All posts tagged Syria

Global Problems, Local Solutions: The Case of fighting the Islamic State

Posted by / 3rd April 2015 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

The current military campaign led by the United States (U.S.) against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria is not having the expected outcomes: the organisation is neither beaten nor destroyed nor eliminated. Measures taken by the governments involved are practical short-term answers to the pressing threat posed by IS. They are not part of a planned long-term strategy, although they will have consequences in the region for years to come. Only if the western coalition shifts its focus on local realities and develops a comprehensive strategy can it attain its objectives in the region.

History is repeating itself. Lessons from past interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan are not learned.  Western governments keep on addressing terrorist groups without a comprehensive approach which includes a real understanding of the complexity of the situation on the ground. Rather than approach the issue strategically, the West has once again gone for the “war against terror” narrative. Both in Iraq and in Syria, it has introduced a subjective hierarchy of the different actors at stake and provided political backing and military support to whoever happened to be in the right place at the right time. It is conducting unsuccessful “high value targeting” in both countries, further militarising a fragmented landscape of Kurdish factions and at the same endorsing the rise of pro-Iranian-backed Shia militias working closely with the Iraqi Security Forces. The western coalition’s measures are also intensifying the Syrian conflict by striking terrorist targets and rehabilitating the Assad regime without a long-term vision.

Typically, agendas are set at the highest level and interventions are planned without taking into account local realities. Too little effort has been made to comprehend why IS has grown so rapidly, how come it took major Iraqi cities while facing so little resistance and why it is proving to be so difficult to dislodge. Understanding the complex roots of the terrorist group and engaging with local actors to support them in creating the conditions that will diminish IS does not seem to be a top priority for policy-makers. Various reports and strategies- most recently the Confronting the Islamic State from The National Security Network- have been developed on how to improve the approach of the U.S. towards the Islamic State. But the Obama Administration seems to want to continue with its “Counter terrorism Plus” approach based on plans to degrade and defeat IS. This end is sought by employing U.S.-trained and supported local forces in Iraq and Syria, augmented by U.S. airstrikes and Special Operations Forces. Once again, it is evidence that relations, image management and short-term answers increasingly dominate the decision-making process. Shocking events prompt an urgent need to make public statements, which later inspire and restrict concrete measures that need to fit into the “war against terror” narrative rather than into a clear strategy. Just like air strikes, decisions seem to come from above and lack connections to local realities and challenges.

The issue is highly complex with different actors having interests at stake and there are no easy solutions. As a result to the geopolitical and security challenge the Islamic State poses, regional powers have readjusted their policies and relations with each other. Damascus and Baghdad are not the only ones that need to deal with IS; other regional key players – Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia chief among them – have recalculated their positions as well. There is no quick fix to the problem of IS in Iraq nor in Syria, particularly given the real changes on the ground over the past few years and the involvement of the different regional powers. Western governments can at least clarify their intentions and see through what they can accomplish. But more importantly, they can provide support to local actors who are willing to make the political, structural and social changes necessary to turn on the organisation. Local players often have the power to find their own solutions to conflict and to build their own future, hence supporting them does not imply the meddling of Western states into internal affairs. It is easy to forget that only decade ago meddling caused the chaos the country faces today.

In Iraq, local actors are working to build the political and social conditions which will enable them to durably fight IS. There is a need to identify trustworthy Sunni leaders who are capable of uniting their people against IS. Local people might be indeed more inclined to join IS if they see inactivity from local leaders. This policy implies that Baghdad will need to accept some local leaders who served in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein. Other potential Sunni allies will include clerics and political activists who are conservative but do not support IS’ ideology. In order to succeed, the proposal to enrol Sunnis must incorporate assurances from Baghdad that the human rights abuses of the Maliki era will not rehash under the current Abadi government. Furthermore, the government needs to reassert state authority, for example with respect to re-establishing local police in areas it regains from the Islamic State. This mitigates the risk that the territories fall this time within the Shia militias control. Ultimately, the success of rebuilding trust among communities and restoring the state’s stability will lay on whether the Iraqi Sunni leaders in Anbar and nearby provinces perceive Baghdad as ready to act independently from Tehran. Iraqi Sunni leaders may tolerate IS if it is considered as the lesser evil compared to a government that is seen as a manikin of Tehran and if the Iraqi Security Forces is viewed as directly connected to Iranian-backed Shia militias. The only thing the coalition can do is supporting the different local actors which participate in putting into practice those essential measures.

