Syria: The Humanitarian Conundrum

Calls for pushing humanitarian aid into Syria have multiplied in recent weeks, notably since China and Russia vetoed the Security Council resolution on February 4 condemning the repression by the regime. The United States said they were exploring the possibility of providing humanitarian aid to Syrians, and on February 15 the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, reiterated a call for humanitarian corridors, an idea supported by Turkey.

While humanitarian organizations do need access to affected populations, such calls by major political powers involved in the crisis pose an age-old conundrum well known to humanitarian workers: how to nudge political leverage to broaden humanitarian access without the counterproductive politicization of humanitarian aid.

Key Conclusions

Given the current polarization around this situation, calls to deliver humanitarian aid by countries perceived by the regime as hostile could politicize aid and prove counterproductive. Likewise, imposing humanitarian corridors seems unlikely to succeed, given the hostility of the Syrian government and the current deadlock within the Security Council.

There is little doubt, however, that the desire to help is genuine, and that greater involvement by major political powers could prove helpful. Quiet diplomacy could convince nations friendly to the Syrian government—but uncomfortable with the way things are going—to apply pressure and convince the regime to accept humanitarian aid. While aid will help alleviate the suffering of Syrians, it remains a temporary answer to a situation that requires a political solution.


Recent reports from Syria warn of a rapidly deteriorating situation and growing humanitarian needs, notably in the city of Homs that reportedly has been under intense fire and shelling for nearly two weeks. Humanitarian needs might not be widespread yet. They are, however, becoming more acute, particularly in cities that are subject to a growing repression by the regime: people are running out of food, safe water, access to health care, and are increasingly subject to arrest, injury, or death.

Only a handful of humanitarian actors are able to deliver assistance along with a modicum of protection on the ground; among them are the Syrian Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). While humanitarian needs are increasing by the day, capacities in the field are far from sufficient.

In this context, calls by the United States, France, Turkey, and others for humanitarian aid or humanitarian corridors should be welcomed. Yet, if imposed by political powers that took a partisan—although widely seen as legitimate—stand against the Syrian government, there is an insidious but very real danger that aid might become politicized. In the view of the regime, this could taint the limited but indispensable aid currently delivered on the ground with a political purpose, jeopardizing an already constrained humanitarian access.

In the same vein, imposing humanitarian corridors would, in all likelihood, necessitate a militarization of aid. In order to remain within the boundaries of international legality, humanitarian corridors could be established in two ways: with the agreement of the Syrian government, or by force with the blessing of the UN Security Council. In either case, such a prospect seems doomed. It is highly unlikely that the Syrian government will ever accept humanitarian corridors on its soil. First, it would be perceived as an infringement of its national sovereignty. Secondly, humanitarian corridors allowing massive delivery of humanitarian aid to the very population that the regime fights run counter to the logics of taming a popular uprising. As for a Security Council resolution that would impose humanitarian corridors by force, it is unlikely that Russia and China would sign on, given that it would amount to allowing foreign military forces in Syria, a scenario too reminiscent of the recent experience in Libya. Even if all vetoing powers agreed, military-enforced humanitarian corridors and other safe areas in recent decades has had, at best, very mixed results.

Calls and support by influential political powers to a better humanitarian response are needed, and might be the only way to deliver more significant aid to affected populations, as they have the kind of political leverage that can shift the position of the Syrian government. Yet, rather than impose a humanitarian response that the Syrian regime will outright reject as politically tainted, proponents of aid could try to convince countries friendly to the Assad government—but increasingly uncomfortable with the repression—to undertake quiet diplomacy and persuade him to accept impartial humanitarian aid. This approach might convince the regime that humanitarian aid is not a political tool but rather a moral imperative shared by the international community. In addition, quiet diplomacy might also persuade the Syrian government that genuinely impartial humanitarian aid—namely, aid given according strictly to humanitarian needs—can also be in its interest. Indeed, should the situation deteriorate into a sectarian civil war, humanitarian aid would also benefit populations who are loyal to the government but become increasingly embroiled in the violence.

Such an approach might give more margin of maneuver to humanitarian agencies and could facilitate access to affected populations by a broader range of actors, strengthening the limited response currently given by the ICRC and the Syrian Red Crescent.

The message delivered through quiet diplomacy could then be reinforced by a Security Council resolution calling for humanitarian access. Yet, Security Council members might want to consider the inspired warning launched by Sadako Ogata, the former High Commissioner for Refugees: “There are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” A broader humanitarian response is not a panacea. It will contribute alleviating the suffering of the Syrian population, but there will be no respite as long as no political solution is found.

Jérémie Labbé is a Senior Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute

About the photo: A still taken from a video of a man throwing rocks at a tank in Daraa, Syria, 2011