February 23, 2014

Humanitarian Aid for Syria

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE government of Kuwait hosted the Second International Humanitarian Pledging Conference on Syria in the third week of January just before the warring sides in civil conflict resumed peace talks in Geneva. The conference, unlike the one in Geneva, saw the international community unite for a worthy cause. Iran was one of the 69 governments and 24 international organizations that participated in the successful conference. The conference was presided over by the UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon. India was represented by the Minister of State for External Affairs, E Ahamed. It was the second such conference hosted by the State of Kuwait. During the first conference that Kuwait had hosted in January, 2013, the international community was able to pledge $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid. At this year’s meeting, with the humanitarian crisis in Syria having worsened considerably, the international community has pledged more than $2.4 billion. The UN Secretary General in his opening speech had requested for $6.5 billion this year to help the Syrians affected by the war which has now entered its third year. “The fighting has set Syria back by years, even decades”, Ban said in his speech. The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, while urging the international community to put more efforts into solving the crisis in Syria also urged all those fighting in Syria to “put the fate of their country and the safety of their people above all other considerations”. Kuwait’s neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are avowed supporters of the rebels fighting against the Syrian government, have also pledged $60 million each in humanitarian aid. The other major donors are Japan, United Kingdom, Norway and Switzerland. India pledged $2 million. This is in addition to the $2.5 million India had pledged at the 2013 January Conference in Kuwait. Most of the Indian aid was spent on providing life saving drugs for the Syrian people living in refugee camps. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry like many of the leaders supporting the Syrian rebels was very critical of the Syrian government’s handling of the humanitarian crisis, accusing it of willfully creating the situation. Kerry and many of the speakers at the Conference glossed over the role played by the extremist groups fighting the Syrian government and the support these groups get from many neighboring countries. Kerry announced that the US will give $380 million dollars as humanitarian aid to help in “the refugee challenge” facing the international community. According to Kerry, this has raised America’s contribution in humanitarian aid to the Syrian people to $1.7 billion. The Secretary of State of course did not mention the huge amount the US and its allies spent on the lethal supply of arms and training for the Syrian rebels that triggered the humanitarian crisis in the first place. Instead, he chose blame President Bashar al Assad for allegedly using “starvation as a weapon of war” and stopping the flow of international humanitarian aid. Before the war began, Syria was self sufficient in food production. School education and health care was free. The rebels had taken particular care to target schools and hospitals. According to the UN agencies, more than 2.3 million Syrians have taken refuge in neighboring countries. Initially, when the insurgency began, Syrians were actually being encouraged to seek refuge in countries like Turkey with relief camps being set up across the border. But once the fighting and the violence against civilians escalated, the trickle soon turned into a flood. The UN Secretary General said at the Kuwait Conference that more than half of Syria’s population constituting more than 9 million people are in urgent need of aid. Ban said that the conflict had “set back Syria years, even decades” and that it was “vital for this region and our world for this burden to be shared”. An UNDP report has said that the conflict in Syria has rolled back human development achievements by 35 years, leaving more than 50 per cent of the population in poverty. Only 70 per cent of the $1.5 billion in aid pledged during the 2013 Kuwait Conference actually materialized. Among the defaulters were rich Gulf nations. Most of the refugees have fled to Lebanon which shares strong cultural and political ties with Syria. A lot of the humanitarian aid money has been earmarked for Lebanon. The caretaker Lebanese prime minister, Najib Mikati, told the assembled leaders in Kuwait, that the international community and especially the countries in the region should try their best to distance his country from the conflict. The Syrian conflict has already spread to Lebanon and Iraq, where the jihadi forces fighting are wreaking havoc. The decision of the Hezbollah militia to side with the Syrian government last year in its fight against the al Qaeda affiliated forces has led to a spate of suicide bombings in Lebanon. Mikati in his speech called for the establishment of “safe camps” for refugees inside Syria. There already are an estimated 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians. According to the UN, more than 52 per cent of those affected by the war in Syria are innocent children. Children have been exposed first hand to the brutal conflict and have been killed by sniper fire and suicide bombers. Children as young as seven years are working in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. A joint appeal by UN agencies in January called for a special $1 billion in funding to save Syria’s children from becoming the “lost generation”. The Geneva 11 Conference may not be able to bring an end to the bloodshed any time soon. There is serious talk of establishing humanitarian corridors so that aid can be reached to the suffering millions trapped in areas controlled by the rebels. The Syrian government has been allowing the flow of food aid to many areas that have been under the sway of various rebel groupings. In many instances, aid convoys carrying food and other essentials, have come under fire. PRIVATE CHARITIES FANNING FLAMES? On the sidelines of the Kuwait conference, private charities in the region pledged an additional $400 million for Syria. In an analytical paper written by Elizabeth Dickinson of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy, which is affiliated with the Brookings Institute in the US, private Gulf charities have been blamed for igniting sectarian fires, not only in Syria but also in the Gulf region. Kuwait has emerged as the hub of activities for the rich charitable organizations in the region. According to Dickinson, the donors have taken advantage of Kuwait’s unique freedom of association and relatively weak financial rules to channel money to some of the estimated thousand groups fighting against the Syrian government. The Saban Center Report states that there is evidence that some Kuwait based donors have backed rebel groups that have committed atrocities in Syria. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov after a meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem in Moscow just before the beginning of the Geneva 11 conference, said that the UN should verify the recipients of international humanitarian aid to Syria. “In the interest of building confidence, it is important that the UN should analyze the declared contributions and release materials stating specific recipients of the declared assistance and its specific forms”, Lavrov told the media in Moscow. According to the Saban Report, there is a real fear that the pro-rebel activism of Kuwaiti Sunni and tribal opposition leaders could have an adverse impact on Kuwaiti politics itself. One-third of the Kuwaiti population is Shia. The US State Department has said that it will “stress the need for Kuwait to have a robust anti-money laundering/counter terrorism financing regime”. The Kuwaiti government, unlike most of its other oil rich neighbors, has been careful in not openly taking sides in the Syrian conflict. The Kuwaiti government has been voicing its concerns about the growing sectarian nature of the conflict. In the second week of January, Turkish police raided the office of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) in the city of Kilis, near the border with Syria. The IHH is a leading Turkish charity organization which claims that it only engaged in humanitarian aid. On January 1, the Turkish media had reported that security forces had stopped a truck loaded with arms and ammunition on the border with Syria. The Turkish government in recent months has started taking a tougher stance on al Qaeda linked militants who earlier had a free pass to wage jihad in Syria from their territory. According to reports, there are more than 15,000 foreign militants using Turkey as a base to wage war in Syria. Meanwhile, the US and its allies are insisting on an unfettered flow of “neutral humanitarian assistance” inside Syria. Kerry said in Kuwait that the Obama administration was mulling a “whole set of different options” to force the Syrian government to provide so called “humanitarian access”. The Syrian government feels that acceding to this demand will be an affront to its sovereignty. At the same time, Damascus has been emphasizing that it is committed to the goal of ensuring that humanitarian aid under the auspices of the UN and neutral international agencies will be allowed. And as the harsh winter continues, Syrians living as refugees and under siege internally want politics to take a back seat and are eagerly looking for the basic necessities that would help them survive through possibly yet another year of mindless bloodletting. Even if the ongoing Geneva talks result in a truce between the Syrian government and the “official” opposition supported by the West, the actual groups doing the fighting in Syria like the al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are in no mood for a cease fire. In fact, the ISIS is now concurrently battling the so called moderate Islamist and al Qaeda forces backed by the West and its regional proxies as well as the Syrian government forces.