In Syria, with the lack of a united Syrian opposition to fight IS on the one hand, and a real strategy by the U.S. led coalition to eliminate the organisation on the other, people living under IS control cannot rebel against the organisation because they do not have the means to do so neither a real alternative to go for. This is to the advantage of IS which has created a fake sense of justice and stability. The more time passes, the more the organisation is filling the vacuum left in the areas it controls, and the more difficult it becomes to dislodge it. Only small groups of local people actually support IS. Most of them, however, are opposed to the coalition air raids. People do not have a choice at the moment, they are stuck between the regime, IS, and airstrikes by the coalition: a clear plan to provide people with a socio-political alternative is necessary.

Only if a comprehensive strategy includes a socio-political approach inclusive of local realities and attentive to the human dimension of the conflict, can the U.S. led coalition claim to participate in fighting IS in Iraq and Syria. The insanity of repeating failed history cannot be permitted to continue any longer. This implies abandoning the current airstrikes over IS territories and focus on providing support to local actors who are working towards a way to win over the population with a future they can believe in; a future that inspires them to resist IS.



Syria, the West, and the incompatibility of military operations with humanitarian action

Posted by / 4th December 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , , / -


A recent report of the UN Secretary-General states that in Syria as many as 4.7 million people are residing in places that are difficult or impossible for humanitarian actors to reach. Of this group, 241,000 are from besieged areas. Reaching local populations in need has been problematic since the beginning of the conflict, but over the past two months it has become even more difficult to deliver aid where the Islamic State (IS) controls the territory – among the provinces of Raqqa, Hasakeh, Aleppo, Deir Ez-Zor.

The involvement of Western states in the war against IS, while being the most important aid providers in Syria, has further complicated the situation and is narrowing the window of humanitarian aid in northern Syria. This brings back the complicated question of the politicisation of humanitarian assistance. The higher the politicisation gets, the more likely it is to have deeply harmful consequences for the populations most in need. The Syrian actual context is another example of the impossibility for humanitarian aid to remain neutral when international actors are simultaneously pursuing a military and a humanitarian agenda. A choice between playing a military or a humanitarian role is essential in order to deliver proper aid to local populations in need.

When IS started consolidating territory in Syria, it allowed aid groups to work in areas under its control with few restrictions. The relationship between aid agencies and IS worsened in September 2014 with the beginning of the air strikes conducted by the United States (U.S.) led-coalition over Syria. Since then, the US and its allies as well as IS encounter problems distinguishing their fight on the one hand and their necessary humanitarian collaboration on the other hand. This complex double role played by Western actors undermines neutrality of humanitarian assistance and as a result has made it even harder for aid agencies to work towards getting aid to the populations in need. Those issues pose a dilemma for aid agencies that have to decide whether to keep providing aid.

In October, the U.S. was believed to carry on delivering aid into Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zor. But by late November, it had been forced to cut back. “We have not avoided an area because IS has taken control of it”, a State Department official said. “But in some areas where IS commanders are in control, they’ve interfered with the way we’ve delivered aid, so we stopped.” Some would argue that the solution to this problem is to keep humanitarian aid clearly separated from military action. This, however, is not a realistic possibility in situations where the same actors play both roles simultaneously. The case of Syria provides further evidence of this insurmountable conflict of interests.

With this double role played by the U.S., IS fighters do not consider American – or western – humanitarian aid as neutral. The organisation is showing ever more reluctance to work with agencies representing the governments involved because they are seen as being part of the American military agenda. It results in flawed humanitarian assistance with high risk for aid workers as well as of aid being misappropriated. Not only the aid about to be delivered is in danger, products and facilities that are already installed suffer from the same problem. A similar situation has been already faced in Somalia with the Al-Shabab group as well as in Afghanistan with the Taliban. In both cases the same actors have been conducting humanitarian and military actions at the same time.

