The Syrian Humanitarian Crisis: What Is To Be Done?
Experts look at humanitarian concerns in the context of ongoing need for a political solution
WASHINGTON, April 21, 2015 – The Middle East Policy Council’s 80th Capitol Hill Conference took an in-depth look at the complex interaction of political, legal and humanitarian factors related to the ongoing conflict in Syria. As the volume and stress of refugees continues to balloon — exerting pressure on Syria’s neighbors — the panelists ultimately returned to the need for a political solution to the conflict as the only hope for meaningful relief from the refugee crisis.
The panelists included Karen AbuZayd (Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic), Denis Sullivan (Director, Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies), Susan Akram (Clinical Professor, Boston University School of Law, and Sara Roy (Senior Research Scholar, Center for Middle East Studies, Harvard University). Ford Fraker, president of the Middle East Policy Council, introduced the event. Thomas Mattair, executive director, was the moderator. More specific remarks from the panelists:
• Karen AbuZayd summarized the work of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council. She highlighted some of the commission’s recommendations, including enforcing international law; referring the situation to the ICC; reforming the national justice system; halting child recruitment; increasing foreign assistance; and establishing regional tribunals closer to the problem.
• Denis Sullivan noted the nuanced designation between “registered” and other refugees in surrounding countries. Despite the inability of refugees to get business licenses or work legally, some economies in refugee camps can be relatively vital. He also discussed municipal actors, suggesting greater international focus on how donors build capacity through these local points of aid delivery, with an eye towards longer-term institutional development.
• Susan Akram presented the varying legal frameworks in place in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to deal with the influx of Syrian refugees. Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon all lack a comprehensive framework, creating moral hazard: refugees are deterred from officially registering. Turkey does have a policy of granting temporary protection to registered refugees. She also stressed the need to consider the crisis from an international point of view, in order to relieve pressure on Syria’s neighbors.
• Sara Roy explored whether the humanitarian crisis in Gaza offered lessons for Syria, arguing the importance of the political dimension to refugee crises. In the case of Gaza, the humanitarian focus of the crisis has been used to obscure political and economic progress, leaving Gaza further from its ultimate development goals and generally “aid-dependent.” By changing how the international community interacts with certain populations, humanitarianism can impede progress in these other realms.
An edited video by speaker, including a full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. The full video from the event is already available on the Middle East Policy Council website.
Contacts: For interviews or other content associated with this event, please contact Grace Elliott – (202) 296 6767 – [email protected].
FORD FRAKER, President, Middle East Policy Council
Good morning, everyone. I think we’ll start – we’ll start the conference now. So my name is Ford Fraker, president of the Middle East Policy Council and former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. And on behalf of the council, I’d like to welcome everyone this morning, and particularly the viewers who are watching us live stream over the web.
So I wanted to take a moment or two to say a few words about the council and then one or two comments about Syria, to set the stage for the comments that you’ll hear from our distinguished panel. So the Middle East Policy Council is over 35 years old. And our mission is to inform and educate U.S. policymakers, educators, students and the media about Middle East Policy issues. And we try and do this by presenting a fair and balanced approach to the different issues, which we think is critically important. The way we do this is we have three activities. We have these conferences here on Capitol Hill. We do four conferences a year where we bring distinguished panelists to discuss current events, current issues that we believe are important.
We also have our Middle East Policy, which is a publication that comes out on a quarterly basis. It’s the most widely quoted and cited publication on Middle East policy issues and is read by everyone in Washington who’s involved in Middle East policy issues. And we’re very proud of this. And if you’re one of those people who is not currently a subscriber to Middle East Policy, I would recommend you go to our website and correct that error. (Laughter.) And last by not least, we have an education outreach program where we provide course content to high school and university teachers who are teaching courses on the Middle East. So that’s in a nutshell what we do at the Middle East Policy Council.
As some general comments before we – before we turn to our panelists: In the spring of 2012, I came to Washington and I had two specific meetings. One was with Senator John Kerry. At the time, he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Kerry had also chaired the Senate committee that did my confirmation and he’d come to Saudi Arabia to visit me on a number of occasions, so I knew him well. And that night, I had a private dinner with General David Petraeus, who at the time was head of the CIA. When I was ambassador in Saudi, he was coalition commander in Iraq and we worked on a number of programs together.
