Opinion and debate: The Syria Conference: a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

3 Feb 2016
Opinion and debate
Related Countries
Syrian Arab Republic

Vickie Hawkins
Executive Director, MSF UAE
Twitter: @VickieHawkins

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On 4 February 2016, London will be the stage for heads of state, ministers and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to come together to address the crisis in Syria. The aim of the conference is to raise funds for the humanitarian response both inside Syria and in neighbouring countries, and is a partnership between the UN, Norway, Kuwait, Germany and the UK.

On the surface, this conference has laudable aims: to improve education and livelihoods for Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries; to address the safety and protection of civilians inside Syria; and to raise significant amounts of ‘new’ aid money to fill underfunded UN appeals. The organisers might like to portray themselves as peacemakers and aid-givers, but they include countries which are parties to the conflict.

Not only facing their own government's bombs

Only a few months ago, the UK Parliament voted to extend British airstrikes into Syria, marking the entry of the UK into Syria as another belligerent. Many of the other states attending have similar military engagements in Syria – people in Syria not only face their own government’s bombs, but those from two coalitions involving eleven other countries. David Cameron himself reconfirmed on 9 September that the UK is using aid as one more lever to pursue its political aims. "Assad has to go, Isil has to go, and some of that will require not just spending money, not just aid, not just diplomacy, but it will on occasion require hard military force." For humanitarians, this is a red flag, albeit a familiar one.

Mixing aid with politics

As we have seen in Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere, mixing aid with politics and military action endangers the ability of humanitarians to provide aid in a neutral and impartial way. It creates suspicion amongst people affected by conflict, who may question if these aid organisations are just another arm of the governments that fund them. Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in conflict areas already have to take great care not to be perceived as a Trojan horse for political agendas, and yet the Syria Conference is doing just that. It is effectively co-opting civil society participation, with the lure of additional funding for their work. For NGOs that depend on external funding, it’s a stark choice – you’re in or you’re out.

Military belligerence and humanitarian aid should never, under any circumstances, be offered as two sides of the same agenda. The politicians gathering in London know that to do so is dangerous, and their cynicism in continuing to do so is all the more disgraceful.

Absolving responsibility

There is also a deeper political undercurrent to the aim of the conference. If all goes well, the conference will result in increased aid to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to ensure that more Syrians stay in the region and do not make the journey to Europe. By focusing on education and livelihoods, the conference is targeting two major 'push' factors for Syrians who decide to make the perilous journey. Viewed from this lens, it is starting to look as if the conference will be used to endorse a policy of containment. It fits with the approach of some EU member states to provide aid to Syria and its neighbouring refugee-hosting countries as a means to absolve themselves of responsibility for those who have already made the journey.

To put it starkly, under a veil of concern this conference is about states pursuing their political agendas for Syria, co-opting and thereby denaturing humanitarian aid in the process. MSF will not be attending the conference, believing that it represents a risk to aid organisations being perceived as neutral and independent – perceptions that are vital if we are to have any possibility of providing medical care inside Syria to people caught up in the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.

I sincerely hope that I am wrong, and that the conference leaves politics at the door to concentrate on helping those in desperate need. In the horrific siege of Madaya, people are literally being starved to death – 49 people have died so far and we are still counting. In the 70 Syrian hospitals and clinics supported by MSF, more than 100 people are dying each week from bomb blasts and other war-related wounds – a small fraction of the toll country-wide. These people need all the help that the world can provide.

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