While Syria Burns

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

I had mixed emotions about the latest "good news" on humanitarian aid in Syria. The U.N. Security Council has passed a long overdue resolution that — if implemented — will save the lives of Syrians trapped in desperate circumstances by the war. That is a big if, given that the previous resolution aimed at providing life-saving aid was deftly undermined by Bashar al-Assad's government. The resolution represents the very least the Security Council can do after years of complacency and inaction and more than 150,000 deaths.

Nearly a quarter million civilians do not have regular access to food, water, and medicine due to government siege tactics, while another 40,000 have been cut off by opposition forces. This is a blatant violation of the laws of war, which explicitly prohibit attacks on civilians, including through the destruction or obstruction of objects necessary for survival. But with regard to Syria, even well-established norms seem not to apply. Physicians for Human Rights has documented the targeted killing of doctors and nurses and the bombing of hospitals in Syria, which are not only war crimes, but — taken together — also constitute crimes against humanity. A recent report indicates that just 20 doctors remain in the besieged city of Aleppo, where there once were more than 6,000. While government forces are primarily responsible for these crimes, Syrian suffering has been compounded by the failure at the international level of the very entities that are supposed to protect them.

Let's start with the UN Security Council, which is tasked with maintaining international peace and security. While Syria burned, the council remained deadlocked as Russia and China backed Syria by exercising their veto power against any resolution challenging the government's unlawful behavior. And unlawful behavior abounds — targeted attacks on civilians; torture and enforced disappearances; the use of indiscriminate weapons in crowded areas; the use of siege warfare against civilians; and the destruction of the health care system.

The Syrian government claims that sovereignty shields it from accountability for its actions, an argument that has no merit. The council stood by as government police detained, tortured, and disappeared people it perceived to oppose the government; as security forces and pro-Assad militias killed civilians; as the government ruthlessly and systematically destroyed the health care infrastructure and targeted medical professionals; and as people slowly starved in besieged cities.

Only after the Syrian government used chemical weapons was there any positive action by the council. First, a resolution aimed at preventing additional chemical weapon attacks was adopted in September, though the Syrian government skirted the resolution by using chlorine gas against civilians. Then, a resolution — which should not have even been necessary — aimed at ensuring that civilians receive lifesaving aid was passed in February. But even this resolution was implemented with deference to the Assad government. The UN and related agencies agreed that emergency aid would be funneled through Damascus, giving the Syrian government effective control over its distribution. Not surprisingly, the aid that did flow into Syria did not end up assisting those most in need. The UN estimates that more than 10 million Syrians, half of whom are living in rebel-controlled areas, are in need of emergency assistance.

Countless deaths later and in the face of unimaginable suffering, the UN Security Council finally passed a resolution this week ensuring that lifesaving assistance will not be subject to control by Damascus, but will be transferred in the most effective way possible, including through checkpoints controlled by opposition forces.

More than three years after peaceful protests were met with deadly force by security forces and the situation devolved into a civil war, the suffering of Syrians across the political spectrum has been prolonged because politics trumped peace and security, impunity prevailed over justice, and a system of international governance and its leadership failed.

I hope this latest resolution means food will finally reach people dying of starvation in Syria. But it is difficult to celebrate a resolution that should never have been necessary and has arrived too late for too many.

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