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Millions of Syrian lives are on the line unless the G7 acts

Article by IRC President David Miliband for The Times. 

The G7, meeting this weekend in Biarritz, is meant to be a collection of like-minded democratic states committed to international law. Russia was, after all, expelled over its invasion of Ukraine. The crisis in Syria gives the group a chance to show its mettle.

Even by the civil war’s own grim standards, the battle for Idlib is plumbing new depths. Since the upsurge in violence at the end of April, more than 500 civilians have been killed, and over 400,000 have been forced to flee their homes, in an area where more than a million were already displaced. The UN has said that the current escalation shows “a level of destruction consistent with a bombing campaign aimed at a scorched earth policy”.

Yet worse may be to come. Three million civilian lives are on the line, caught between members of armed opposition groups relocated to Idlib under so-called reconciliation agreements and Syrian government and allied (Russian and Iranian) forces. Some 1.7 million rely on humanitarian aid to survive. Earlier this week the strategic city of Khan Shaykhun was captured by the Syrian army, forcing many to flee.

The G7 boasts four seats on the UN Security Council and has been the source, along with the EU which will also be represented this weekend, of much of the humanitarian response within Syria and across the region, as well as being home to many hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. The group has a duty to step up its diplomatic response.

There are three areas where co-ordinated international diplomacy could still yield results: maintenance of humanitarian access, protection of civilians with accountability for violations of international humanitarian law, and restoration of a truly independent and multilateral process of political negotiations, instead of the current domination by Russia and Iran.

First, more than 4.5 million Syrians, many in acute need, are reliant on life-saving cross-border assistance authorised by UN Security Council Resolution 2449, which was renewed again in December. Cross-border access to northwest and northeast Syria is critical to meeting needs in these parts of the country, and as such the international architecture that supports that aid delivery needs to be maintained.

Experience in southwest Syria has demonstrated what happens when this cross-border access is shut down – lack of access to hundreds of thousands in need, fears for the safety of aid agencies’ former clients and staff, and little to no information on what aid is being provided in their absence.

Second, G7 states on the UN Security Council (US, UK, France as permanent members and Germany as a current elected member), need to demand action every single time there is a breach of international humanitarian law. Otherwise we face a numbing and deadly encouragement of impunity.

Syria is the poster-child for an Age of Impunity. A recent report revealed that chemical weapons were used over 330 times against civilians over the eight years of the conflict. There have been 355 attacks on hospitals during the war. Despite a 2016 UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to attacks on hospitals, in Syria the number has risen since then.

The UN secretary general recently announced a board of inquiry into attacks on essential civilian infrastructure in northwest Syria. It is vital that this is now established with credible membership with commitment to making its findings public. The G7 needs to offer sustained support to ensure that the secretary general’s effort delivers accountability not box ticking.

Third, Syria remains a threat to regional stability as well as domestic life and livelihoods. It needs an inclusive political settlement to end the violence and unlock international support for reconstruction. The Russian and Iranian-led Astana process stepped into the void left by a gridlocked UN process. It has served only to temporarily pause the conflict in specific regions to the benefit of the Syrian government’s military objectives.

The UN machinery cannot deliver an effective process without political support. That means the G7 showing they mean business about the fate of Syria and the wider region. While Syria languishes low on diplomatic and political talking points, a third rail too hot to touch, Russia has free rein.

It is beyond tragic that President Trump should believe (per a recent campaign speech) that allies take greater “advantage” of America than its enemies. The G7 is a chance to push back on this line of argument. After all it is European allies who are being asked to hold the ring alongside Turkish and American forces in the northeast of Syria because of the regional significance of the issues there.

If the G7 is to stand for anything, it should be for the core principles of the international order. The need for such principles grows by the day: Syria is proof of what happens when they are abandoned.

This article by the IRC President David Miliband appeared in The Times on 22nd August. Read here.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 29 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue-uk.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.