And my message to both of them was simple and straightforward. It was, number one, Syria was of critical strategic importance to the United States and that if we wanted to be serious about pushing back the spread of Iranian influence in the region, it was Syria. If we wanted to send a message to Hezbollah, it was in Syria. And finally, from a moral standpoint, this was a true people’s revolution. These were common people coming out on the streets, peacefully protesting, initially, against a repressive regime. So from a moral standpoint, if we were going to support any revolution in the Middle East, this would be one we should stand behind.
So timing in life is important. And the message I got back from both of them was that even if the United States was prepared to do anything, we were months away from a presidential election, so nobody in Washington was going to climb onboard to do anything at this point. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we now know that following the election Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta and Director Petraeus went to the White House with a fairly muscular plan on Syria that was basically shot down by the president’s domestic advisers on the basis that this is the president getting us out of two wars in the Middle East. We’re not about to get involved in another one.
So fast-forward to 2015 and we have, I think it’s over 3 million refugees outside of Syria and somewhere between 6 and 7 million displaced people inside Syria. So with that background, I’d like to introduce Tom Mattair, who’s executive director of the council, who’ll be moderator this morning, who will introduce the speakers. Thank you. (Applause.)
THOMAS MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
Good morning and welcome.
Well, about 10 days ago there was an article in The Washington Post – April 12, actually. And it was written by Valerie Amos, who was – or is U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs. And the article is called “Does Anyone Care about Syria?”. And her conclusion was that not enough people do care and that people are talking about our narrow national interests and why they don’t require us to do anything about it, and ignoring our shared international responsibility. But actually, if you think about Obama, who turned down this muscular recommendation, even he said it was the national interest of the United States because of the impact it had on our partners and friends in the region, Syria’s neighbors.
So we’re doing this conference. And we thank Denis Sullivan for bringing the idea to us. And I’m not going to say much, except to introduce the panelists. Before I do that, I will say that we care, that’s why we’re doing the program. Chatham House in the U.K. cares, they have an entire program on this which happens to be headed by a friend of mine – a long-time friend of mine. And they’re advocating that more refugees be brought into the U.K., which has now only accepted a few hundred. But our panelists care.
Our first speaker will be Karen AbuZayd, who is a member of the board of directors of the Middle East Policy Council, and is on a four-person commission called the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. And that’s a commission that was mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council. And they’ve issued three or four reports?
KAREN ABUZAYD: Nine.
DR. MATTAIR: Nine! (Laughs.) Oh, OK. I’ve read the last one, which came out in February 2015. And I’m going to let Karen give you the litany of horrors that her commission has documented and her recommendations for holding people accountable and resolving this. Karen, before joining the commission, was the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in the Gaza Strip and retired as the undersecretary general of the U.N. And she – as I said, she sits on our board.
The next speaker will be Denis Sullivan, who’s a professor at Northeastern University in Boston. And he is a co-founder of the Boston consortium on Arab Region Studies, which has been doing a number of reports on this subject, with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. And as I said before, Denis brought this idea to us. He’s not only professor of political science at Northeastern, but the co-director of the Middle East center there and the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and books. The report that his people have done is called “Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis: A Call for Regional and International Responses.” And what’s important about that report is it makes four simple recommendations for dealing with and resolving this crisis. And I won’t tell you what you are; I’ll let Denis tell you what you – what they are.
And Susan Akram, our third speaker, was a contributor to that report. You’re listed – you’re listed as a contributor to that report. (Laughter.) But you’re the author – you’re the author of a separate report. The author of another report with her Boston University Law School students and colleagues, called “Protecting Syrian Refugees: Laws, Policies, and Global Responsibility Sharing.” And I think Susan will be talking about the international humanitarian and human rights laws that have been violated and the various conventions and laws that need to be enlisted and followed in order to resolve this. And then our fourth speaker – pardon me, I didn’t say enough about Susan. Susan is a professor at Boston University’s Law School and the head of their international human rights clinic and has done a tremendous amount of work on immigration and asylum and refugees and has advised U.N. organizations and speaks around the world on these topics.
