Monday, 28 April 2014

Could the UN better protect civilians by entering Syria without the regimes permission?

In Brief: Humanitarian access without regime permission and safe areas in a small part or parts of the country would make a serious improvement to the life chances of thousands of Syrian civilians.

Nowhere in Syria is safe and the risk of death looms large for all of Syria’s civilians. The UN and humanitarian agencies still do not have unfettered access to the most vulnerable civilians and even where they do have limited access, government bureaucracy creates delays and security is precarious for them and for the civilians they seek to assist.

Continuing to insist on unfettered cross-border and cross-line access for the UN and humanitarian agencies is still vital, but for how long will UN humanitarian agencies wait on a regime that is committing crimes against humanity to give it full access when it is clear the regime is deliberately and arbitrarily denying that access?

In the UN Secretary Generals second report on implementation of UN Security Council resolution 2139, he states: “The UN is ready to take any steps possible to facilitate the impartial delivery of urgently needed humanitarian relief to those most deprived in line with international humanitarian law and the humanitarian imperative to care for the wounded and sick.

Calls are also increasing for the UN to send its humanitarian agencies across the borders to deliver aid where it is safe enough to do so. This is undoubtedly the right call and there are many in the UN itself who would agree with this call.

To really be effective though, humanitarian workers would need secure, durable and lasting access at key border crossings such as Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam where there were no excessively bureaucratic hurdles to negotiate and no risk of arbitrary denial by the regime. These two crossings on the border with Turkey are currently controlled by opposition armed groups.

Source - UN OCHA

Ban Ki-Moon says in his most recent report: “The time for extended access negotiations and waiting for permits and clearances should be over. People are dying needlessly every day.” So taking account of this, the need for sustainable access to civilians in need and the UNSGs statement that the UN is “ready to take any steps possible”, could the idea of safe zones inside Syria, which are purely to protect Syria’s vulnerable civilians, be a viable proposition?

A key component of viability would be whether such a proposition would be acceptable to the parties to the conflict. It seems strange to think protecting vulnerable civilians from starvation, disease and bombardment could be unacceptable to some, but that is the stark reality of this brutal conflict right now. Some would suggest it is ludicrous to still think the current regime would ever permit unfettered access purely on the basis of the humanitarian imperative to protect civilians when that same regime is punishing, humiliating and terrorising those civilians on a daily basis. I agree – we are long past the time when the states claim to sovereignty is more important than protecting civilians in need.   

The idea of safe zones in Syria, maybe in the immediate catchment areas of those two key crossing points I mentioned, is not new but is worth revisiting given the growing humanitarian crisis and failure at the Geneva talks. The UN Secretary General’s 60 day report states clearly that the parties to the conflict are still failing to adequately protect civilians inside Syria and the humanitarian situation is not getting better - it is degenerating daily. Paragraph 17 of the unanimously-passed resolution from 22 February 2014 states that the UN Secretary General should: to the Council on the implementation of this resolution by all parties in …30 days of its adoption and every 30 days thereafter, and upon receipt of the Secretary-General’s report, expresses its intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance with this resolution

It is clear the resolution is not being complied with. Now is a moment of truth for the UN Security Council, concerned countries and the UN Secretary General to define, propose and implement those much needed ‘further steps’ to protect civilians. The idea of safe zones is understandably controversial for some, memories of Srebrenica are still present and a number of tough questions, especially around security for aid workers and ongoing UN operations inside Syria, would need to be addressed by such a proposition. For instance:

Can the parties to the conflict agree to an area or areas in Syria being given up so UN protected safe zones can be established? If they can’t within the next month or so, should the UN enter regardless, where it is relatively safe to enter? For me the answer is a clear yes.   

It would need to be made clear that such safe areas would need to be only for civilians in Syria. Whether access to aid and protection could or should be prioritised is a wider logistical matter but vulnerable categories of civilians could include:
  • Women and girls with no effective support or protection
  • People who have suffered severe trauma, including sexual and gender-based violence; or who have protection risks related to their gender
  • Elderly people without effective support and protection
  • People with medical needs or disabilities
  • Children and adolescents at risk
  • LGBTI individuals and their partners
  • People fearing persecution because of their religious beliefs  

Access to assistance would need to be without discrimination, i.e. regardless of actual or perceived political or religious affiliations. To limit the admittance to only civilians would mean screening areas to ensure those getting in were not armed.

