Turkmen children carry food distributed by aid agencies at the al-Ra'ee camp, where they fled after Russian and Syrian bombing of their communities. Aleppo, Syria, January 21, 2015.(Mustafa Sultan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Getting Back to Humanitarian Basics in Syria: Q&A with Elizabeth Ferris

Turkmen children carry food distributed by aid agencies at the al-Ra'ee camp, where they fled after Russian and Syrian bombing of their communities. Aleppo, Syria, January 21, 2015.(Mustafa Sultan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Civilians should not be attacked, health facilities should not be bombed, schools should be off-limits, and there should be provisions for providing assistance to besieged communities. These basic humanitarian principles should be the top priorities for any confidence-building measures in the ongoing Syrian peace talks, according to Elizabeth Ferris, Research Professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“Any concrete measures that could be taken for local ceasefires, for humanitarian corridors, for protection of humanitarian personnel, or for example, from the Assad regime to make it easier for humanitarians to access populations in need—that could have an enormous human and humanitarian consequence for millions of people in Syria,” she said, on the sidelines of an Independent Commission on Multilateralism (ICM) retreat on humanitarian engagements.

Speaking with International Peace Institute Senior Director of Programs, Maureen Quinn, Ms. Ferris said the relationship between humanitarian action and political interests is a complex one in which too often humanitarian assistance acts like a fig leaf for the lack of political action.

“It’s a way for governments to feel that they are doing something to relieve the suffering, even when they are unable or unwilling to take actions to stop the conflict,” she said.

According to Ms. Ferris, the involvement of many governments who are pulling strings inside Syria raises questions about who should be sitting at the negotiating table. But because of the complexities around the Syrian crisis, she argued that there may be a fundamental paradigm shift in the way conflict resolution is approached.

“There are lots of complexities here that we may need to think much more radically, much more boldly about how we approach conflicts in the future,” she said.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Syria remains the largest global challenge for protecting citizens, but it still must compete for attention among an increase in protracted crises worldwide. So as the world prepares for a major humanitarian summit in May 2016 in Istanbul, are any fundamental policy shifts being considered to address the problem of protection?

There are a lot of good initiatives that are coming to the World Humanitarian Summit. We need to involve development actors much more in resolving some of these protracted crises. We need to get more space, attention, energy, and a seat at the table for local groups who are often at the forefront of responding to humanitarian need. But what I don’t see are any fundamental changes in the system that we have.

I don’t see proposals coming, for example, to change the humanitarian architecture or the way in which relief is distributed; the way in which we receive early warning and move toward early action. Those kinds of structural changes are really time-consuming and energy-draining, and yet we seem to be stuck with this system that simply is no longer fit for purpose.

I hope that in the couple of months before the humanitarian summit, some of these proposals do surface, because I think we also have an opportunity now with the Syrian crisis—a widespread acknowledgment that we need to do things better. There’s an opportunity in there for more radical change, if you will, than we’re seeing so far.

Negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition began in February, following the late 2015 UN Security Council resolution, but have been suspended until later this month. What do you think should be at the top of any list of confidence-building measures for the parties to improve the humanitarian situation?

I think the thing that would have the most impact is a recognition by all parties of basic humanitarian principles—that civilians should not be attacked, health facilities should not be bombed, schools should be off-limits, that there should be some provisions for providing humanitarian assistance to these besieged communities. There could be an agreement on this basic humanitarian principle that it is not a political action to feed people who are hungry or treat people who are wounded. An agreement on that would just be a wonderful thing.

Any concrete measures that could be taken for local ceasefires, for humanitarian corridors, for protection of humanitarian personnel, or for example, from the Assad regime to make it easier for humanitarians to access populations in need with a corresponding agreement by some of the opposition parties to allow it—that could have an enormous human and humanitarian consequence for millions of people in Syria.

I am not terribly optimistic about this, but sometimes when the political obstacles seem insurmountable to reaching an agreement, if you can agree on vaccinating children or actions that aren’t so political, that can be a confidence-building measure toward an eventual political settlement.

Experts talk about bridging the gap between humanitarian and development assistance, and adopting a resilience-based response to help Syrian refugees, the internally displaced, as well as the host communities in and outside of the country. Do you see any progress along those lines, or are donor-financing mechanisms too rigid to adapt to the changing context of crises?

I’ve been working in the humanitarian field for 25 or 30 years, and since the very beginning there have been calls for closer collaboration between development and humanitarian actors, but frankly, I’ve seen very little progress. My eyes almost glaze over when I hear, “Oh, we need to involve the development actors more.”

