x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Aid to Syria cannot be hostage to Assad's approval

Damascus will block desperately needed aid to civilians. True friends of Syria will find a way to circumvent its collective punishment in Homs and elsewhere.

After the 1982 Hama Massacre, in which 10,000 people were killed by the most comparative estimate, Syrians lived with the idea that the massacre happened largely because there was no media coverage. Thirty years later, the same regime is repeating the same scenario under the watching eyes of the world.

As the official number of casualties nears 8,000, with the actual toll perhaps far higher, tens of thousands in the Syrian uprising are being tortured and detained and nearly 100,000 have fled the country since it all began about 11 months ago. The humanitarian situation inside the country, especially in Homs, is threatening a further civilian disaster.

The crisis is worsening in Homs because field hospitals - which activists use instead of official hospitals to avoid being apprehended - and military-defector outposts are being shelled by the regime. Two foreign journalists, and at least one Syrian citizen-journalist, were among those killed in the shelling in Homs yesterday.

What can the world do? There are some options, as imperfect as they may be. Activists have been able over the months to cross borders and carry aid to affected cities, including medicine and communications equipment.

As the "Friends of Syria" contact group - which includes about 70 countries - meets tomorrow to discuss measures to stop the continued bloodshed, priority must be given to providing humanitarian aid. That effort should focus on medicine, food, water and other basic needs for civilians in cities affected by the military campaigns.

Lebanon, with a border only a few kilometres away from Homs, has boycotted the contact group (along with Russia). It is worth remembering that when Israel launched its military campaign against Lebanon in 2006, tens of thousands of Lebanese fled to Syria; they were hosted not by the Baathist government but in the homes of ordinary Syrians. Despite the domestic challenges of taking a stance against Damascus, Beirut has a moral responsibility to help with humanitarian aid, if not to help to frame a political solution.

Aid would be best provided through credible institutions and activists, preferably through the Red Crescent, which has said it is negotiating with the regime.

But let us be clear: President Bashar Al Assad is extremely unlikely to accept meaningful aid being channelled into the cities. The point of the attacks is to quell protests and impose collective punishment on the city. The humanitarian disaster that we fear in Homs would be a calculated mass murder.

There are ways to provide aid that do not depend on the regime's permission. And if Damascus does reject humanitarian aid, it would also be worth asking Moscow and Beijing, again, why they have sided against civilians.