Can all the parties agree to allow a protection force to secure safe access for humanitarians and operate within safe areas? If they can’t within the next month or so, should humanitarians proceed with the required security anyway? Again I would say yes.

Composition of a protection force would need to balance sensitivity to the local context but also those who have the expertise, resources, capability and resolve.

To protect those civilians and humanitarian workers from threats, such a force would need a robust mandate or rules of engagement and be well equipped. It would need a strong command and control system with a clear accountability chain, fully compliant with applicable international law.

Can all the parties agree this would not be belligerent occupation?

Parties to the conflict would surely need to be reassured that safe zones and a force employed or created to protect those inside it are not a hostile army seeking to occupy or annexe territory. So agreement from the parties to the conflict, especially the Syrian authorities is, in theory, important - but as stated above, not the priority. What would need to be made absolutely clear is that such zones would simply be an area where Syria’s civilians can access vital humanitarian assistance, and enjoy a higher level of security from a conflict which does not look like it will end anytime soon.

The imperative here is to de-link the idea of using safe areas to protect civilians from the current and debilitating obsessions with geopolitics and militarism, and locate international priorities and resources in the service of the most vulnerable people in Syria. Safe areas in a small part or parts of the country will not end the armed conflict across the rest of the country and will not be able to help everybody in need but if implemented properly would make a serious improvement to the life chances and the enjoyment of rights for thousands of civilians in Syria.

Would enforcing a safe zone entail military action against Syrian forces?

Not necessarily. If there is agreement on the need for safe areas to protect Syria’s civilians, then what need is there for military strikes against the Syrian military or its associated militias? As stated, this would need to be a demilitarised zone, apart from an international presence to provide protection. It should not be a place in which any Syrian armed opposition groups can seek shelter i.e it should maintain a humanitarian and impartial character. However, as intimated earlier, agreement from the Syrian authorities is unlikely and entering into a process to secure agreement should be strictly time bound to a matter of weeks as opposed to months. Given that the regime are adamant their sovereignty takes priority over civilian protection, such a process of consent would really only serve to prove to those unsure of such a proposition that all measures, such as via the UNSC, have indeed been credibly exhausted. Exceptional circumstances call for exceptional measures – those measures should not make matters worse for civilians though as many previous proposals to intervene into Syria could well have done.

There are many other questions such as where would it be located and which border crossing(s) should it have control over? I've suggested above some of the immediate catchment areas encompassing and between Bab al Hawa and Bab al Salam. How large would it need to be? How would civilians not already in the proposed catchment area(s) get there safely? How much would it cost and how would it be financed, secured and operationalized, and by whom? Could a new Security Council resolution be agreed upon to even establish such safe areas and after UNSCR 2139, is a new resolution even needed or the process of securing a new one even wise? Over three years into this crisis and there are still so many hurdles in front of simply protecting civilians inside Syria. But these questions need to be asked – saying UN humanitarian agencies should enter Syria without permission is far easier said than done.

Actions outside the UN Security Council

There are multiple scenarios if a proposal for safe zones via the UN Security Council route fails or is not sought. Whilst a UNSC authorization may be preferable for many in key governments and within the UN, securing international consensus would likely prove too much for Russia and possibly China as they, as a matter of misguided principle, prioritise their own understanding of state sovereignty over a clear responsibility to protect civilians. In such a situation, eyes are on the UN, humanitarian NGOs and countries willing and able to protect civilians to step in and proceed with access and the establishment of safe areas regardless of the lack of UNSC authorization or regime permission. The UK government issued its own legal analysis on the responsibility to protect in January 2014. It was clear that:

The position of the [UK] Government is that intervention may be permitted under international law in exceptional circumstances where the UN Security Council is unwilling or unable to act in order to avert a humanitarian catastrophe

Well there is clearly a humanitarian catastrophe within Syria and humanitarians entering Syria without government permission and establishing safe areas to alleviate some of the excesses of this conflict is actually quite a modest suggestion. That it isn't even being publicly discussed yet at the UNSC speaks volumes about the level of priority many in the Council and parties to the conflict actually give towards civilian protection in Syria.