Development actors have their own agendas; they have their own very large list of tasks to do. I think for many development people, whether it’s the World Bank or UNDP, you hear the word “refugee” and you think, “That’s something we don’t have to worry about. That’s a humanitarian issue.” So I think we need to make this happen, and everybody acknowledges that it’s necessary.

We need to change mindsets. Maybe we need to change terminology; instead of calling people refugees, we call them—after a certain period of time—new residents, members of a community, or something that would make it clear that working with refugees and those affected by conflict is a development issue.

I think the World Humanitarian Summit will address some of this. I think that there is a growing awareness at the World Bank, UNDP, and development bilateral aid agencies that we need to be doing more in this field. There are some promising signs from the World Bank to look at the economic impact of refugees in the Middle East, for example. Discussions that maybe it’s time for the World Bank to change some of its financing mechanisms so it can support governments like Jordan and Turkey that are seen as middle-income countries. So there are some promising signs that things might get better, but I am not holding my breath for any major shift in this very important area.

Recent reports of starvation in Madaya and the difficulties of providing aid echoed headlines from two years ago around Palestinians in the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus. In responding to these hardships and dire situations, do humanitarians and humanitarian aid become pawns in the larger conflict?

The whole relationship between humanitarian action and political interests is a complex one. Too often, humanitarian assistance is a fig leaf for the lack of political action. It’s a way for governments to feel that they are doing something to relieve the suffering, even when they are unable or unwilling to take actions to stop the conflict.

Look, for example, at US policy in Syria, where the amount of money given to humanitarian assistance is tremendous. Now I really think the US and most donors have gone the extra mile in providing funds for humanitarian action. And yet, the lack of political action—stopping the barrel bombing, stopping the massive displacement of people—is simply inadequate. I think we have another unfortunate tendency and that is, we focus on the crisis of the moment and things change so quickly.

I don’t know if you remember the photo of the little boy on the Turkish beach that unleashed a worldwide wave of sympathy for Syria that I haven’t seen in years and years. And just a few months later, it was gone; with the bombings in Paris, it was just an overnight turn.

I think that in situations like the siege at Madaya, we know about them, we react spontaneously, and then we move on. I am wondering what we’ll be saying about Syria in five years if the conflict continues, and most people don’t think it’s going to be resolved quickly. Will it become just another in a long list of crises that is taking much of the world’s energy away from serious human need elsewhere?

Humanitarians in Syria are being criticized for speaking with and making compromises with both the Assad government and the fragmented opposition groups. Have these familiar criticisms and challenges reached a tipping point, where a rethink of the humanitarian principles might occur?

As you noted, Maureen, these are not new issues. There have always been compromises with warring factions and delivery of humanitarian aid, and aid has always been politicized or different groups try to use it. In these situations, humanitarian aid is an economic resource and groups struggle to control that. Opposition groups see that distributing humanitarian relief gives them political legitimacy. It gives them a measure of power and control. These have always been political issues.

But I think something is fundamentally changing that we’re not grappling with, and it’s that the nature of these groups is changing. We have the fragmentation of groups—kind of the overlap, if you will—of political militant groups with criminal gangs. You see that particularly in Central America, but it’s apparent elsewhere. It’s not quite so clear that these are bent on a particular political purpose and not out to control natural resources or diamonds

The Uppsala Conflict Database released a report late last year that said that the traditional way we work to resolve conflicts may no longer work. The traditional way is we convene negotiations in Geneva, that parties sit down at the table. They reach an agreement and peacekeeping troops are deployed and eventually go home when there is peace. That’s been our traditional model.

But in Syria, when you’ve got hundreds of opposition groups and there’s really no incentive to collaborate or consolidate, when they’re using some of the most horrific techniques in their struggle for power, do you sit down and negotiate with ISIS or one of the many ISIS affiliates? Do you ever reach a negotiated settlement? What kind of role can peacekeepers play in these situations?

I think we may be seeing kind of a fundamental paradigm shift in the way we approach conflict resolution because of the complexities around the Syrian crisis. And I should say here too, Syria also illustrates contradictory roles played by outsiders—they’re giving humanitarian assistance at the same time they’re allowing fighters to go into the country and supplying arms: it’s the same governments.

The involvement of so many governments who are pulling strings inside Syria raises a question: who should be sitting at the negotiating table? Is it little militia group “X” or is it arms supplier from the Gulf? I mean, there are lots of complexities here that we may need to think much more radically, much more boldly about how we approach conflicts in the future.