By pursuing both a military and a humanitarian agenda, the U.S. cannot credibly remain neutral as an aid provider. Even if warring factions are genuinely interested in humanitarian concerns, they tend to find that mutual distrust and antagonism makes it impossible to negotiate terms. Moreover, the U.S. has no other priority than to “defeat” IS, and any attempt at humanitarian cooperation is half-hearted at most. Since the summer, IS is indeed perceived as “the enemy” to defeat and it appears then ethically unacceptable for the U.S. and its allies to negotiate with the organisation.

In such a context, local populations cannot see the U.S. as a humanitarian actor either -as long as the state is also engaged in military activities-, leading to mistrust and misunderstanding about who is what. In the US, the population’s perception of the role of the U.S. is very much a military actor to the conflict before it is a humanitarian actor. This explains why even if aid agencies want to engage real humanitarian negotiations with IS, they do not want the population to know about it. In northern Syria, since the air strikes, local populations also principally consider the U.S. as a military actor. It indeed appears to local people that the U.S. priority has shifted from humanitarian assistance to military action.

Most importantly, not only aid coming from the United States Agency for International Development and other governmental agencies is at risk, the whole humanitarian assistance to those in needs is endangered by the double role-play. The politicisation of the humanitarian aid goes indeed beyond the actors directly involved. When governmental actors are simultaneously pursuing a military and a humanitarian agenda, humanitarian actors which are not engaged in the fight and intrinsically neutral suffer from similar consequences: they have difficulties reaching people in need. In the Syrian case, the same behaviour is adopted by IS towards all aid providers which means that aid is hardly delivered to people living in the areas controlled by IS. This is the most dangerous consequence of the politicisation of aid because it endangers people’s lives whose most basic needs cannot be met.

Lessons from Somalia but also from Afghanistan must be taken into consideration. In order to avoid reaching such situations, international actors like the U.S. cannot carry out a military and humanitarian action on the same soil if they want any of their activities to be effective.


The Islamic State and the West: the dangers of having a “non – strategy”

Posted by / 22nd September 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , / -

On Friday 19 September, France launched its first air strikes on the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. The latest advances of IS have led many Western governments to change policy with respect to the Middle-East. Some governments have delivered weapons to the Peshmergas, others announced their willingness to back Syrian rebels, while aerial strikes continue in Iraq and might start in Syria as well.  This lack of direction, or “non – strategy”, of the international community in the Middle East is likely to have deeply harmful regional as well as international consequences in the long-run.

Since 2013, the Islamic State is fighting for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. Formed in April 2013, IS has become one of the main jihadist groups fighting government forces in Syria and Iraq. Following IS successes, the United Nations Security Council has adopted a resolution in August strongly condemning its acts. This resolution was aimed at weakening the organisation by blacklisting six people, including the group’s spokesman, and threatening sanctions against its financiers and weapons suppliers. And the tools of the United Nations are not the only weapons countries are using in their battle against IS.

Although the United States (U.S.) has been launching air strikes against IS in Iraq since the beginning of August, the beheading of the American journalist James Fooley in August appears to have reinforced the will of the international community to defeat the organisation. Since then, many countries are considering all possible means to overthrow the jihadist group. According to the states involved in the fight, the legitimacy of fighting IS lays in the atrocity of the crimes committed by the organisation, on the one hand, and in the threat it could pose to the whole region and to Western countries, on the other. Unfortunately, this reaction is without considering the long-term consequences it might have in the region. Once again, the international community seems to be only “reacting” rather than thinking about actions included in a real strategy.

Many governments (U.S., Germany, France, Canada, Australia) have provided – or will provide – Peshmergas weapons to fight IS. Delivering Kurdish fighters weapons to combat the organisation can have positive short consequences, i.e. containing IS and yet, it will also most likely destabilise the region in the longer term by empowering Peshmergas, which aims to establish a Kurdish sovereign state. These issues are not sufficiently raised, however essential they are. To reflect on the possible impact that the delivery of weapons to Kurdish fighters could have in longer term is an obvious necessity for any responsible policy.