I hope the debate in the next few weeks,  as we take in the UNSGs 60 day and 90 day reports on UNSCR 2139, will be dominated by those saying it is ethical and legal for the UN and other humanitarians to enter Syria without Syrian government permission. Security for aid workers will be necessary and needs to be taken seriously as does possible risks to ongoing UN operations but shouldn't be a reason to shy away from bold, innovative and carefully assessed solutions to protect Syria's long suffering civilians.

Kristyan Benedict - on Twitter as @KreaseChan 

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Arming the armed opposition in Syria – 10 questions

This was a tweet from the UK Government  a couple of days ago.  I've posted previously on the “arming the opposition” issue and discussed the matter with UK Government officials however many questions remain.

Here are 10 questions for the UK government (and other governments) to consider ahead of any possible decisions to relax the EU arms embargo on Syria. They essentially ask what adequate safeguards would the UK Government put in place to ensure any arms transferred would not be used to commit human rights abuses. 

1.        How would the UK Government assess a potential arms transfer to Syria against 1) its own criteria and 2) the EU code of conduct?

2.        How would the UK Government assess and determine which armed opposition groups would receive any transfer of conventional arms and can they name these armed groups?

3.        How would the UK Government assess the knowledge it has at the time of any possible authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of international crimes including war crimes, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances or torture?

4.        How would the UK Government monitor and verify the use of the conventional arms transferred?

5.        What measures would be put in place to prevent the theft, diversion or movement of an arms transfer from the designated end-user to an unauthorised end-user (such as a different armed opposition group)?

6.        What type of undertaking would the UK Government stipulate of the designated end-user that the conventional arms will not be subsequently re-transferred to another user (for example a different armed group in another part of the country)?

7.        What measures would the UK Government put in place to ensure a strict system of registration, storage and accountability for the use of the arms transferred?

8.        What post-shipment verification mechanism(s) would the UK Government put in place and exactly how would the UK Government envisage these working?

9.        How would the UK Government ensure adequate training is provided to the designated end-users to ensure the conventional arms are used in accordance with international law?

10. What is the likelihood of an arms race occurring from increased arms supplies to the armed opposition?

I'm sure there are many more questions including ones relating to future stabilisation plans, DDR for instance. There will also be many rebuttal questions such as "how are people meant to defend themselves against a regime that is being armed anyway?" For now I've tried to keep these questions focused in relation to current UK government media and political messaging on the issue.


Here I am on BBC making several of these points:

Amnesty International Statement: EU Declaration on Arms Transfers to Syria 31 May 2013 (PDF) 

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Opposition should speak up for UN organised elections in Syria

In Brief: Those that think they could secure the votes of the Syrian people should be calling for UN organised elections.

The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures. Article 21 (3) Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

You would have to be living in some kind of bubble with your emotions turned off to totally dismiss the plea for international armed intervention in Syria.

The horrendous misery and suffering the Assad regime has coldly and systematically inflicted on men, women and children is sickening. That the regime does this with total impunity so it can maintain its corrupt and lavish lifestyle only adds to those screaming for such intervention.

I’m however not going to make the case for such military action here; many have already lobbied for different forms of armed intervention, often in a very short sighted, ill thought through and hawkish manner which would likely do more harm than good to civilians and the stability of Syria and the region. The fact that the risks and costs of armed intervention are supremely high really does need to be more widely understood and acknowledged.

Instead, I want to take a longer and more ambitious view in light of renewed talk of a political process initiated by the US and Russia.

Political solutions

The Geneva communique or maybe a soon to be updated version of it still remains the preferred option by many countries in the international community to resolve the crisis in Syria. There are many problems with this initiative too numerous to detail here. This is true of many such proposals though depending on how hard and uncompromising your position is.

A key problem for those pressing for a genuine political solution and against a military solution (outside the UN system) is that the senior leadership of the Syrian government (the regime) do not appear to want a ceasefire to enable a credible and inclusive dialogue. They also don’t appear to want credible elections which would be one of the desired outcomes of an inclusive dialogue. And Assad himself has rejected immunity deals in the past.

