons transfers undermine the ability of the United States to take the moral high ground on a deadly arms race that is having a disastrous impact on Syrian civilians. Instead, the US should also engage in active diplomacy with the states transferring arms to Syria to realize a verifiable agreement to suspend transfers.

4) Help jump start peace talks.  

Working with the United Nations and the international community, US efforts in support of a political solution must include a three-tiered approach addressing peace negotiations at the international, regional, and local levels.

Though forging an elusive international consensus is a delicate task and a tall order, even the greatest diplomats in Syria will fail if the international community remains divided.

The US approach must also include supporting local ceasefires that Syrian activists are negotiating in their communities, including providing support for UN and joint international monitoring mechanisms and actively working to ensure civil society is engaged in peace-building processes.

5) Do more to ensure that the Syrian people get the support they desperately need.

The US can do this in two significant ways. First, the US should accept more Syrian refugees for resettlement. In the last six months, the US has admitted just a handful of Syrian refugees out of a population of more than 2.7 million people. Accepting larger numbers in the US would not only be an expression of solidarity with Syria’s neighbors who are struggling to accommodate the influx, but it would provide a vital source of protection for refugees with specific needs including those with safety concerns in the region.

At the same time, the US must do more to ensure that Syrians get the aid they so desperately need, by supporting countries hosting refugees and by getting aid inside of Syria however possible, using all appropriate means.

Brahimi’s resignation has been a moment of reflection for an international community struggling to come to terms with our collective failure to stop this unfolding tragedy, despite years of lofty rhetoric. Now is the time for a new envoy, a new strategy, and clear actions as outlined above to ease the suffering and find ways to bring peace to Syria.

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