Arming the Peshmergas is not the only concern the “fight against IS” raises. On Thursday 18 August, U.S. Congress gave final approval to President Barack Obama’s plan for training and arming moderate Syrian rebels to battle the joint enemy, as part of the U.S military plan to “degrade and destroy IS”. The White House – in collaboration with Saudi Arabia – believes that backing the Syrian rebels will be effective in doing so. But Washington and Ryiadh should not forget that rebel groups, by definition, do not answer to authority: they cannot be used as a “low (human) cost – army”. Indeed, if Syrian rebels and the U.S. have a common interest in defeating IS, Syrian rebels will continue to pursue their own goals while working with them. Yet, such a back up could lead to destabilising the region even further: with more than fifty rebel groups operating in Syria and in Iraq, the backing of some and not the others might reinforce the lack of unity, and disorganisation and animosity between them.

While some governments are backing the Peshmergas and the Syrian rebels, the U.S. and France are conducting air strikes in Iraq within the framework of the so-called “broad” international coalition. So far only those two countries are military involved, and is led by Washington. Here again, there is no global strategy, no real view of long-term consequences in the region as well as in the involved countries. Just a common goal shared by some countries: “destroying IS”. Each player is moving his pawns according to its own strategy. For those involved, the thinking seems to be that air strikes do not require a plan, and no global or regional strategy. In reality, however, air strikes do mean the country is involved in a specific armed conflict much in the same way it is engaged with ground forces: with many of the same risks and consequences, including revenge and retaliation.

Last but not least in this disorganised reaction come the future potential air strikes on IS in Syria. In august, the US began surveillance flights over rebel-controlled parts of Syria after presidential authorisation and on 11 September; Barack Obama announced for the first time that air strikes would be extended into Syria. The Syrian government declared it was ready to work with the West to fight IS but will not allow air strikes on its territory without its consent. Supporting Syria, Russia warned the U.S. that any such unilateral action in Syria would be “an act of aggression”. And so the U.S. is facing a dilemma: it clearly wants to “destroy IS”, but it does not want to collaborate with Assad because it has been condemning the regime since the very beginning of the conflict. The Pentagon said it has everything it needs to strike targets in Syria but is still waiting on Obama’s signoff. Obama deciding to launch air strikes in Syria without collaborating with Assad will be in breach of international law. More importantly, it might lead the U.S. to a broader conflict by fighting both enemies: IS on the one hand, and Assad’s regime and its allies on the other.

Even if the short-term consequences can be foreseen, the international community needs to be aware of the longer-term outcomes that its fight against IS might have in the Middle East as well as in the countries involved in the fight: empowering Peshmergas, strengthening disorganisation with the Syrian opposition, facing retaliation and revenge and broadening the conflict.  A viable strategy in defeating IS cannot exclude acting within a long-term strategy. IS will surely be weakened by the international community reaction in the short-term, but the region and the countries involved are likely to suffer from this “non – strategy”.



Peacebuilding and Transitional Justice in Syria: Assessing the Role of INGOs

Posted by / 28th May 2014 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

The Syrian situation

The major human rights violations in Syria have created a wave of concern within the community of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), and particularly among those INGOs that work on issues relating to human rights, transitional justice and reconciliation. This article aims at underlining the importance for INGOs to take into account the “lessons learned” from past (post) conflict situations. Indeed, over the last two years, many INGOs have developed programmes on peace building and transitional justice in Syria, but today many questions arise regarding the effectiveness and efficiency thereof. Do the INGOs take into account the particular needs of the Syrian civil society? Is there any coordination between the stakeholders present on the field? Are they willing to support initiatives that already exist on the ground? And, last but not least, do they develop mechanisms to empower the civil society in Syria?

While some INGOS establish programmes within a well-developed strategy, others just follow the “trend” to develop programmes on peace building and transitional justice without a clear objective and/or strategy. Three years after the beginning of the conflict, it is time to look at the way INGO’s are involved in the Syrian situation regarding peace building and transitional justice.

Peacebuilding, transitional justice and INGO’s

Past and recent experiences have demonstrated the challenges of post-conflict transitions. Peace building and transitional justice were firmly developed in the 1990’s, following conflicts such as the ones in ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda or South Africa. Today, both peacebuilding and transitional justice are considered essential tools in post-conflicts situations.

Peacebuilding is a holistic concept that encompasses programmes designed to consolidate sustainable peace, prevent disputes from escalating, and avoid a relapse into violent conflict. Transitional justice refers to the set of judicial and non-judicial measures that are implemented by different countries in order to redress the legacies of massive human rights abuses.