However have all attempts to find innovative solutions to address these points and to resolve the conflict been explored yet? Have all attempts to reach out to Syrian people who support the government or the Ba’ath party or are neither with the government or the mainstream opposition been attempted yet? Not by a long way. Risk analysis paralysis, budget constraints, lack of imagination, hardening positions and fatigue are major factors in this lack of effective and innovative action.

However if not now, maybe in ten years when tens of thousands of lives have been lost, a political resolution will still be needed which includes a milestone of credible elections inside Syria. I don’t believe Assad or any of his backers think he himself could take a party to victory in a UN organised election – however ceasefires, a credible election and a long term and well resourced UN stabilisation mission seems to be one of the smarter proposals to turn Syria away from the abyss of a failed state with increasingly bloody sectarian killings and provocations and towards a process leading to a cycle of elections which sees the country develop into a parliamentary democracy.

I should also say I don’t believe any one political group within the opposition could win an election outright so some level of coalition government would seem inevitable.

How do we get there when so many are dead against even having a process of negotiation though? I suggest we start with firstly getting a commitment from all parties that they do actually support UN organised elections as opposed to firstly seeking their commitment to dialogue or a ceasefire. These latter two factors, dialogue and ceasefire, have been stumbling blocks and the crucial point, that of a Syria where attaining power peacefully through credible elections is the new norm, has been lost from the mainstream political and media narrative which is locked into a downward spiral of war, brutality and helplessness.

Credible Elections

The often repeated mantra of “let the Syrian people decide” in my mind means credible elections not the imposition of a new, unelected “government”. It is quite clear that elections organised by the Syrian state alone would not be seen as credible. Instead it seems Syrian elections for a new parliamentary system should be planned, organised, administered and monitored by the UN’s Electoral Assistance Division (EAD) at the UNs Department of Political Affairs.

I’m not hugely convinced a transitional government with elements of the current government and elements of various opposition groups is a realistic proposition given the level of distrust between the “sides”. It seems to be yet another formulation, like “the opposition should unite” which seems destined to fail. Why can’t the competing parties agree to differ and instead go about organising their party machinery and get ready for campaigning? Let the people decide.

Anyway, as for UN organised elections there are also some technicalities here. Syria as a member state of the UN would need to request the UNs EAD.  The UN itself says “Requests from political parties, civil society or other entities are not considered.”  That of course does not mean civil society, “other entities” and Syrian opposition groups can not be making a loud noise about the need for elections. If they are confident they can secure a large proportion of the vote what is stopping them? Likewise, the Ba’ath party, if confident of its support should not be shy of such elections. Russia and Iran should also be making these calls making it clear to the regime that a large proportion of the Syrian people do not trust the government to organise and administer national elections in Syria.

I would also suggest it should not be beyond the UNs Department of Political Affairs to draft a request for electoral assistance for the Syrian authorities. In fact I think this would be a sensible course of action to speed up this process.

UN electoral assistance could also happen at the request of the UN Security Council or the General Assembly but this would still need the Syrian authority’s agreement. I’ve spoken to Syrian supporters of the Ba’ath party who all claim their party has the support to win an election in surely they should also be speaking loudly in favour of such a process.

Local Ceasefires

Obviously conducting a national election during an armed conflict would not be viable. I’d also suggest a nation wide ceasefire across Syria at the beginning of a political process is also not viable. Better that ceasefires are approached at a local level where the cessation of armed conflict is coupled with an injection of humanitarian assistance but also political assistance via a UN peacekeeping and stabilization mission. This would help with local government and the provision of services, rule of law, disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating armed group members and also reforming the security sector. This means a national stability plan implemented locally and gradually. The incentive for the local population to engage such an initiative would be the return of stability, safety and a functioning local government. That this could happen while there is still brutal armed conflict in other parts of the country doesn't mean it should not be attempted and incentives offered by the international community.

UN Forces

Now certainly a UN presence would be needed on the ground beyond political, humanitarian and technical assistance. Peacekeepers would surely be needed to ensure local and more than likely fragile ceasefires held. Their mandate should probably be under review every month to ensure it is fit for purpose. Again this would be part of a national stability plan but implemented locally and gradually.

