The world was surprisingly quick to write off the United Nations in Syria. According to all observers, the UN has been sidelined in having any sort of real effect on the ground. And why shouldn’t those observers believe that?
Kofi Annan’s efforts to bring the two sides to the table ended with his resignation as the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League and a spot on his reputation. Veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has agreed to take up the challenge, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll succeed where Annan couldn’t.
Meanwhile, intense fighting rages on in Aleppo and Damascus as the UN’s Observer Mission expires today, to be replaced by a much smaller UN Department of Political Affairs office headed by Brahimi. Military intervention was never a real option at the UN Security Council. Russia and China’s fear of Western armies marching into Damascus precluded even minimal sanctions against the regime. So the UN has clearly been forced out of Syria and will only be able to sit back and watch as civil war rages.
Except that’s not quite the whole of the situation. The focus placed on the UN’s efforts in Syria has always been the high drama of the Security Council with occasional glances at maneuvering in the General Assembly. That is far from the entirety of the United Nations portfolio on Syria. While other institutions have deadlocked, the various agencies and programs of the United Nations have been working to alleviate the suffering in any way they can without nearly as much coverage. Diplomatic battles between East and West make for compelling news. Not so much the story of those struggling to keep civilians alive in a time of civil war despite funding setbacks and political struggles.
Spread across Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the UN High Commission for Refugees has registered over 100,000 civilians who have fled the violence unleashed by the Syrian government. Many more remain unregistered, living with family or friends. As many as 1.5 million remain behind, internally displaced within Syria’s borders, subject to daily shelling and caught between rebel and government clashes. Hundreds more are streaming across Syria’s borders daily and UNHCR is determined to house and feed them.
Before the protests against the Bashar al-Assad government began in 2011, Syria produced 90% of its drugs and medicines locally. The World Health Organization is working to tirelessly meet the needs that come along with bombardment of cities and rampant fear. The World Food Programme will keep addressing food shortages as they did when they fed over half a million Syrians in July. That number would have been almost double if not for the high levels of violence. All the while lesser known agencies struggle on with no support from the government, like the UN Population Fund as it continues to provide maternal health advice and treatment.
Later, after the shooting is done in Syria, there will be a new opening for political change no matter which side eventually prevails. A bloodied regime will need to finally accept real reforms faced with toppling or a new government will need the help of the world to solidify their now fractious country. There will be the UN in place, ready to accept calls for a new focus for its political mission.
A new peacekeeping mission may be authorized, to keep an actual peace this time. Eventually election monitors may be requested by the international community, should democracy find root in Syria. Those missions will be provided for and run by the Secretariat without any grudges for the months of insults against the capacity of the UN. They’ll fade into the background as they have in so many other post-conflict areas with little attention paid by the media, less by the general public.
For now though, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is seeking $180M from donor governments to help alleviate suffering. So far UNOCHA has only received $71M, about 39% of the total needed, with another $21M pledged by the U.S. Several states have stepped up individually, including Saudi Arabia, but a joint effort is needed to facilitate the widest delivery of aid in this time of need.
The political track in Syria may yet find itself revived. Stranger things have happened in the last year in the Middle East. But until the day that there’s an actual agreement on what to do in Syria, it’s my hope that people not forget the valiant struggle being waged to keep as many people alive as possible and those carrying it out.