INGOs are often, if not always, involved in these processes of peacebuilding and conflict resolution. It is important to underline the core principles regarding peacebuilding and transitional justice that INGOs must take into account when operating in situations such as the one in Syria. INGO’s have often been criticised for the way they handle crisis situations, and those working in Syria and beyond should learn from criticisms the sector faced in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and South Sudan.

Empowerment, coordination and long term strategy

INGOs have a role to play in conflicts situations: their expertise in reconciliation, peace building and transitional justice can be meaningful to civil society. However, they cannot work in isolation. Instead, they need to work together and be interdependent with local actors. If INGOs can, and must, take initiatives the development of joint programmes based on grass root initiatives needs to be the preferred approach since it has already shown successes in various countries such as Libya and Tunisia.

If possible, peacebuilding and transitional justice priorities must be determined locally. On the one hand, local actors usually have a better knowledge of the situation and, on the other, it is more likely that peacebuilding and transitional justice initiatives will succeed if citizens and groups are involved in defining the problems and articulating the solutions. This local based approach leads to empowering the civil society. If local initiatives are the basis of programmes developed by INGO’s, it become more natural for internal actors to be the drivers, or owners, of their own national peacebuilding frameworks and transitional justice mechanisms. Developing the capacity of, and giving ownership to, the local government and civil society should thus be the main methodology of all INGO programmes.

Furthermore, the need for enhanced coordination between external actors (such as donor governments, United Nations Country Teams, INGOs) on the one hand- and internal actors (such as governments, local administrations and civil society) on the other, is essential. Without enhanced and deepened levels of coordination, peacebuilding and transitional activities will overlap, duplicate, and potentially have limited impact on the conflict systems they try to stop.

Over the last few years, in order to strengthen the effectiveness of peace building, the international community has understood that there was a need for guidelines and particularly regarding coordination of all stakeholders. In 2005, the Peacebuilding commission was established by resolution 60/180 of the United Nations Security Council, and resolution 1645 of the United Nations General Assembly. The Peacebuilding Commission is an inter-governmental advisory body that helps countries in peace building, recovery, reconstruction and development. It has defined a “peacebuilding architecture”, composed of roadmaps on action that should be taken in order to improve the effectiveness of peacebuilding. The Commission insisted on the necessity of a local based approach.

Finally, in order to have a real impact on the situation, it is necessary not only to involve local actors and to have a good coordination between all actors but also to develop long term programmes of actions with them. Indeed, it is essential to share knowledge and expertise between local and international actors but this must be done within a framework which allows long-term benefits for local civil society.

In Syria, it seems that while some INGOs understand the necessity of working with local actors, others have forgotten the overall goal of developing programmes on peace building and transitional justice. INGOs working there should keep in mind that their aim is to strengthen Syrian civil society capacities and outcomes, and not their own.

This article is part of the Polis Project, a ReSeT programme focused on connecting local needs to global resources.


Syria: Geopolitics vs. Civilian Casualties

Posted by / 6th June 2012 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , / -

On June 16th, UN observers in Syria suspended their monitoring activities and were withdrawn to their headquarters. According to the head of the UN Stabilisation Mission, the Norwegian General Robert Mood, the reason to ground the monitors was that their safety could not longer be guaranteed amidst the current escalation of violence. While this does not mean that the UN observers are already bound to leave the country, it is a worrying sign since it mirrors the behaviour of the Arab League monitors who entered Syria at the beginning of the year only to flee the country shortly after, and without having accomplished any of their objectives. However, the most important issue is that the recent development of the crisis is confirming what many feared: UN peace envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan is nearly dead. Although nobody was really optimistic about this plan’s possibilities when it was presented in March and accepted by all parties in conflict, now we have jumped to the full realization that something has gone truly wrong. It is necessary now to look back and try to find the flaws in the handling of the crisis to set the right course.

The main question to be asked is about the clarity of objectives when it comes to the Syrian crisis. In an ideal world in which the primordial end was the security of those civilians suffering the conflict, the main goal would be to stop the violence and the killing of civilians. Yet for most parties involved, either externally or internally, this is secondary at best. The problem is commitment: every party has its own objectives which overshadow the attainment of peace, that is, the immediate end of the slaughter. There is indeed a conflicting agenda over Syria, and this is central to analyse the questionable behaviour of the United States and its allies. This has had a deep and negative impact on the implementation of Annan’s diplomatic efforts. At the core there is an issue that is as old as mediation itself: impartiality. The West has disregarded this principle and further jeopardized peace.

