Protecting Civilians in Syria: Parameters of the Problem and Policy Options

On September 16, 2015 the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East hosted a panel of distinguished experts for a discussion of “Protecting Civilians in Syria: Parameters of the Problem and Policy Options.” Hariri Center Senior Fellow Frederic C. Hof was joined by Dr. Rola Hallam, Medical Director of Hand in Hand for Syria, and Valerie Szybala, Executive Director of The Syria Institute, to discuss the imperative of civilian protection for both humanitarian, military, and political reasons. Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs the Hon. Ed Royce provided keynote remarks.

Chairman Ed Royce emphasized that the Syrian government-perpetrated gas attacks, barrel bombs, and Russian and Iranian aggression against civilians was happening “on our watch” and stressed the need to take action, while politics and bureaucracy were “dragging their feet.” The Chairman also reiterated his support for a no-fly zone to protect civilians and shift the advantage away from the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and the regime.

Dr. Rola Hallam discussed her experiences with Hand in Hand for Syria, an on-the-ground implementing partner inside the country. She highlighted that a key pre-construction planning factor for new hospitals and medical facilities is whether they would be safe from attack, a factor no protected facility should have to consider. She emphasized pressure she and her partner organizations were facing from the civilian population to speak out for protection. Hallam accounted one incident on a recent visit to Syria, where an individual receiving a food basket said, “[the humanitarians] are just fattening up the cows before the slaughter.”

Ms. Valerie Szybala discussed a report she authored with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) which documented the conditions in the besieged areas in Syria, Slow Death: Life and Death in Syrian Communities under Siege. The report documented from on-the-ground sources the 640,200 people living under long-term siege in Syria as of March 2015, and her recent conversations with contacts in these areas have confirmed that conditions since the report have not improved.

Ambassador Frederic Hof discussed the issue of barrel bombs and their deliberate use by President Bashar al-Assad to keep civilians frightened and terrorized, never knowing if and when a barrel bomb might be dropped in their vicinity. Hof quoted Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s August report on violations of UN Resolution 2139 which condemns the use of indiscriminate attacks on civilians – the eighteenth report of its kind that affirms the continued violation of this resolution. Also, Hof quoted Mr. Raed al-Saleh, Head of the Syrian Civil Defense or “White Helmets” who in his June remarks before the UN Security Council said “As a patriotic Syrian, I never imagined I would one day ask for a foreign intervention in my country, by land or air. But the lives of innocent women and children that we see dying in our hands every day compel us to ask for any intervention possible to stop the barbaric killing machine led by Bashar al-Assad.”

Hof concluded by emphasizing that civilian protection is the only path through which anything good can happen in Syria. Putting the humanitarian imperative aside, a political settlement is impossible given the continued attacks on the civilian population and every barrel bomb dropped is a favor to ISIS as it reaffirms the perception that the United States and international community are not on the side of the Syrian people.