THE BLOG

The Syria Conflict: A War Without Law

04/02/2016 08:51 GMT | Updated 03/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Today, world leaders gathered in Westminster will pledge financial support for efforts to meet the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people, and unveil measures aimed at providing longer-term assistance and opportunities for Syrian refugees and their hosts in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

The UK, along with Germany, Norway, Kuwait and the United Nations (UN), is to be commended for convening this event. Funding has failed to keep pace with the growing needs of the 13.5million people inside Syria and 4.6million sheltering in the region who are reliant on aid. The consequences of this shortfall - compounded by intensified conflict, sharpening refugee restrictions, and deepening poverty - became profoundly apparent in 2015, when half a million Syrians were forced to board jerry-built boats and dinghies and seek safety within the European Union.

If today's commitments are honoured, and agreements around work permits and education for Syrian refugees are properly implemented, then some Syrians may well begin to envision a future for themselves in the Middle East. Being able to work, provide for their families, and watch their children learn would be transformational for Syrians in exile: such an outcome, alongside a significant increase in support for relief operations in and around Syria, is a worthy aim of the London conference.

But what this event will almost certainly not do is offer civilians inside Syria hope that they will be spared the brutalities of the continuing conflict across their country, or that an end to that conflict may be in sight. Indeed, the welcome ambition and energy of today's efforts stand in stark contrast to the desultory manner in which the international community has sought to shield innocent Syrians from the horrors of the war, which enters its sixth year next month.

To Syrian civilians, this is a war seemingly without end, and certainly without law. Given free rein by their sponsors in and outside the region, the parties to the conflict continue to bombard densely populated areas, lay ruin to homes, schools and hospitals, target and indiscriminately attack civilians, choke off desperately needed food, water and energy supplies, and disrupt the delivery of humanitarian aid. The intensity of the violence is such that an average of 50 families have been uprooted every hour of every day since the conflict began.

A series of UN Security Council resolutions demanding an immediate halt to this appalling, illegal conduct have achieved little. The number of Syrians whom aid agencies can reach only sporadically and with difficulty now stands at 4.5million, an increase of more than a third since February 2014, when the first resolution was adopted. The number trapped inside besieged areas - some 400,000 people - has increased by two thirds. In Muadamiyat al-Sham, just outside Damascus and blockaded for years now, the International Rescue Committee's local health partners report that Syrians are dying for want of food.

Viewed from such desperate places, the impact and promise of national and international commitments to secure an end to the violence, and a political solution to the conflict, have been minimal. Arab League initiatives, Kofi Annan's six-point plan, and successive peace conferences in Geneva all failed to achieve a breakthrough. The fledgling Vienna Process has only this week moved beyond talks around participation, and been accompanied by an increased flow of weapons into Syria, as well as heightened violence in many parts. Intransigence over the country's future administration has deepened in recent months, and relations between the warring parties' backers - notably Saudi Arabia and Iran - have significantly deteriorated.

As things stand then, it will likely be years before any peace agreement for Syria is reached, let alone realised on the ground. And rebuilding the country, as and when peace finally does break out, will take decades. This is why the commitments and compacts revealed in London today - with their emphasis on more durable humanitarian funding solutions, jobs and education for refugees, and significant support for Syria's neighbours - are so important. They reflect and constitute the beginning of a response to the reality that Syria and the region are grappling with a protracted crisis, the management of which will demand a long-term, comprehensive approach that brings together governments, the private sector, humanitarian agencies and development actors, all while respecting and vindicating refugees' and asylum seekers' rights under international law.

The success of such commitments and compacts depends, obviously, on their implementation, and the extent to which they achieve meaningful improvements in Syrians' lives. The five-year anniversary of the conflict in March, the World Humanitarian Summit in May, the 71st session of the UN General Assembly in September, and President Obama's global refugee summit that same month all provide important opportunities for donors and aid agencies alike to assess progress, and work to overcome any obstacles that arise.

But such funding and international goodwill will still only deal with the consequences of this crisis, not its causes. That will require states with influence over the belligerents putting the Syrian people ahead of geopolitical ambitions, bringing pressure to bear upon those who besiege, bombard and make a mockery of international humanitarian law, and working together to achieve a lasting solution to the conflict.

Hundreds of thousands have died since it began. The last time the Syrian people suffered loss of life on this scale was a century ago, during the First World War. Ministers from those countries stoking the flames inside Syria, and sponsoring with insouciance those who maim and beleaguer, should reflect on that as they exit the conference centre this evening.