At the beginning of April, days before the six-point plan supposedly came into force, the international platform Friends of Syria agreed to fund the rebels by supporting the Syrian National Council (SNC), the sector of the opposition which favours the use of violence against the regime of Bashar al Assad.Others, like the National Coordination Body, prefer a non-violent solution. Later, the media reported that the US was helping several Gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia to coordinate arm supplies to Syrian rebels, with Russia doing its part to support Damascus. Clearly, these states are playing a dual and dangerous game: on the one hand, they say they support a peaceful solution to the crisis; on the other, they pour weapons into Syria days before the deadline to implant an UN-sponsored ceasefire. Consequently, as time passed it was clear that neither Damascus nor the opposition were willing to stop their operations. Most importantly, it started to be difficult to conceal the fact that the opposition, empowered by those arm shipments, had more interests in maximizing its military goals than in sticking to the peace plan. This further escalated the violence. But even then, it was relatively rare to hear Western policy makers asking the armed opposition to stop their military manoeuvres and halt the abuses they were committing.

It is not the first time supporting militarily rebels backfires this way: an interesting parallel happened when the West publicly sided with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). At that time, when it was clear that the KLA was ignoring the truce that preceded NATO’s air campaign even more than the Serbian army, yet the West also turned a blind eye. Up to date, in Syria we have got the exact opposite to an unbiased mediation. Just take, for example, the words of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon when he says that Assad “has lost all legitimacy”, undermining the diplomatic position of Kofi Annan, who in fact has recently called for a unity government to end the crisis.

The reason that explains this contradictory policy is that Syria is the scenario of proxy wars. Unfortunately for the people living there, Syria rests on the fault lines of the Middle East; it is a tremendously important geopolitical actor. Annan puts it very graphically: “Syria is not Libya; it will not implode, it will explode beyond its borders”. He is correct. Assad is a fundamental piece in geopolitical chess. Certainly, great and regional powers have high stakes in the outcome of the crisis.

At a regional level, it is easy to understand the stakes for countries like Turkey and Israel. Netanyahu’s government has remained silent and will continue like that since Assad, despite its brutality internally, is still preferable to an unpredictable power vacuum in Syria. Ankara, for its part, is now being more vocal against Assad and is suspected to aid the rebels, but this is not something Erdogan had wished. The economic and political ties between the two countries are profound –they both share the problem with the Kurds’ pro-independence aspirations-, and for Turkey its relation with Syria is crucial to present itself as an important Middle East peace maker. In fact, before the Arab spring broke out, Erdogan acknowledged that the Assads “became part of [his] family circle”.

From a global perspective, Russia’s power struggle in the area has been thoroughly discussed already. Russia is driven not only by strategic and arms trade concerns, but also by the somewhat paranoid fear that backing any form of intervention in the country would threaten the Kremlin’s power elite. However, the main factor that has affected Annan’s peace plan is the rivalry between Iran, on one side, and the United States and its allies, on the other. For the West, it all boils down to the question of either pursuing peace or, instead, trying to weaken Assad –and, by extension, Tehran- by using the SNC and its fighters, the Free Syrian Army. The dilemma is choosing between saving lives or forcing regime change, and the outcome might be completely different if the latter gets priority over the former. Now that Syria is on the very verge of complete civil war, we have seen how siding with the rebels and focusing on bringing down Assad has only meant a higher death toll. It has encouraged both an emboldened opposition and Assad himself to fully embrace violence and rule out any other kind of engagement. If this is to be avoided, then a fundamental transformation in the way the issue is being tackled is needed. As a first step, this implies abandoning hypocrisy.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Avaaz in Syria: Humanitarianism under Fire

Posted by / 15th March 2012 / Categories: Opinion / Tags: , , / -

Neutrality is one of the humanitarian principles most likely to trigger interesting debates among humanitarian agencies, yet most of them prefer not to make much noise about the topic.

