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March 2, 2012

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March 2, 2012

What outsiders can (and can’t) do about Syria

March 2, 2012
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Update: Please support Oxfam’s Syria action

This guest post, by Phil Bloomer, Oxfam GB’s director of campaigns and policy, is a bit unusual for this blog. No new research or (supposedly) clever ideas. Instead, he reflects on what outsiders can (and can’t) do about the terrible situation in Syria

“This morning, as on every recent morning, the news is dominated by civilians being killed in Syria. 100 a day may be dying, the UN said last Tuesday; the 13 killed in saving a Sunday Times photographer were just a fraction of that number – a shocking reminder of how many human rights activists have already died. Yesterday, one told Oxfam: ‘The situation is hell. In areas under attack, people do not have enough food.’ It is the bravery of people like that which challenges the rest of us to do something. But what?

The long-delayed UN resolution was welcome but far from enough. Like everyone else, I feel horror and frustration at the world’s inability to stop the killing. Oxfam was founded to support the poor and vulnerable in such crises, yet we can do nothing in Syria without access to those people under fire. In Turkey and Jordan, my colleagues urgently prepare for the escalating crisis they expect – for what Oxfam may do as the humanitarian fallout worsens, and more refugees flee. Where will Oxfam’s water and sanitation and other humanitarian  expertise be needed? What must we do now to make that happen? My Middle East colleagues work up scenarios, plan and negotiate our response with neighbouring governments and civil society.

But right now Oxfam is not working in Syria. So what do I do, as Campaigns and Policy Director of an NGO that passionately believes the answer to humanitarian crises is more than just aid (however vital)? The answer involves also challenging those with the power to resolve such crises and address their causes, principally the Government of Syria and its supporters (or at least defenders) in the UN and elsewhere. Whether it is in Homs, Helmand or Mogadishu, the killing has to stop, and Syria must start on the long road to sustainable peace. That is what our humanitarian campaigning tries to do, as well as upholding the rights of those affected by conflict and disasters. But what do we do when thousands are being killed in Syria, where Oxfam, unusually, has never worked, and so does not have the years of experience that underpin our advocacy in other crises? Do we denounce the killings and gang rapes the UN  reports?

Do we ask every neighbouring land to open its borders to Syrians fleeing violence? Do we use the channels in the region and around the world that we have nurtured in other crises to help get the humanitarian message across? Of course, but without grassroots knowledge, our voice is just another external voice and may not have much impact. And so I can only justify few precious resources – when our better-grounded campaigning on the Horn, West Africa and the DRC is so vital as well.

Until Oxfam starts to work on the ground in neighbouring countries such as Turkey – which looks ever more likely – we praise the ICRC for its work on the ground and extraordinary public calls for a ceasefire to help bombarded civilians reach aid. Such a cessation is the barest priority, the very first step towards removing every obstacle civilians in Homs are facing.

Right now, we don’t have sufficient information from the ground in Syria to develop detailed policy suggestions, weighing up pros, cons and uncertainties of different possible courses of action. We should be honest about that. But civilians struggling in crises value something else from international NGOs. They welcome a solidarity that reinforces their sense that they ‘are not alone’. That’s been my experience in every other crisis where Oxfam works all over the world. And in that sense, I doubt Homs is different. And it’s true even more now when social networking and the web allows people, even in the direst conflicts, to hear the world’s support louder than ever before.

Nothing is more important than stopping the killing on all sides. Unlike many crises we face, with a tangled mix of political and ‘natural’ causes, Syria is a political crisis caused by a government refusing its people’s right to be heard. Easy to solve? Of course not. But its direct political cause does mean it’s amenable to international political pressure – if the world had the will to exert it.

So far, that pressure has been fatally undermined. Last Thursday’s Security Council resolution was welcome but limited. Will it improve humanitarian access? We earnestly hope so. Will it stop the killing? That is very unlikely.

But there is a level of international outrage that can persuade the Syrian government’s international defenders that they must act to stop the killing now. While we plan what we might do on the ground, NGOs like Oxfam must be part of that global tide of outrage, joining the call for an end to the killings, the arms supplies that fuel them, and immediate access for humanitarian aid.”

1 comment

  1. Interesting post, but I’m a little surprised because Oxfam has beena leader among humanitarian NGOs in policy and campaigning on conflict prevention, and stopping weapons getting into the hands of human rights abusers. This is the campaign for a global Arms Trade Treaty Control Arms), which reaches a critical point this year:

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