A Decade of War in Syria: What Have Humanitarian Agencies Learned? A virtual lecture by Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, at the Geneva Graduate Institute (16 March 2021)

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Well, Mahmoud, thank you very much indeed. Hello, everybody. Thank you for joining us. And I’m looking forward to the discussion.

No crisis has absorbed more money and effort from humanitarian agencies than the tragedy of Syria. So, the question I am addressing today is what has the humanitarian system learned from the experience, and how is it reshaping the work of humanitarian agencies?

I’m going to spend a few minutes just reminding everybody of what’s happened over the last 10 years, because there has been a series of phases, and I think it is helpful to remind ourselves exactly how things have played out. But I’m going to spend most of the time trying to distill some implications, lessons, takeaways, if you like.

Now as you’ll recall, everything started with protests as part of the wider Arab Spring in Deraa. What happened in Syria was that the protests were greeted by the Government with beating and bullets, and that in turn led the opposition to take up arms. And that’s how unrest turned into civil war.

And it’s important to note that the international community’s stake in Syria from the outset stacked up differently than in other countries affected by the Arab Spring. In particular, the Russian Federation had long held a naval facility in Tartus. The Assad family had sustained an intimate long-term alliance with Iran. So, both Russia and Iran had important stakes in the survival of the Syrian Government. And meanwhile, other key powers including the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and other Gulf States clearly hoped that the Arab Spring might topple Assad and open the space for a Government more aligned with their interests. So, from the very outset the conflict was internationalized.

The UN appointed a diplomatic envoy in February 2012. That was Kofi Annan, who you all remember. But his efforts were undermined really from the outset by the growing acrimony among the five permanent members of the Security Council arising from the NATO intervention in Libya.

The intervention in Libya fuelled fears, I think, in Moscow and Beijing that any invocation by the Security Council of Chapter VII measures — which is the part of the UN Charter which allows for enforcement action — in Syria, even in the form of non-military measures like sanctions, would be the start of a slippery slope towards regime change. And so, the Security Council was not able to agree on any of those measures. In fact, there were multiple vetoes, 15 or 16 vetoes by Russia in the Security Council. In many cases they were joined by China. Three quarters of the vetoes exercised in the Council over the past 10 years have been on Syria, in fact.

So, Kofi wasn’t able to get any real buy-in beyond rhetorical support for his diplomatic initiative, and he ended up stepping down in July 2012 out of frustration.

One thing that meant was an increasing onus on humanitarian organizations to deal with the consequences.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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