Erosion of fundamental principles to protect civilians

The coronavirus pandemic is not the only news we should be paying attention to at the moment. This spring marks a truly grim milestone: the war in Syria enters its 10th year.

This content was published on March 26, 2020 - 18:30

How did the world allow this conflict to last so long? Were mistakes made, opportunities missed, or was there simply a lack of will? And did international Geneva, especially its humanitarian community, step up to the plate?

It’s sometimes hard to remind ourselves that when those first demonstrations happened in Syria, in March 2011, they were greeted around the world as a sign of hope

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My career now includes almost a decade of covering the UN’s efforts in Syria, from the attempts to deliver aid, to the Commission of InquiryExternal link (COI) set up by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.

I remember when the COI’s first report came out. I struggled to find words to report the horrors I had read, and finally, live on air, said we were witnessing Syria’s “descent into barbarism”.

Initial optimism

There have been so many reports since then, and I am all out of words. It’s sometimes hard to remind ourselves that when those first demonstrations happened in Syria, in March 2011, they were greeted around the world as a sign of hope.

“These were modernists, democrats, youth, who wanted to change the Arab world,” remembers Jan Egeland, who served for several years as chair of the UN’s humanitarian task force for Syria.

“When it started, I must confess I was optimistic. I saw this as part of the long line of transitions from dictatorships, from authoritarian regimes, to more democratic, more human rights oriented societies.”

But as Egeland watched, the demonstrations were violently repressed, the opposition became fragmented, and when he visited Syria in 2013 “it was clear that this was becoming a very polarized, very bitter, civil war.”

Abrupt and violent

In any conflict, the International Committee of the Red CrossExternal link is often the first aid agency to arrive, and the last to leave. When Syria’s conflict began, Fabrizio Carboni, now the ICRC’s director of operations for the Middle East, was beginning a new posting in Lebanon. He too admits to feeling optimistic for Syria at the beginning, and certainly had no inkling the conflict would last so long.

“In the first months, no. But when I was in Lebanon, one night, we had 60,000 people who crossed into Lebanon from Syria. Just in their pyjamas. It was massive, abrupt, and violent. And I thought ‘OK, here, we are in something different’.”

Listen to Imogen's interviews with Egeland and Carboni in our Inside Geneva podcastExternal link:

No limit

How different, even the most experienced aid workers probably didn’t realise at the time. The struggle for Syria became, Egeland points out “a proxy war, where Saudi Arabia and Iran met, where Sunni and Shia met…foreigners were willing to fight each other to the last Syrian.”

The consequent devastation, as Syrian forces and their backers fought Syrian opposition and their backers for every city in the country shocked Carboni.

“I visited the souk of Aleppo,” he remembers. “This is the common history of humanity, with thousands of years of history. It was totally destroyed. I was there with my Syrian colleagues from Aleppo, and they were all crying.”

“We reached the centre, the old spice market. And there was nothing left: just burnt stones, collapsed buildings. But there was still the smell of spices.”

“It was something that characterized the war in Syria. There was no limit. To reach your objective you are ready to destroy your own history, who you are.”

Medieval sieges

While Carboni and his colleagues struggled on the ground to bring relief to Syria’s besieged civilians, Egeland, as chair of the UN’s humanitarian task force, was in Geneva, trying to persuade the warring parties to show some mercy.

In 2016, news came that people, including children, were starving to death in the besieged town of Madaya.

“We were able to have some progress…because children had starved to death. Within 72 hours, convoys were rolling…but it wasn’t enough.

“Besiegement is the middle ages. It means an army is starving out the opposition inside an urban area, and they seem to not care that they also starve women and children. That is a war crime.”

Egeland, unsurprisingly, is hoping that there will be an international tribunal for Syria and that those who committed these violations will be brought to justice: “I don’t like anyone getting away with murder.”

But, as a neutral, impartial humanitarian, he does not see himself as a witness in any war crimes trials. “Humanitarians have to try not to be part of a process that can be easily politicised. But I am glad that there are many documenting the war crimes, and I hope for accountability.”

War weary

As the war ground on, the international community appeared to grow weary. “Too many started to treat it as if it was some kind of continuous natural disaster,” remembers Egeland. “This was manmade from A to Z.”

Then, as ISIS fighters fleeing the fall of Mosul in Iraq joined up with rebel groups in Syria, the international community focused on Syria again. Not necessarily to end the war, but to defeat Islamist extremism. While the Syrian army backed by Russia pounded Aleppo, the US wing of the coalition pounded Raqqa.

When the last ISIS-held territory finally fell, thousands of women and children, many the wives and children of foreign fighters, were detained in Al Hol camp. Conditions, aid agencies repeatedly warned, were dire: lack of shelter, food, water, and extreme cold meant many, including young children, were dying.

Carboni was one of the first aid workers to get into Al Hol. “There was a mother, very weak, she was dying, and around here were six or seven children, watching her. And as a father, to see those children seeing their mother dying in front of them, it is something I will carry with me all my life.”

The ICRC and other aid agencies were dismayed by the indifference of countries whose citizens, including children, were being held in Al Hol. True, their parents may have been allied with ISIS, but for states who had long promoted human rights to abandon children, possibly to die, in a squalid overcrowded camp was a shock.

“It’s devastating,” says Carboni. “Let’s remember humanitarian values are the bare minimum: you can’t kill people out of combat, the wounded should be protected, and there is a special emphasis on children, on women. Nothing spectacular.”

+Learn about protections guaranteed under the Geneva Conventions

“For states who not only promoted those values for decades but lectured other states about those values, when they are affected by violence, to then say ‘yes, we did say children under 18 years old are victims…but in this case actually no.’ That is devastating for the credibility of the rules of war and the values we defend.”

Missed opportunities 

So the war in Syria, if it is finally approaching its end, has caused not just a devastating loss of life, but an erosion of those fundamental principles designed to protect civilians in war, the consequences of which may be felt for decades to come.

Egeland remains frustrated that the international community, despite repeated attempts to agree a peace deal, or at least a ceasefire, failed.

“Could it have ended earlier? Yes,” he says. “There was one seminal moment, the Kofi Annan plan in 2014. At that point, Russia, the United States, Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States should have said ‘we need to pull through this plan’. That was the lost opportunity and I will blame forever the leaders at that time.”

So how does Egeland rate the performance of the UN’s humanitarian arm, with its headquarters in Geneva?

“it was unsuccessful in the sense of being able to protect civilians from horrors. That is a horrific failure for all of us.”

“But in terms of how many people got their daily bread, their health services, this humanitarian work was able to save millions. So let’s remember there were tens of thousands of humanitarian workers, mostly Syrians working for Syrians, but coordinated by humanitarians in Geneva. And I think we should be proud of that.” 

You can follow Imogen Foulkes on twitter at @imogenfoulkes, and send her questions and suggestions for UN topics.

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