All these stages would require a UN Security Council resolution.

What next?

Let’s say elections get planned for the second quarter of 2014 – this gives Syrians and the international community a year to replicate the local ceasefire model across the country in time for national parliamentary elections. During that time the architecture for such a process would be being funded and built.

I’ll not get into which parties would be running in an election and what could be in their manifestos but it would seem wrong to exclude any current parties (the Ba’ath party for instance). I also suspect many new parties would form out of the various Syrian opposition groupings given the huge ideological differences.

The UN presence would certainly still be needed in the country long after the first election through to the next set of elections until the architecture of a new system of government, financial sector and civil society was self sufficient. Gradually the stabilisation presence could be withdrawn in the same way it was implemented – locally and gradually based on clear assessments and criteria. We could be talking a 20 year process here taking in 4 or 5 election cycles all organised by the UN with gradually increasing input from new Syrian governance structures.


Syria is blighted by spoilers – there are too many to mention whether pro or anti regime, whether in the international community, in think tanks, in the media, in neighbouring countries. There are also multiple questions remaining regarding what happens to those who have committed or commissioned grave violations of international law. It seems inconceivable that Assad and senior “security” officials and ministers could be involved in such a political process – who other than Russia, Iran and other senior figures in the Syrian government could safely propose this to Assad et al though? I can’t answer this here but I do believe Iran should be involved (maybe indirectly) in the dialogue in order to bring about a road map towards elections in Syria.

Problems with this

A lot of the initiatives I have mentioned above may not happen. This is a galactic understatement given the inter-dependencies of each point in the process, not to mention the spoilers and cynics seeking to spread the conflict or at the very least, not do anything to resolve it. I've also not even touched on some of the jihadi armed groups who could be supreme spoilers and whether their representatives should be involved in talks. I think maybe they could be in an indirect way similar to Iran. Maybe it is better to try and engage these groups now before it is too late? However, they and others using force now may not wish to be engaged and may not be open to reasonable and rational dialogue, local ceasefires or elections – I’m very aware of this problem.

An alternative

Given all the pitfalls and spoilers in the way of getting to credible elections, a UN peace enforcement mission may be needed. This would also need the authorization of the UN Security Council. I mention this largely because the spoilers are sadly, so influential in the Syrian context. But with the increasing threat of significant regional spill over member states and the UN SC may feel stability needs to be imposed and enforced by a UN force on areas where local ceasefires were not being agreed to by a set time or have been broken. Again, this would be part of a national plan activated if necessary at a local level. The mid term milestone would still be UN organised elections. That is the prize.


All of these suggestions are ambitious but that is exactly what we should be demanding from Syrians and the International community - a level of ambition which meets the highest ideals we as humans set out for ourselves in the UN Declaration of Human  “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”

Giving too much respect or airtime to sectarian, geopolitical and religious narratives is destroying Syria and contributing to the deaths of Syrian civilians. A wider, more inclusive view of what it means to be “Syrian” is truly needed. Those groups that think they can lead the country out of this madness should be seeking to make their case at the ballot box. They will not please everybody including within their own constituencies but name me a political party that can do that.

Ultimately, if we do not have an ambitious vision for getting out of this hell then Syria and large parts of the region will burn to ashes because that is the logical conclusion of the current state of affairs. We must not let that happen.

Friday, 22 March 2013

On the occupied Syrian Golan - a suggestion for Syria's opposition

In Brief: the opposition should refine their foreign policy positions away from counter productive populism and towards a constructive, principled, effective and human rights based approach.

Over recent weeks, some Syrian opposition activists, fighters and politicians have suggested the reason arms are not flowing from the UK and the US to the “Free Syrian Army” is because the "West wants to protect Israel".

That a possible "threat" to Israelis enters into the strategic calculations of the US, UK and others shouldn't come as a surprise and is not unreasonable. It is of course easy to understand why some anti regime Syrians  get annoyed with the invocation of a hypothetical threat when crimes against humanity are happening right now to the Syrian people (and the US is still  not calling for an International Criminal Court referral, to name just one practical measure it could take). But instead of reacting with anger, maybe there are smarter responses, especially regarding positions relating to Israel and in particular the occupied Syrian Golan.