And then our final speaker is a long-time friend of the Middle East Policy Council – as is Denis, by the way – Sara Roy, who is a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University and co-chairs a seminar on that topic there and serves on the advisory council ANERA, which is the American Near East Refugee Aid – have I got that title exactly correct? American Near East Refugee Aid, ANERA. I usually call it ANERA. And has served as a consultant to international organizations, largely about Palestinian issues, and is going to talk about the mistakes that have been made in dealing with the Palestinian humanitarian crisis and how the – how you actually have in the Gaza Strip economic de-development and how we – which lessons should be learned from that and which mistakes should not be repeated in dealing with the Syrian crisis.
So now I’m going to sit down and turn it over to Karen. The podium is yours. And there will be a one-hour question and answer session at the end. And there are cards on your seats to write those questions down during the event.
KAREN ABUZAYD, Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, Mandated by the U.N. Human Rights Council; Former U.N. Under Secretary-General; Former Commissioner-General, UNRWA
Thank you Tom and Ford.
My task this morning, as you heard, is to focus on the work of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. It was created in September 2011, and recently renewed for another year through March 2016. These commissions usually last for six months to a year longest. So we’re the longest-standing commission ever. And there’s a reason for that, of course.
The commission presented its ninth report – official report in March this year to the Human Rights Council and will table another informal report in June. Our mandate is to investigate and document human rights abuses and violations by all parties to the conflict in Syria and, where possible, to identify those responsible. Our purpose is to pursue accountability and justice on behalf of the victims, who are mainly civilians – innocent men, women and child who, along with almost all Syrians now, are subject to an increasingly inhuman existence.
Over 220,000 Syrians have been killed, 6.5 million are internally displaced and at least 9 million more inside Syria are in need. Tens of thousands have been forcibly disappeared or tortured in detention and 4 million refugees are hosted in neighboring countries. In describing the work of our commission, I’ll mention recommendations we’ve been making repeatedly, and to little avail, since 2011. But I hope to benefit more seriously, along with all of you, from my colleagues on the panel regarding what can be done. I understand they have plans and I’m eager to hear them.
The commission has been chaired since its inception by Professor Paulo Pinheiro, a Brazilian human rights expert. Two more commissioners joined us in 2013 – Vitit Muntarbhorn, a well-known Thai professor of international law, and a Swiss prosecutor, also well-known, Carla del Ponte. We have a team of 25 full-time professionals, half of them investigators who spend most of their time in the countries hosting Syrian refugees – namely, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraqi-Kurdistan. Our commission has not been permitted to enter Syria, on the instructions of the Syrian government, as much as we’ve tried and think it would be event to their benefit to have us go in.
Other colleagues who work for the most part from Geneva at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights are analysts or experts on particular subjects – military, legal, children, genocide, gender-based violence, et cetera. Two of them are in full-time touch with victims and witnesses inside Syria, mainly by Skype. This is our effort to balance the majority of our investigators which are carried out in the refugee camps.
Our investigators base their reports on corroborated testimonies, which meet the reasonable grounds to believe standard. Our reports are based only on material gathered by our own investigators, although we meet with and read reports from many sources – activists, NGOs, U.N. agencies, specialists, ambassadors and journalists. These help us craft our own plan of investigations. We’ve also analyzed a copy of the 27,000 so-called Caesar photos of deaths and detention.
Given our unusual longevity of as a commission, we’ve tabled conference room papers on particularly egregious violations, such as assaults on medical care, on hospitals, patients and on medical workers, and forced disappearances, as well as a sample of witness testimonies and our last one this past November on ISIS. The acronym we chose to use, among many, is ISIL-Daesh. That’s the Arabic acronym which I prefer and their own terminology, the Islamic State, which is how they describe themselves, since they proclaimed the creation of a caliphate in June last year.
Already in our first report in November 2011, we warned that the conflict was likely to be a long one with no possibility of a military solution, this against the tide of predictions that the president would step down soon. We called for inclusive, political negotiations rather than military intervention. We also cautioned about the lack of cohesion and military capability among the proliferating opposition groups – some individuals among them already committing war crimes such as unlawful attacks and unlawful killings. These individual instances in no way compared, or still compare, in type or number to the war crimes of the government, which was additionally committing crimes against humanity at this early stage in a conflict that had begun with civil unrest only nine months earlier in March 2011. Within a year, it would be designed a non-international armed conflict, or a civil war.
