The seven years of Syriaâ€™s crisis has cost half a million lives, displaced more than 5 million refugees and reordered the geopolitics of the Middle East. But the worst may be yet to come. Western policymakers cannot be allowed to turn the other way and need to show their mettle when the U.N. Security Council meets on Syria this month.
In June, President Bashar Assadâ€™s forces stormed the southwestern region of Syria, where the uprising began. Within weeks, they took control of the border crossings with Jordan that had been used by aid agencies to supply cross-border aid to hundreds of thousands of Syrians in desperate need. My organization, the International Rescue Committee, with its network of Syrian partner organizations, was the largest health care provider in southern Syria, supporting more than a quarter of a million Syrians.
Now we are shut out, with no access to those people in need. And we donâ€™t know the fate of those we were serving. The assurances from the Syrian government inspire little confidence in light of the conditions in other areas previously retaken by the regime (like Ghouta, east of Damascus). Even humanitarian partners authorized to work inside Syria have yet to receive permission from the Assad government to deliver much-needed aid into many areas newly under government control.
Humanitarian aid has been blocked, but the needs are likely growing, given the brutality of the offensive to retake Daraa, which drove hundreds of thousands of Syrians from their homes in just a matter of days. These populations are highly vulnerable to retaliation attacks as Assadâ€™s government reasserts its control, which could include forced military conscription, denial of humanitarian aid, and sexual abuses against women and young girls.
With aid agencies banished and cross-border humanitarian access now lost, the U.N. Security Council should demand unfettered humanitarian access to the south, to monitor the protection of Syrian civilians and the fair distribution of aid. Any crimes committed must be recorded, with full accountability for perpetrators under international law. And both humanitarian workers and recipients of humanitarian aid, who lived for years under opposition control, must not face any consequences now that they live under government control.
Equal attention must also now turn to the northwest of Syria around Idlib. This is where there is the greatest risk of a new humanitarian disaster. Armed opposition groups from elsewhere in the country have been deported there under so-called reconciliation agreements and are preparing for a last stand against the Assad regime. Standing between rebels and the regime are 2.6 million civilians, half of whom have already been displaced at least once by fighting. One million seven hundred thousand people already need humanitarian aid to survive. Almost 70,000 have fled from the horrors of Eastern Ghouta, where they had been living under siege for up to five years.
Russia has made itself a central player in the Syrian war. At the end of July, it met with Turkey and Iran in Sochi, Russia, to discuss the prospects in Idlib. But one-off deals to plan military offensives, not protect civilians, are dangerous. They have excluded the United Nations and sidelined its peace-making process.