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Geneva: Peace for Syria may be elusive but humanitarian access need not be

Written by Eva Svoboda


After nearly three years of fighting and over 125,000 deaths, peace is urgently needed in Syria. A peace agreement, however, is an unlikely outcome of the second round of talks to be held in Geneva on 22 January 2014. History shows that peace negotiations are long and unpredictable processes that can take years and even decades to achieve. Even when an agreement is eventually reached, implementing and sustaining a just and lasting peace will at best be challenging and at worst impossible. Look at South Sudan. A peace agreement in Geneva may not be a realistic goal, but agreeing a timeframe and process for developing a framework for humanitarian access should be.


Affected communities in Syria are in dire need of humanitarian assistance – particularly, food and medical supplies. But extreme violence perpetrated by all sides has hampered attempts to deliver aid into many regions across the country. In addition to the thousands of Syrian civilians killed, both international and Syrian aid workers have been deliberately targeted, killed, kidnapped and detained. 48 aid workers have lost their lives since the beginning of the conflict; 32 from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARC) alone.

Since the beginning of the conflict, ongoing fighting, fragmentation within the Syrian opposition, and the sheer number of different warring parties controlling frontlines and borders has made delivering aid almost impossible in some areas. There are currently over 1000 different warring parties and as frontlines continuously change, so too do those who control and negotiate access. Identifying who is in charge, and who to negotiate access with, is a particular challenge in Syria.

Humanitarian agencies have used a variety of means to try to access people in need. These include working in government-controlled areas through the SARC, negotiating access across frontlines with government and opposition forces as well as moving aid across international borders into Syria - without the government’s permission. But the absence of clear guidelines on how aid should enter the country or opposition-held areas, government-imposed bureaucratic restrictions and a lack of consensus from opposition groups, has meant that many Syrians in desperate need of humanitarian aid, cannot be reached. A stark example of the lack of access was the recent failed attempt by the United Nations to reach the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp whose population has been surviving on stale vegetables and animal feed.

The Geneva talks provide an opportunity to press the warring parties to meet their obligations to provide assistance and protection to the Syrian people. While improving humanitarian access to affected populations in Syria should be a priority topic for discussion in Geneva, it currently isn’t even on the agenda. Recent calls for aid agencies to be given unimpeded access, however, give hope that humanitarian access may be discussed in Geneva.

There is always an inherent risk that negotiations on humanitarian access will be used to gain political ground. This raises the important question whether these talks are the appropriate forum to discuss humanitarian access if there is the risk that aid will be used to further political goals. Providing assistance to a population in need should never be used to gain concessions or compromises. Parties need to make humanitarian access an unconditional commitment and any discussion on this topic in Geneva must be dissociated from political negotiations.

Negotiating humanitarian access in a context like Syria is not easy, but as experience in other conflicts shows, it can be done. HPG’s research shows that negotiated access frameworks have been successful in different crises. Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), for example, was a tri-partite agreement between the Government of Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and the United Nations which enabled the delivery of humanitarian aid to conflict-affected areas of South Sudan between 1989 and 2005, though the geopolitical factors that facilitated this agreement at the time are absent in the context of Syria. Accompanying ground rules based on humanitarian principles, which outlined the roles and responsibilities of the rebel factions and aid agencies in south Sudan with regard to humanitarian access and protection of civilians, were developed in 1995.

Similar ground rules, known as the Principles and Protocols of Humanitarian Operation, were agreed upon by warring parties during the Liberian civil war in the 1990s. While these frameworks and the processes by which they were negotiated are not directly transferrable to Syria given the specific circumstances on each conflict, the lessons learned in negotiating and implementing them are. 

Encouraging the parties to discuss how to stop the suffering of Syrians while disagreeing on the politics of the conflict will be a challenge but one that can begin to be met in Geneva. Negotiating humanitarian access may not bring us much closer to peace but it will help the people of Syria deal with the consequences of war.