Sharing the burden

Print edition : February 21, 2014

Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khalid al-Hamad al-Sabah (centre), U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second right), and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (third right) before the opening session of the Syrian Donors Conference in Kuwait City on January 15. Photo: REUTERS

Syrian refugees wait with their belongings after crossing the border on January 18 near the town of Hata in southern Turkey. Photo: OZAN KOSE/AFP

The Geneva II conference may not bring an early end to the fighting in Syria, but at a conference hosted by Kuwait there is serious talk of establishing humanitarian corridors so that aid can be reached to the suffering millions trapped in areas controlled by the rebels.

ONE week before the Geneva II conference on Syria, the government of Kuwait hosted the Second International Humanitarian Pledging Conference on Syria. The conference, unlike the one held in Geneva, saw the international community unite for a worthy cause. Sixty-nine governments, including Iran, and 24 international organisations participated in the conference, which was presided over by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. India was represented by Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed. At the first conference held in January last year, the international community had pledged $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid to Syria. With the crisis in Syria having worsened considerably since then, the international community pledged more than $2.4 billion at this year’s meeting. Kuwait took the lead by chipping in $500 million.

Ban Ki-moon, in his opening speech, sought $6.5 billion to help Syrians affected by the war, which has now entered the third year. “The fighting has set Syria back by years, even decades,” he said. The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, urged the international community to put in more efforts to solve the crisis and called upon all those fighting in Syria to “put the fate of their country and the safety of their people above all other considerations”. Kuwait’s neighbours Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are avowed supporters of the rebels fighting against the Syrian government, have pledged $60 million each in humanitarian aid. The other major donors are Japan, the United Kingdom, Norway and Switzerland. India pledged $2 million. This is in addition to the $2.5 million India had pledged at the 2013 conference. Most of the Indian aid was spent towards providing life-saving drugs for the Syrian people living in refugee camps.

The United States Secretary of State John Kerry, like other leaders who are supporting the Syrian rebels, was critical of the Syrian government’s handling of the humanitarian crisis, accusing it of wilfully creating the situation. Kerry and many of the speakers at the conference glossed over the role played by the extremist groups fighting the Syrian government and the support these groups get from many neighbouring countries. Kerry announced that the U.S. would give $380 million in humanitarian aid to deal with “the refugee challenge”. According to Kerry, this has raised the U.S.’s contribution towards humanitarian aid to the Syrian people to $1.7 billion. He did not mention the huge amount of money spent by the U.S. and its allies in supplying arms and in training the Syrian rebels, which in the first place triggered the humanitarian crisis. Instead, he chose to blame President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using “starvation as a weapon of war” and stopping the flow of international humanitarian aid.

Before the war began, Syria was self-sufficient in food production. School education and health care was free. The rebels had taken particular care to target schools and hospitals. According to U.N. agencies, more than 2.3 million Syrians have taken refuge in neighbouring countries. Initially, when the insurgency began, Syrians were actually being encouraged to seek refuge in countries such as Turkey with relief camps being set up across the border. But once the fighting and the violence against civilians escalated, the trickle turned into a flood. Ban Ki-moon said more than half of Syria’s population, constituting more than nine million people, was in urgent need of aid. He said the conflict had “set back Syria years, even decades” and that it was “vital for this region and our world for this burden to be shared”. A report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has said that the conflict in Syria has rolled back human development achievements by 35 years, leaving more than 50 per cent of the population in poverty.

Only 70 per cent of the $1.5 billion in aid pledged at the 2013 conference actually materialised. Among the defaulters were the rich Gulf nations. Most of the Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon, which shares strong cultural and political ties with Syria. A bulk of the aid money has been earmarked for Lebanon. Najib Mikati, the caretaker Lebanese Prime Minister, told the assembled leaders in Kuwait, that the international community and, particularly, the countries in the region should keep Lebanon out of the conflict. The Syrian conflict has already spread to Lebanon and Iraq, where the jehadi forces are wreaking havoc. The decision of the Hizbollah militia to side with the Syrian government last year in its fight against the Al Qaeda-affiliated forces has led to a spate of suicide bombings in Lebanon. Mikati, in his speech, called for the establishment of “safe camps” for refugees inside Syria. There are an estimated 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians.

