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A Catastrophic Failure in Syria: Why It Is Time to Admit That the International Community Cannot Deal With Conflict

02/03/2016 17:28 GMT | Updated 03/03/2017 10:12 GMT

A United Nations report cataloging the war crimes committed by the Syrian regime and other combatants was issued last week at the same time as the latest announcement of a deal calling for a cessation of hostilities in Syria, which has now tenuously come into effect. These two news items contrast the tragic disconnect between what is being said about the immense suffering of the Syrian people and the reality of how the international community responds to this horror.

While we have the trappings of a functioning international system with the United Nations at its core, the resolution of major conflicts occurs largely outside this system and is driven by differing constellations of nations often with diametrically opposed interests. Central to the resolution of any major conflict is the willingness of the United States to engage. In this chaotic system, the protection of civilians has generally remained on the periphery and the provision of aid open to compromise.

Indeed, despite the rhetoric, the protection of civilians appears far removed from the tenuous agreement on Syria stitched together over the past weeks by the 17 members of the International Syria Support Group. Instead it is a cynical deal struck by the play makers to this conflict which rewards Russia's pro-Syrian government bombing campaign, reinvigorates a decaying and discredited regime and provides a face-saving measure for the United States to walk away from an engagement in Syria that has never moved beyond tepid. If this wasn't enough, lurking in the background, sinister agreements and double dealings are struck by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and others. With this much baggage, it is hard to see this deal being anything but short lived. Even if the expected happens and the conflict roars on, the deal, by explicitly linking humanitarian assistance with the political elements of an agreement, taints and potentially restricts further the aid going into Syria.

With such a calamity in Syria comes some agonising questions for the international community which continues pretending it has an effective system of crisis management and protection of civilians. While various instruments exist on paper and are enshrined in the mandates of international organisations or UN resolutions, they are by and large meaningless if not resoundingly backed by the United States nor actively resisted by another Security Council member. While the UN has always proved to be unwieldy, with Syria it has simply been found to be unworkable. The stalemate experienced in the Security Council has in turn negatively impacted the response of those agencies aiming for protection of human rights, the effective provision of humanitarian aid, protection of refugees and those negotiating a political settlement.

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Syrian Children Fleeing the Crisis Image Roger Hearn

Various UN bodies continue to build an illusion of a working machinery in Syria. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has since the beginning of the conflict provided graphic documentation of almost industrial scale torture largely perpetuated by the regime. Numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions demand humanitarian access to thousands caught up in sieges. The UN Special Envoy continues shuttling to reignite the peace talks. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees outlines the protection that should be afforded to refugees seeking asylum. All requests denied or ignored while the real deals regarding Syria's future are being made elsewhere. The various principles of protection and intervention are so compromised that any notion of a responsibility to protect (the concept endorsed by the United Nations) is meaningless -- unless one is happy with a definition that says occasional responsibility to partially protect.

Even the multi-billion dollar humanitarian response to the crisis has been compromised by the ability of the Syrian regime to control the lion's share of the response by bullying the various UN agencies all trying to maintain their foothold in Damascus. Agencies working from Damascus have been forced to work through the regime or its proxy the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the distribution of food aid and other essential services which have been overwhelmingly directed at regimes supported areas. Aid has always been a negotiating chip used largely by the regime in this conflict and with the latest deal, the politicised role of aid takes centre stage throwing any hint of independence and impartiality out the window.

As the Director of the UN Agency working with Palestinian refugees in Damascus at the start of Syria's crisis followed by three years leading Save the Children's regional Syria response, I have seen firsthand the results of global political failure and the compromised humanitarian response. It is time to say enough.

Urgent reform of our international crisis management system, with the UN Security Council at its core, is required. The current way of working, which relies on deal-making by self interested nations can never effectively and consistently deal with crises nor provide protection to affected civilians. Now, more than ever, starting with the UN Security Council, we need a system of global crisis management and protection that is globally representative, sufficiently resourced, and principled. This will require breaking the dominance of the permanent five members of the Security Council. Sadly doing nothing is the more likely option. With inaction comes the continued hardship and displacement of the like experienced in Syria. Given the smouldering crises looming across the Middle East and elsewhere, the potential for mass refugee movement and global terror threats, inaction is a very dangerous proposition.