Our first eight reports follow the standard commission pattern of listing violations and abuses – among them, and I’m going to give you the list because are the ones you need to hear even though it’s a long list: massacres, hostage taking, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearances, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, children’s rights, unlawful attacks, specifically protected persons and objects seizes, denial of humanitarian access and arbitrary enforced displacement. We presented examples for each one as they related to the respective responsible party – again, the government being responsible for many more crimes than the opposition and many more types of crimes, particularly given its monopoly on air power and also its heavy use of indiscriminate weapons, including more recently barrel bombs.
When (referencing ?) political and humanitarian context, we depend on the expertise of other agencies or individuals with the mandates to deal with them, insisting however on the relationship and often overlap with human rights infringements. We end each of our reports with a series of recommendations to all parties – the ones in conflict, the government of Syria, the Human Rights Council, the Security Council, the General Assembly and to the international community generally.
A sample of both generic and specific recommendations among the 24 made in our last report are as follows: External actors have the responsibility to ensure that international humanitarian law and human rights law are respected by those parties to the conflict they support. The situation in Syria – again, we said – should be referred to the ICC or to an ad hoc international or regional tribunal. The Syrian national justice system should be reformed. All parties to the conflict must take adequate measures to halt child recruitment. Assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons should be increased and their safety ensured. And I’ll note here that the U.N. appeals have garnered pledges for under half of the money requested. And of those pledges, only half have been paid.
Principles of non-refoulement must be respected by countries bordering Syria. This is a reference to the difficulties faced particularly by Palestine refugees from Syria seeking refuge in neighboring countries. I’ve been blamed by many colleagues for not having anything in my paper on Yarmuk, because I’ve left that to our colleague – we agreed. We remind – particularly remind those states and individuals who resource the various parties at the same time as they are proclaiming support for the negotiations that they too could be indicted for war crimes committed by those they are arming and training – a warning which has not appeared to moderate anyone’s behavior.
With the appearance of the Islamic State, we replaced a phrase we’d been using, anti-government armed groups, with the more general categorization of two types of non-government armed groups. One covers the original Free Syrian Army opposition and the multiple, now predominately Islamist, offshoots or partners. The other is for the radical extremist or terrorist groups, such as the al-Nusra Front, with their use of car bombs and improvised explosive devices, and ISIS, the latter from the beginning not fighting really against the Syrian government, but rather for land to establish its own territory, eventually the so-called caliphate declared last year.
The 2012 trickle of extremist foreign fighters with the non-state armed groups has become a flood, so that now there are, at a conservative estimate, 15(,000) to 20,000 extremists from outside Syria, 6,000 from Europe alone according to the European – EU statistics. And you add to these the estimate 15,000 foreigners from Hezbollah, Iran and the Shiite militia from Iraq, who are aiding the government of Syria. In our last report, we moved the list of violations and violators to an annex and used our 10,000-word limit to describe the evolution of the conflict from civil unrest to a brutal civil war, of savagery and unthinkable cruelty, as our chairman termed it in a recent speech.
We described the patterns that had been established, such as surrounding and besieging villages or neighborhoods, followed by heavy aerial bombardments, Idlib being the most recently example of a town being destroyed – although I heard yesterday that it may have been taken back by the opposition, so that’s good news if so. We also opened a window to external use of the confidential lists of serious perpetrators we’d been compiling during each mandate, as well as access to our large database, which contains information from the 3,800 interviews registered by our investigators to date.
We offered to share our information about specific alleged perpetrators or incidents with state prosecuting or government authorities who are preparing cases to be heard before a competent and impartial judiciary. This is a process that respects human rights, the fair trial rights of the accused and especially the right to truth of the victims. Without abandoning the recommendations to use the ICC, since it is an existing resource body which could entertain cases immediately if it were asked to, because of the Security Council vetoes, we’ve advocated for the formation of ad hoc or regional tribunals – not through the Security Council, which would face the same veto as the ICC, but instead by regional groupings, for example the Arab League or a group of like-minded states among them or from elsewhere.
