Second-Best Outcome From Geneva II: Scaled-up Humanitarian Action in Syria

Prospects of a successful outcome to the so-called Geneva II peace conference on Syria, called for by the United States and Russia, are grim—if it takes place at all. A number of analysts, including in this very publication, voiced their concerns that all odds are against a negotiated compromise between the Syrian regime and the opposition, not least due to the recent strengthening of Damascus in the civil war and the uncompromising attitude of a largely fragmented opposition.

While such bleak prospects should certainly not discourage diplomats to bring together the warring parties to reach a compromise—probably the only sustainable solution to a dramatically deteriorating crisis that might soon engulf the broader region—a second best option could be considered if these predictions prove right. If efforts to solve the conflict fail, the Geneva II conference might be an opportunity to manage some of its worst effects by reaching a minimum agreement to address the humanitarian consequences of the conflict.

Key Conclusions 

  • While the humanitarian consequences of the Syrian conflict are only the symptoms of a crisis that requires a political solution, the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation is becoming itself a cause of instability in the broader region.
  • If Geneva II fails to deliver a comprehensive solution to the conflict—a likely prospect—it could at least give a framework for a political agreement to address the humanitarian situation. Influential states could commit to pressure the parties to the conflict to facilitate humanitarian assistance and protect civilians.
  • Although wary of “politicizing” an already complex humanitarian action, aid agencies should embrace such a possibility as it would create the political consensus that could enable more efficient and timely humanitarian action.
  • Alleviating the humanitarian impact of the conflict could in turn ease pressure on neighboring countries and lower the risk of regional conflagration.


If humanitarian indicators are a good scale on which to measure the intensity of a conflict, the civil war in Syria is undoubtedly deteriorating at a fast pace: close to 100,000 people have died, according to widely quoted estimates; 1.6 million refugees have fled to neighboring countries at a rate of a quarter million per month since the beginning of the year; 6.8 million are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria, including more than 4 million internally displaced people; 60% of hospitals are affected by the conflict and unable to deliver good care; and diseases that have long been eradicated are reappearing. These appalling figures prompted the United Nations to launch the biggest funding appeal ever issued, reaching the unprecedented amount of USD 4.4 billion.

However, as the heads of four UN aid agencies stated loud and clear earlier this year, more resources and funds are not enough, and the Syrian crisis requires a political solution. Since the 1990s’ conflicts in Somalia, Rwanda, and the Balkans, it is a recurring refrain in humanitarian circles that there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems. This reflects a constant worry that humanitarian aid be “instrumentalized” to contain conflict while avoiding taking the necessary—and at time painful—political measures to address the causes.

This certainly applies to Syria, and there is absolutely no doubt that the dramatic humanitarian situation is only the symptom of a much more deeply rooted disease. Yet, some of the humanitarian consequences of the Syrian crisis are such that they start being a cause of further destabilization in the region and could contribute to engulfing neighboring countries in the conflict. Discontentment and frustration among host communities of Syrian refugees is rising in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. In Jordan, Syrian refugees now represent 10% of the population and are an increasing burden on the country’s scarce resources, especially water. In Lebanon, at least half a million Sunni refugees are dangerously weighing on the fragile confessional balance of the country.

While a political solution should undoubtedly be pursued as a top priority, alleviating the worst humanitarian effects of the crisis on neighboring countries might help prevent the expansion of the conflict to the broader region. From that perspective, if efforts at Geneva II to reach a comprehensive solution fail, it could still give a framework to reach a minimum agreement to address the worst humanitarian impact of the crisis. Indeed, the destabilizing potential of massive refugee flows in the region is such that it is arguably in nobody’s interest to let the situation deteriorates further—including the United States and Russia, the co-sponsors of the Geneva II initiative.

As previously argued in this publication, Russia holds the key to softening Damascus’ stance vis-à-vis humanitarian assistance, and could unlock a number of obstacles to humanitarian access. It would certainly not remove all barriers—especially those linked to negotiating humanitarian access with a very fragmented armed opposition—but it would undoubtedly help lift current bureaucratic hurdles imposed by the regime and facilitate crossing checkpoints manned by government soldiers or affiliated militias. Going further, such an agreement on humanitarian aid might help in finding an acceptable arrangement with the regime to authorize humanitarian operations across borders directly in opposition-held areas, where such cross-border access can facilitate the swift and timely delivery of assistance to populations in need.

Humanitarian actors are always wary—and for good reasons—about risks of politicizing humanitarian action. Yet, they must be aware that they are not operating in a political vacuum. While political actors should not interfere for political reasons with impartial humanitarian operations per se, they alone have the ability to give the political space necessary to humanitarian action. Indeed, a decision by a rebel commander at a check point to let a humanitarian convoy go through is a political decision. It entails balancing a number of variables such as the immediate interest for his group, his obligations under international law, and the potential risks it represents. Therefore, humanitarian actors must acknowledge existing political forces and navigate various—if often contradictory—interests to create the necessary space for efficient humanitarian action.

From that perspective, in the absence of an overarching political settlement, a minimum agreement aimed at facilitating humanitarian action in the Geneva II conference could at least give the necessary political consensus and space for more efficient humanitarian action in Syria. Influential member states, including the US and Russia, could pledge to exert the necessary pressure on parties to the Syrian conflict on which they have leverage to facilitate humanitarian assistance and to better protect civilians. Increased assistance and protection could dissuade Syrians to flee their country—generally a last resort option—and alleviate the pressure on neighboring countries which, incidentally, could contribute lowering the risk of regional conflagration.

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

About the photo: Civilians flee fighting after Syrian army tanks entered the northwestern city of Idlib, Syria, on Feb. 14, 2012. Photo credit: FreedomHouse/Flickr.