x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Aid for Syrian refugees will be a test of Iran’s intentions

By helping to relieve the misery of millions, the Iranian leadership can prove that it means what it says

The casualties of war are never limited to the battlefield; the suffering always extends well beyond those in the direct line of fire. As the world has seen far too often, armed conflict forces millions of civilians from their homes, separating families and severing community ties. Many of them end up in makeshift refugee camps run by people who are ill-equipped to help the situation, and sometimes even unwilling to do so. This gives rise to further misery, disease and death. It’s a cycle that can only be broken by the intervention of those with good will and true intentions.

The dire situation in Syria is a case in point. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says that about 6.5 million people have fled their homes within Syria and 2.3 million have sought refuge abroad. Desperately needed humanitarian aid is available but, until now, its delivery has been blocked by a number of factors, chiefly the resistance of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

In a breakthrough this week, Mr Al Assad has allowed the first UN humanitarian mission into the country. If all goes to plan, the first two of 12 cargo planes will fly from Erbil in northern Iraq today to deliver aid to at least two cities in Syria. Flights will continue until Sunday, delivering food, blankets, kitchen sets, tarpaulins, sleeping mats and jerry cans to as many as 60,000 people in Hassakeh and Qamishli in the north of Syria, near the border with Turkey.

Any humanitarian effort is, of course, welcome – but there are many more hungry and homeless people in other parts of Syria and no mechanism in place to reach them. With winter setting in, the need is urgent. This mission must be successful, and all parties to the conflict must be prepared to let more aid flow.

This is a test not just of the willingness of Mr Al Assad to allow more desperate Syrians to be fed and sheltered – it is a test of those who influence his regime. Iran, which has recently sought rapprochement with its neighbours over its nuclear ambitions, is Mr Al Assad’s key ally in the region and perhaps the only nation that can facilitate an end to the Syrian civil war. Tehran has said it is willing to help solve the crisis. Now, in the lead-up to the January 22 Geneva peace talks, Iran has the chance to do something meaningful to relieve the misery of millions.

If Iran can make progress of this front, it will prove to its neighbours that its recent peace gestures are real, and that it can be a reliable partner.