Regional tribunals have the geographic advantage of being located close to the problem, therefore finding it easier to summon both suspects and witnesses, allowing them to try many more persons than would be the case with the ICC. Rwanda and Sierra Leone are good examples, and they’ve been described to us by our prosecutor member of our commission, Carla Del Ponte. She was the prosecutor in both of those. We also urged countries to consider exercising individual or universal jurisdiction, particularly over their own foreign fighters, or universal jurisdiction over non-national in those cases where national laws permit.
All of our recommendations are made in the interest of the victims and the accountability they deserve. Our plea for not arming the parties is our soft way of suggesting an arms embargo be considered.
While maintaining our independence and a separate track, we are in communication and exchange information with other actors in the system, such as the secretary-general, the Security Council – which we’ve briefed five times under the Arria-Formula; it’s a closed interactive dialogue with sitting members of the Council only – U.N. special rapporteurs, the U.N. humanitarian agencies and political departments, human rights think tanks and NGOs. We follow the work of the U.N. special envoys and representatives for Syria, appreciating their attempts with their Arab League counterpart, Nabil al-Arabi, to bring the parties to a negotiating table, beginning with and subsequently based upon the June 2012 communique from Geneva I under Kofi Annan. However, Geneva II in 2013, under Lakhdar Brahimi, and the 2014 and ’15 Moscow and Cairo talks under – with Staffan de Mistura, have been unable to move the parties even to talk to one another, let alone agree on a way forward.
To give credit to the Security Council, aside from the vetoes by Russia and China – Russia and China in 2012 and ’14 on referral to the ICC, there’s been a flow of resolutions, all of them unanimous. And among them: 2118 in 2013 on the destruction of chemical weapons, something we should be pleased about, I think; three in 2014 on demanding the observation of international humanitarian law and ending impunity, another condemning extremists and terrorist acts and noting the need for humanitarian aid, both cross-border and cross-line – interestingly, the cross-border has been much more successful than cross-line, not surprising but interesting; and two – this year, so far, 2199, which condemned the destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage, and 2209, condemning the use of chlorine gas. This past Friday there was a closed session of the Council for a briefing on the alleged recent use of airborne chlorine bombs, the method indicating government culpability.
Before closing, I wish to acknowledge first the generosity of neighboring countries, which have welcomed the refugees. Turkey’s 22 camps along the border, refugee camps on the border with Syria, are second to none. Lebanon, without camps and a quarter of its population refugees, including Palestinian refugees, has passed legislation to open a third shift in its schools for refugees to use, and last week a decree was issued regarding the opening of facilities for preschool Syrian children. This is in a country where a quarter of the population are refugees and there are no camps. I think it’s remarkable. With thousands of children out of school, some for four year now – four years now, nothing could be more welcomed by Syrian families except ending the war.
Syrians inside the country have behaved heroically in providing assistance and sharing their shelters and other necessary goods with their displaced neighbors, and creating makeshift facilities such as schools and clinics. Groups have also formed to try to protect the rich and valuable historical and architectural heritage of Syria.
We commissioners will travel to the region again next month to make one of our periodic visits to governments and refugees. We’ll then return to Geneva in June to present a mandated informal report. Our investigators have begun to sharpen their focus on individual perpetrators, as well as attacks on minorities, ethnic groups, human rights defenders, journalists and aid workers. Work on the use of indiscriminate weapons, massacres and sieges continues to receive concerted attention.
Meanwhile, along with many others, we also continue to advocate for the end of violence, for accountability, and a(n) end to impunity, because failing this those responsible for human rights violations and crimes are emboldened. The war will go on, leaving more destruction – destroyed lives, a destroyed society, destroyed institutions – including education – and a destroyed culture and heritage in its wake.
For these reasons, we persist in our targeted human rights reporting while continuing to urge the international community to unite in the interest of inclusive, comprehensive negotiations. These, we hope, are paths to bring about the end of impunity – of impunity and an agreed diplomatic solution, and we hope one day peace and justice to the Syrian people. (Applause.)
DENIS J. SULLIVAN, Director, Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies;
Co-Director, Middle East Center, Northeastern University; Professor, Political Science & International Affairs, Northeastern University
Thank you. Thank you very much, Karen.
Thank you, Tom, Anne, and your whole team here at the Middle East Policy Council. We thank you for working together to make this happen, this event come together.
