As World Vacillates, Syria Agonizes

"Before we go on holiday, we should all make a donation to humanitarian relief for Syria,” writes Los Angeles Times columnist Timothy Garton Ash ("No relief for Syria"). Do not allow this concluding remark to mislead you from Ash’s main point. Humanitarian relief alone will not solve the Syrian conflict. Syria needs a political solution, including some form of military intervention, to provide lasting relief for the Syrians. Sadly, none of which is forthcoming.

Like many in the international community, Ash has recognized the severe situation in Syria, alarmed by the increased number of forcibly displaced people in the world and in Syria, which is the highest since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. According to Ash, Syria plays a big part in the significant increase globally of those displaced at the end of 2012, thus bringing the highest numbers in 18 years, a "total of 45 million forcibly displaced people worldwide…The current rate of displacement is about one person every four seconds." As for Syria, he informs us 6,000 refugees pour out of the country daily.

Undoubtedly, Ash believes that the "political effects" of the Syrian conflict "are potentially far greater than those of any tsunami or earthquake." The sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites, and the regional and international conflicts pitting the U.S. vs. Russia, and Iran vs. Saudi Arabia, among other junior partners like Hezbollah, are catastrophic.

Evaluating the pros and cons of intervention, the most cited examples are usually Iraq post President Bush's war and Bosnia pre-intervention. Ash, who is also a professor of European studies at Oxford University and a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, offers a cautious note on the "ethical" dimension of the debate: "the notion that not intervening in any way is always the most moral option simply does not stand honest scrutiny."

While discussing humanitarian relief for Syria, Ash distinguishes between man-made disasters (like the civil war largely caused by Assad) and "natural disasters" or "acts of God," which include disasters like tsunami and earthquakes. "For the nature of humanitarian relief in man-made disasters is that you are treating the symptoms and not the causes. Were politicians effectively to address the political causes of Syria's disaster, that would be more valuable than everything that all the humanitarian organizations can do." This would mean a worldwide coalition of great powers willing to apply pressure on their proxies. Yet, Ash also says such international pressure is "not happening, nor is it likely to."

So according to Ash, a political solution is not in the offing for Syria. What he extrapolated from John Kerry's response to the angry Syrian refugees in Zaatari refugee camp (ironically considered the "fourth largest Jordanian city") is the absence of a good political solution. But this does not convince Ash of "abandoning" politics and relying solely into "humanitarian" relief.

But even had the international community prioritized humanitarian aid, which is "vital" indeed, at the expense of politics, statistics show that there is not much of it, anyway, despite the efforts of many international organizations and agencies. And despite the over publicized humanitarian aid solution, much of it is not allowed in Syria, thanks to the Assad regime. Consider the city of Homs, where tens of thousands are besieged and in dire need of electricity, food, medicine, and water. "Oxfam says people have so far donated just one-third of its $45-million targeted to Syria. The Disasters Emergency Committee, a seasoned coalition of charities, has raised only $26 million. By contrast, its campaign for victims of the Asian tsunami raised $600 million."

The distinction here is between the victims of natural disasters and the victims of man-made violence. If in both cases the victims are innocent, why then are the "acts of God" victims more innocent than those victims who suffer "as a result of their compatriots fighting one-another in the name of God?" An ironic and perceptive question by Ash. Ash finds that there is greater sympathy for the "acts of God" victims to be "understandable," but in his view, "it's not rational." In other words, Syrian victims are as innocent as all other victims, but with the caveat that the "world generosity" toward them is unequal in terms of humanitarian aid, political attention or in world intervention on their behalf so a final relief can reach their shores and mountains.

Elie Chalala
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