According to the U.N., more than 52 per cent of those affected by the war in Syria are children. Children have been exposed first hand to the brutal conflict and have been killed by sniper fire and suicide bombers. Children as young as seven are working in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. The U.N. agencies made a joint appeal in January for a special $1 billion in funding to save Syria’s children from becoming a “lost generation”. The Geneva II conference may not be able to bring an end to the bloodshed soon but there is serious talk of establishing humanitarian corridors so that aid can be reached to the suffering millions trapped in areas controlled by the rebels. The Syrian government has been allowing the flow of food aid to many areas that have been under the sway of various rebel groupings. In many instances, aid convoys carrying food and other essentials have come under fire.

Funding sectarian violence

On the sidelines of the Kuwait conference, private charities in the region pledged an additional $400 million for Syria. In an analytical paper written by Elizabeth Dickinson of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy, which is affiliated to the Brookings Institute in the U.S., private Gulf charities have been blamed for igniting sectarian fires, not only in Syria but also in the Gulf region. Kuwait has emerged as the hub of activities for the rich charitable organisations in the region. According to Elizabeth Dickinson, the donors have taken advantage of Kuwait’s unique freedom of association and relatively weak financial rules to channel money to some of the estimated thousand groups fighting against the Syrian government.

The Saban Centre report states that there is evidence that some Kuwait-based donors have backed rebel groups that have committed atrocities in Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, after a meeting in Moscow with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem, just before the Geneva II conference began, said the U.N. should verify the recipients of international humanitarian aid to Syria. “In the interest of building confidence, it is important that the U.N. should analyse the declared contributions and release materials stating specific recipients of the declared assistance and its specific forms,” Lavrov told the media in Moscow.

According to the Saban Centre report, there is a real fear that the pro-rebel activism of Kuwaiti Sunni and tribal opposition leaders will have an adverse impact on Kuwaiti politics. One-third of the Kuwaiti population is Shia. The U.S. State Department has said that it will “stress the need for Kuwait to have a robust anti-money laundering/counterterrorism financing regime”. The Kuwaiti government, unlike most of its other oil-rich neighbours, has been careful in not taking sides in the Syrian conflict. It has been voicing its concerns about the growing sectarian nature of the conflict.

In the second week of January, the Turkish police raided the office of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) in the city of Kilis near the country’s border with Syria. The IHH is a leading Turkish charity organisation claiming to be engaged in humanitarian aid. On January 1, the Turkish media reported that the security forces had stopped a truck loaded with arms and ammunition on the border. The Turkish government in recent months has started taking a tough stance on Al Qaeda-linked militants who earlier had a free pass to wage jehad in Syria from their territory. According to reports, more than 15,000 foreign militants use Turkey as a base to wage war in Syria.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and its allies are insisting on unfettered flow of “neutral humanitarian assistance” inside Syria. Kerry said in Kuwait that the Barack Obama administration was mulling a “whole set of different options” to force the Syrian government to provide “humanitarian access”. The Syrian government feels that acceding to this demand will be an affront to its sovereignty. At the same time, it has emphasised its commitment to ensuring the flow of humanitarian aid under the auspices of the U.N. and neutral international agencies.

And as the harsh winter continues, Syrians living as refugees and under siege internally want politics to take a back seat and look forward to basic necessities to help them survive possibly yet another year of mindless blood-letting.

Even if the Geneva talks result in a truce between the Syrian government and the “official” opposition supported by the West, the actual groups doing the fighting inside Syria, such as Al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are in no mood for a ceasefire. In fact, the ISIS is concurrently battling the moderate Islamist and Al Qaeda forces backed by the West and its regional proxies.