And thank you, the attendees, for your time and attention. This is really an ugly picture, and we move from the core of the ugliness and the savagery – and I’ll now start using that word – to the impact beyond the borders of Syria. That’s my task, and then my colleagues will continue.
As we’ve – as we’ve heard about the savagery of the Syrian civil war, it’s this war that has resulted in the largest humanitarian crisis of our time. This civil war fuels the crisis beyond the borders, but also, as Karen pointed out, internally displaced as well. And it’s probably the greatest proxy war of our time as well, given all of the different actors/players inside – state actors, non-state actors, et cetera.
We’re going to throw a lot of numbers your way, a lot of statistics, and some of them will be inconsistent. But what is consistent is the – is the depth of this problem.
So there are – if you go to the UNHCR website, there are – we are – we are days away from hitting the 4 million registered Syrian refugees outside of Syria. Let’s add another 1 million Syrians in neighboring states who are not registered as refugees, but nevertheless are resident in those states. They’re just not registered with UNHCR for various reasons, either personal or political or logistical.
But let’s break down these four million refugees. One-point-seven million refugees registered in Turkey – and as Karen mentioned, in these 22 beyond state-of-the-art camps, world-class camps if you can have such a thing. One-point-two million registered refugees in Lebanon, plus another 3(00,000) to 500,000 Syrians who are not registered inside Lebanon. And as Karen pointed out, it’s about one in four of the population when you include the Palestinian refugees. Jordan, the numbers seem a little better but they’re not: 630,000 registered refugees inside Jordan, but the – but the Jordanian government also claims that there’s at least another 700,000 Syrians who have been in the country either before the crisis began or otherwise. So that’s – they also claim about 1 ½ million Syrians in their country, and that’s a population of about 6.2 million. So now it’s like one in six, so slightly better than Lebanon. Iraq – you know it’s bad in Syria if you go to Iraq for refuge – 250,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq. Egypt, not a contiguous state, but they too have 135,000 registered refugees, plus tens of thousands perhaps, or at least thousands of many more Syrians who were resident there before the crisis. The United States – and again, I think Susan will talk more about this – the United States has some – accepted maybe 500 Syrian refugees. Europe hosts about 5 percent of all of the Syrian refugees.
So, to cover a little more ground that Karen just mentioned, of the 4 million refugees, 1 million other Syrians not registered as refugees, the 8 – I use 8 million and I think you used 7 million – internally displaced Syrians. So now we’re talking about 13 million Syrians in a population of, let’s say, 22 million, so well above 50 percent of the Syrian population. And of course, the big number, which is smaller than all of these: 220,000 dead, at least. That’s close – that’s approaching a quarter of a million people killed in this civil war.
So, OK, more horror stories. Where do – where do we begin? We come up with reports. We all have our recommendations. We browse other people’s recommendations. We tend to want to talk to ourselves about this. We’re trying to make some impact because this is a crisis of global import. It’s a global crisis with global impact. Yes, it begins inside Syria. Yes, it bleeds across the border into the neighboring states, and then it continues throughout the region and into the Mediterranean and into Europe. And we only hear a little bit of it here, so it’s not our problem, we think.
One of the first things in terms of moving ahead – one of the first things might seem like a – not an important issue when you think of the impact. We have to recognize this as a protracted refugee situation. Think of the Palestinians. And this is why I’m so glad Sara Roy is joining us as well. Think of the Palestinians: 67 years or more is the number of refugee status. This refugee crisis is not going away, even if the – even if the crisis – the civil war ends sometime soon. So this protracted situation must be recognized.
Lebanon – yeah, I agree with Karen, Lebanon has done a lot of great things simply by being a host and by not establishing these camps. And 83 percent of the Syrians are paying rent. I mean, there is – it’s hard to say a benefit, but it’s not like they’re just freeloaders. They are refugees in crisis and yet they’re finding means to pay rent, 83 percent of them. But still they don’t – Lebanon has yet to recognize that this crisis isn’t going to end soon. They don’t call it a protracted refugee situation.
