What Syria needs now

Story highlights

  • David Miliband: ISIS advances are significant propaganda victories
  • Diplomatic cooperation on Syria on the U.N. Security Council is minimal, he says

David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, is former secretary of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs for the United Kingdom. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Almost a year on from their dramatic seizure of Mosul, Iraq's second city, the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria continue to expand the frontiers of their stronghold in the Middle East.

The fall this month of Ramadi -- the last remaining government-held city in Iraq's largest province -- and the taking, 400 miles west, of Syria's Roman-era town of Palmyra, constitute not just important strategic gains for the group, but significant propaganda victories. Televised images of Palmyra's ancient ruins now abound, their fate seemingly hanging in the balance.
The rapid rise of ISIS has thus captured the world's attention, and we've seen a coalition of Western and Arab states make common cause with Iran to try to forcibly halt the jihadists' advance. But such cooperation has not extended to securing an end to the war in Syria, where four years of conflict and chaos have cost more than 220,000 lives (though some estimates suggest the toll is far higher), left every second Syrian in need of aid and allowed ISIS to grow from an Iraqi al Qaeda franchise into a veritable transborder operation.
    Remarkably, despite all this, diplomatic energies aimed at securing an end to the war -- and minimizing the impact of the fighting on civilians -- have ebbed to their lowest levels so far.
    True, early Arab League proposals, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's six-point plan, and the January 2014 Geneva II conference yielded minimal results, But there was at least a sense of commitment and grim determination back then.
    Now, despite this week's news that the United Kingdom and Russia are to resume discussions on the crisis, political inertia is so pervasive that U.N. Syria Envoy Staffan de Mistura's focus is simply on maintaining open channels of communication through "consultations" -- in essence, talks about talks.
    Similarly, diplomatic cooperation on Syria in the U.N. Security Council is minimal, including in the area of securing compliance with the council's own humanitarian resolutions.
    Neither its members, nor states with sway in Syria, have applied appropriate pressure on the warring parties to halt the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, the indiscriminate bombardment of densely populated areas or the continuing disruption -- by means ranging from bureaucracy to besiegement -- of nearly five million people's access to aid. My own organization saw seven of our beneficiaries killed in a bombing raid on Idlib last week.
    Syrian civilians' misery is also being compounded by a further, depressing trend: the increasing mismatch between their needs and the help the international community is providing.
    One million people inside Syria required humanitarian assistance in 2011. That number now stands at 12.2 million, well over half of whom are internally displaced. Their needs -- food, water, shelter, health care, sanitation -- have increased at more than six times the rate of funding provided since the beginning of the conflict. Last year's U.N. appeal to meet basic needs inside Syria was only 48% supported, down from 68% in 2013.
    The discrepancy between needs and assistance is also growing amongst the four million people who have fled Syria. In exile for years now, their economic and personal assets long depleted, these refugees urgently require food, water, fuel, clothing and education.
    At the same time, the countries sheltering them are buckling under the pressure of such a massive population influx.
    Turkey, the biggest refugee-hosting country in the world, put the cost last fall of hosting Syrian refugees at $4.5 billion. Lebanon, where Syrians now constitute somewhere between a quarter and a third of the population, will need investment of up to $2.5 billion just to restore its basic infrastructure to precrisis levels, according to a 2013 report from the World Bank. Jordan, one of the most water-starved nations on the planet, hosts nearly 630,000 registered refugees -- proportionally equivalent to the United States absorbing the population of the United Kingdom. It puts the cost of hosting Syrians in 2014 at $871 million.
    In Iraqi Kurdistan, meanwhile, 250,000 Syrian refugees shelter alongside the well over one million Iraqis who have sought protection in the region since January last year. The Kurdish authorities simply cannot meet the spiraling demand for jobs and basic services in the territory, where the poverty rate has more than doubled over the past 17 months.
    Yet despite such immense need, the U.N.'s Syrian refugee appeal for 2014 was just 64% funded, down from 73% in 2013, and global pledges to resettle the most vulnerable Syrian refugees in countries outside the region have failed to even approach a level appropriate to the scale of this crisis.
    Such is the pressure upon their public services, economies, resources and social fabrics that Syria's neighbors are now taking steps to restrict the flow of refugees into their territory; only the most vulnerable can enter at present, and there are reports of refugees being forcibly repatriated to Syria.
    So, how should the international community respond? Even within the limits of a humanitarian perspective, there are clear, urgent priorities.
    First, the U.N. Security Council and states with influence over Syria's warring parties should take immediate steps to hold accountable all those who fail to honor their obligations under international humanitarian law. Pressure must be brought to bear upon all parties that restrict or undermine full, safe and unfettered humanitarian access to those in need.
    Second, and with this appalling interference with access in mind, the Security Council's permanent members, as well as key regional players such as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, should each appoint senior diplomats or politicians as humanitarian envoys, resourcing and supporting them to focus attention on the human consequences of the Syrian conflict. They should also document and challenge restrictions on access, mediate and monitor ceasefires, support the efforts of the U.N. emergency relief coordinator and work through the detail of the relevant Security Council resolutions with all stakeholders -- the warring parties, their backers, the United Nations and NGOs.
    Finally, the United Nations' 2015 appeal for Syria and the region must be funded.
    Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq should receive the direct financial assistance and long-term development investment they require to repair their shaking infrastructure, reboot their public services and start creating jobs for Syrians and the communities who host them. Support for these countries is an essential counterpart to the vital call on them to keep their borders open to those fleeing Syria.
    None of these measures is a substitute for the political and diplomatic drive and imagination needed to bring this conflict -- or series of conflicts -- to a close. The spillover of Syria's war into Iraq means that the options available to those in the international community keen to secure regional and global stability are far more limited than they were in 2011. As this crisis becomes more and more complex, those options are set to become even narrower, their consequences increasingly unpredictable.
    But this is all the more reason for a renewed push to end the violence. Next month marks three years since the Geneva Communiqué, a now dormant road map for Syria's political transition, was signed in Switzerland. Let that anniversary -- as well as events in Ramadi and Palmyra -- focus minds.