Neutrality means not to take side and position in any regard in any kind of conflict. It is very closely related to independence, i.e. not to act in support of political goals or actions of any party in the conflict. With impartiality, this means not to discriminate any person for belonging to any kind of group at the time of evaluating the human needs that have to be attended to first.

Almost all of the big humanitarian NGOs do not define themselves as neutral in their codes of conduct; they keep a rights based approach on the side of the oppressed. This position of defending those whose rights have been violated, and the carrying out of advocacy activities to stop such violations, is not compatible with a neutral attitude towards a conflict.

However, most of humanitarian agencies employ a public discourse calling for the respect of humanitarian principles. When these are enumerated, neutrality is included, along with independence, impartiality and humanity, even if they do not really adhere to the former. Some of the organizations are clear in articles,and explicitly state that they are not neutral.Others claim to be neutral while later making a mess of concepts like impartiality and finally ending with a poetic defence of the rights of the oppressed.

But in spite of what is written, all humanitarian agencies advocate operative neutrality in the field, claiming access solely to deliver aid to those in need. Of course, this claim in only truly valid for a few organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent (ICRC). In reality, most of the humanitarian agencies do not only provide assistance but also carry advocacy activities, such as social mobilization, denouncing issues in the media and lobbying to a lesser or larger extent.

The debate about neutrality is not new. Indeed, it triggered the founding of Doctors Without Borders (better known with the French acronym MSF) when a group of ICRC workers disagreed with the silence kept by this organization during the Biafra war (1967-1970). Yet Avaaz, with its current humanitarian assistance in Syria, has gone a little further in the debate humanitarianism vs neutrality. Perhaps it is defining the new pattern for the humanitarian aid and even for the international cooperation in general.

While carrying out advocacy work, humanitarian organizations are very careful in their public discourse in order to not hamper actual assistance. They balance what assistance and advocacy mean to the target population, and they decide where to put more weight depending on the circumstances.

On the other hand, Avaaz- an organization flagging the social mobilization through the cybernetic networks, and therefore using one of the most powerful advocacy tools available nowadays- not only denounces the abandon of the Syrian population, not only request to those actors with decision power to act, but also claims to be providing humanitarian aid through their networks in the area. If some years ago the term humanitarian action was born to include both the humanitarian aid and advocacy, perhaps Avaaz may own the “humanitarian activism” label.

It is not the first time Avaaz includes humanitarian assistance in their advocacy activities; they also did it in the case of getting and channelling funds to Buddhist monks in Myanmar when the authorities of that country forbade entry to humanitarian agencies after the Nargis hurricane in 2008. By then, however, Avaaz was not as popular as it is now, and Myanmar was not witnessing the kind conflict taking place currently in Syria.

Obviously it is not the first time activism networks, local or international, assist civilian populations that support one actor or who are trapped on one side of the conflict. But Avaaz is an international organization without any preliminary interest in the conflict; and it makes public all of its aid delivery in its global network. This network has millions of followers, and it labels this kind of help as humanitarian while requesting donations from the public to continue “smuggling” the aid into the conflict situation, with strong statements such as this one:

“Let’s be clear — as embassies close, medical agencies withdraw and journalists pull out, Avaaz has the only network that is both smuggling medical equipment and journalists in and images and information out. The UN has failed, but we can help peaceful democracy heroes like Danny loosen the dictator’s grip on their country. Watch Danny’s urgent appeal and chip in now so we can continue our Arab spring campaigning and support for citizen journalists — if enough of us donate now, we can get aid to the most besieged cities and towns before the next attack.”

Neutrality should be a principle ensuring the entry of humanitarian agencies in any conflict, but we can see that in practice this is not the case. This is the case even to the ICRC who signs up to that principle unambiguously. Perhaps this is the result of the vague neutrality played by many agencies. Or perhaps it is only that no one wants to welcome witnesses to the crimes.

Be that it may, neutrality, like the Responsibility to Protect as well, are not proving to be very useful. Maybe the only way right now to many organizations is clear non-neutrality and to adapt its operational methodology accordingly, supporting to the civil society groups considered right –by them- in each case. Perhaps, on the other hand, those being truly neutral, with all the consequences of the term, may take for granted universal access. Even if there are conflicts where it seems that not even the purest neutrality will take anything for granted.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail