I am extremely concerned with the ongoing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Syria and the culture of impunity which has developed. All sides in the conflict must adhere to international humanitarian and human rights law. I strongly condemn the continued heavy shelling, including the use of barrel bombs by the Syrian government forces in residential neighborhoods, as well as the terror acts in Syria by extremist groups who are attempting to impose radical ideologies in some parts of the country.
—United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Report of the Secretary-General on the Implementation of Security Council Resolution 2139 (2014), March 22, 2014
Note whose actions are being condemned by Secretary-General Ban in his first report on the implementation of Resolution 2139, which seeks to bring humanitarian order to the chaos that is Syria: the so-called Syrian government, neck-deep as it is in war crimes and crimes against humanity; and “extremist groups who are attempting to impose radical ideologies in some parts of the country”—read ISIS and a handful of extreme jihadist groups. Then consider the New York Times headline that will be repeated ad nauseam: “UN Report Faults Syria and Rebels for Blocking Aid Supplies.” If everyone—the regime of Bashar al-Assad and all who are rebelling against it—is equally guilty, why would the United States ever consider giving meaningful assistance to anyone in particular?
It is not surprising that the Times‘ headline writers and editorial staff are on the same page. Yet a careful reading of Ban’s report—which whitewashes no one—reveals who is overwhelmingly responsible for the humanitarian abomination destroying Syria and imperiling its neighbors: the Assad regime and Islamist extremists (mainly ISIS). Two terrorist entities—for their own reasons and for reasons they have in common—are responsible for a situation so horrendous as to be indescribable. To imply depredatory equivalence between “Syria and Rebels” is to conflate ISIS, a criminal gang featuring foreign fighters intent on imposing an emirate rather than fighting the regime, with the Syrian opposition.
Anyone who takes the time to read Ban’s report will dismiss the conflation of ISIS and opposition. Yet few will read it: good news for an administration that justifies its arm’s-length approach to Syria in part by claiming opposition errors are reason number one why Assad has not stepped aside; and good news for Russia, which will proclaim the moral equivalence of all concerned as justification for a veto if a draft resolution is tabled specifying penalties for non-compliance with Resolution 2139. The everyone-is-more-or-less-guilty approach to Syria seems to serve the interests of everyone, except for 23 million Syrians and their neighbors.
Ban’s report repeats the highlights of the Oral Update of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry, the subject of a previous MENASource article. It then summarizes developments since February 22, 2014 in four key areas: humanitarian access; administrative hurdles; free passage of medical personnel, equipment, transport, and supplies; and safety and security of personnel engaged in humanitarian relief activities.
Humanitarian access: “Significant challenges to the delivery of assistance remain, including: the need for multiple requests [to the Syrian government] for approval of inter-agency convoys, which often go unanswered; the Government’s lack of internal communication of approvals to those on the ground, resulting in denial of access or delays at checkpoints; and continued insecurity. Increased fighting between armed opposition groups, including between Free Syrian Army (FSA)-aligned and ISIS, has complicated the delivery of assistance including the cutting off of key access routes in some locations in the northern parts of the country.” One can only hope that FSA-aligned units will get the weapons, training, and equipment they need to finish ISIS as quickly as possible. The bulk of this section of Ban’s report documents the failure of the Assad regime to comply with Resolution 2139 in terms of humanitarian access.
Administrative hurdles: This brief section documents the throw-sand-in-the-gears strategy of the Assad regime in terms of Syrian government bureaucratic procedures for relief convoy approvals, approving NGOs, issuing visas to United Nations personnel, and approving the importation of United Nations communications gear.
Free medical passage: “Despite the Security Council’s demand that all parties respect the principle of medical neutrality and facilitate free passage to all areas for medical personnel, equipment, transport and supplies, including surgical items, negotiations for the delivery of medical supplies continues to have to be negotiated with the Government of Syria on a case-by-case basis.” Medical supplies and medicines have been confiscated at government checkpoints and, in some cases, subsequently released.
Safety and security of humanitarian relief personnel: In addition to the operational environment itself being extremely hazardous, unidentified “armed opposition groups” beat and harassed Syrian Arab Red Cross personnel in Aleppo, and mortar rounds landing in Damascus and Homs (sources not specified) injured NGO staff and damaged a United Nations vehicle.
The fundamental message of the Ban report is that the Assad regime has done little of substance to comply with the demands of Resolution 2319, and that the situation in parts of Syria beyond regime control is dangerously chaotic. Ban is careful however to avoid literally speaking the obvious: the Syrian government is in substantial non-compliance with 2139. Instead he urges the Syrian government to “streamline and speed-up convoy procedures, ensure the safe passage of humanitarian convoys at all Government controlled checkpoints, and ensure that security focal points comply with approvals given at the Damascus level; facilitate the passage of medicines, including surgical supplies, and desist from the removal of medical supplies from convoys; and continue to speed up the approval of visas.” The very soul of even-handedness, he urges “opposition forces” to “facilitate safe and unhindered humanitarian access and grant safe passage to convoys; strengthen control and command structures to enable the safe passage of convoys at checkpoints they control; and ensure the safety and security of humanitarian staff.”
Ban also expressed his “firm opposition to the transfer of arms and fighters” from outside Syria to “either side inside the country.” By “either side” surely he meant “any side,” as ISIS and the nationalist opposition are not one and the same. If he is powerless—as he is—to stop Iran and Russia from abetting mass murder in Syria by supplying foreign fighters and arms, he should at least have the good grace to understand why the arming of those willing to fight in two directions and protect vulnerable civilians is politically sound and morally correct. The statistics he offered—well over 100,000 dead, more than 600,000 injured, 9.3 million needing humanitarian help, 6.5 million internally displaced, 2.6 million refugees; most of the 540,000 Palestinians in Syria displaced—suggest that the West’s inclination to invoke a plague of sorts on all houses while the regime, Iran, and Russia aim to win is not producing good results.
Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.