Now I say this with an understanding that there are far more important and immediate issues the opposition are currently dealing with than what their future foreign policy will be. However, perceptions and misconceptions about how different elements of the opposition view the Israel issue should not be underestimated and are likely to be a matter of increased debate and scrutiny in the near future.

The assertion that none too enthusiastic material support for the opposition is about “protecting Israel” is not the whole story of course. There are several other genuine reasons the "FSA" have not been directly armed by the US and UK and it is also absolutely right that governments fully consider all the associated risks of arming. I said as much back in June 2012 and those risks are still there.

So yes a responsible arms exporter (an oxymoron maybe?) would not want to see any weapons it supplied to armed opposition groups being used to commit human rights abuses or transferred to or taken by undesirable groups. Yes it is abundantly clear that Assad’s forces have carried out the vast majority of the unlawful killings and other human rights violations, but it's a bit much to expect governments to turn a blind eye to the numerous credible reports and footage of some armed opposition groups torturing and executing captives.

All these concerns and risks create an uneasy background mood in the minds of many people including government officials. It is within the power of the mainstream opposition to develop foreign policy positions, which will help create some reassurances. 

Regarding Israel, in particular the occupied Syrian Golan, how could this be done in a principled way which didn't devalue the credibility of the opposition? Well let's look at text in previous transition plan proposals and statements from opposition conferences such as this one from the Cairo conference on July 2-3 2012:

Syrian people are free and sovereign in their country and land, which are two inseparable political units and it is not allowed to give up any inch of it, including the occupied Golan. The Syrian people have the right to struggle for the restoration of their occupied territories by all possible means.

Such ambiguous wording is hardly going to endear you to those you want material support from in the US and UK. Popular sloganeering such as "After Assad we march on Jerusalem" even less so. I do understand how credibility with "the street" is a driving concern for many opposition politicians but resorting to blunt populism is the worst form of short termism.

A humble suggestion would be to frame a position consistent with the human rights demands and conditions the UK and US rightly set, in some cases, for the opposition. This will be interesting in itself given the near non existent human rights approach the US takes to the wider Israel / Palestine issue. But if the US, UK et al are rightly demanding human rights respect of Syrian opposition groups how will they then react when those groups adapt their positions towards the Golan Heights and Israel firmly and clearly within the framework of international human rights and humanitarian law?

So what could that look like? Here is a very top line suggestion minus all the associated legalese:

The Golan Heights were occupied by Israel in 1967 though it is internationally recognized as Syrian territory. The establishment and retention of civilian settlements in occupied territory violates international law. 
Our intention following transition is to make an unambiguous call on Israel to initiate a programme of withdrawal from the occupied Syrian Golan. We call on all those countries, institutions and individuals advocating a new Syria based on respect for human rights and international law to act in a consistent way with all Syria’s neighbours and support this initiative. The issue of the Golan should be addressed and resolved in accordance with international law and respect for the individual rights of all affected.

How the US, UK and others deal with the opposition invoking such a foreign policy position with regards Israel remains to be seen. Right now, the UK and the US are imposing certain human rights standards on their conditional assistance with the opposition, the opposition should also be insisting on consistency from them. There is actually a very good opportunity to bring the matter of long standing Israeli government impunity and western (and wider) complicity into the mix. It is better the opposition seize the initiative.  Demands for human rights respect should not be one way and the opposition need to be careful not to be on the back foot, seemingly responding to demands as opposed to setting the agenda.

As already stated, this is not the primary issue right now but that does not mean the opposition should not, I humbly suggest, be refining their foreign policy positions away from counter productive populism and towards a constructive, principled, effective and rights based approach.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

New Blog - Posting Soon

OK I figured it's about time I got my own personal blog. I'll mainly be posting on the situation in Syria.These posts will be my own reflections, testing ideas and seeking feedback. The views will sometimes cross over with the positions of the organization I work for but not always - hence the need to test ideas and seek feedback. See it as an exercise in "active participation".

That's all for now - I'll be posting soon.