Nevertheless, my point here is that if you – if you look to the protracted situation, if you recognize it as a protracted situation, you have to then move out of, like, the emergency response, humanitarian aid response, and move more toward what we call a development aid model of response. And this would also bring in – this is another one of our recommendations – this would also bring in the local – the host communities and the – who are generous in their hosting, but who – of course this situation raises tensions among the different players. So this way this aid development approach will bring in the local communities and the refugees in partnership, working together. Again, very, very high hopes, but that’s what a lot of the host countries are moving toward.
But it’s the international community support to host communities also that we’re focused on. As Karen mentioned, if you go to the UNHCR website, again, there’s $4 ½ billion request for funding. They say about – less than 10 percent of that has been received. So pledged, yes; committed, yes; funded, not so much. And definitely not received.
So we’re also calling for this fine tuning. So Lebanon, let’s say – let’s call it at 1 ½ million refugees, and Turkey, let’s call that a little over 1 ½ million refugees. But Turkey has a population of well above 70 (million), maybe 75 million people, and as we’ve said Lebanon has about 5 million people. So the impact is greatly different. So we – in other words, we have to help Lebanon a lot more at the moment than we have to help Syria, even though Syria – Turkey, rather, even though Turkey seems to have many more.
And Jordan has five principal UNHCR-managed camps. And that’s all well and good, but that still only accounts for 20 percent of the Syrian refugees. The other 80 percent are, again, scattered around the country, mostly in the north. But that still puts 80 percent of these refugees, both the registered and the non-registered, taking over large land plots or taking over buildings or sometimes paying – mostly paying rent, et cetera. But again, the same impact on the school system, the health care system, the municipality services. All of these things are having a huge impact. So the aid targeted to the Jordanian government is great.
But let’s move beyond the national government, because it’s cities and towns and sometimes villages that are actually the ones footing the bill. So it’s great that we do government-to-government aid, but we have to get – we have to start thinking, also, about government-to-municipality aid, government-to-city aid, government – U.S. or EU or Kuwait – a very generous contributor to this crisis – aid.
And so there’s no question that the international community, of which we are a fundamental part, are contributing. We just are not contributing anywhere near what we need to be contributing.
So related to this municipality function – I know this is really getting into the – you know, getting into the sausage-making approach to this, but this is what our report tries to get to, to the specific as possible recommendations – as international donors start targeting their aid country by country and fine-tuning it country by country and looking to the municipalities as key players in delivering this aid, a very important function, believe it or not, is the public administration folks, the people who actually run the towns and the cities. These are the people who are overwhelmed. These are the people who have to manage the schools, manage the health facilities, manage the clinics. So there’s a – there’s a double benefit here. By targeting international aid as close to the cities, as close to the ground as possible, you’re hitting the refugees – helping the refugees, but you’re also hitting and helping the local towns, the people of those cities and towns, as well as developing a long-term institutional development. This is – you know, we talk about building nations; well, this is a way to build up the infrastructure of the nations. And when they are no longer hosts to these refugees in decades to come, at least the investments will also be there, both for the local community development as well as – as well as for the refugees who are in immediate need.
There’s a big debate going on in Lebanon right now about to camp or not to camp. As Karen points out, there are no UNHCR camps. There are no camps in Lebanon. Turkey has them. They run them themselves. They’ve paid the bills themselves for the most part. And now, of course, Turkey needs help because it’s a protracted refugee situation that’s not going away. Jordan has UNHCR camps, but as I said, only about 20 percent of the refugees live in those. And yet those camps actually are the – they tend to be the first stopping ground for every refugee. They come across the border. They are sent usually to Zaatari Refugee Camp. Now increasingly they’ve being sent to Azraq Camp. And then they are, quote/unquote, “bailed out” – that’s the term they use. But in Lebanon, they just take over – they take over the country. So there’s a huge debate whether to camp or not to camp in Lebanon, and that debate continues. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that, but it is a debate that I think the international community and aid donors can contribute to.
A big issue is the Syrians, once they’re refugees, they cannot work legally in these countries, for the most part. They can’t obtain work permits. There are ways around that, but those are so small scale. This needs to be ramped up big time. Providing work permits to Syrian refugees is fundamentally important. Also, business licenses. You know, the horrors that we’re starting to see on a – on a small scale in South Africa – you know, we’re hearing about the attacks on migrants because they’re taking away jobs – in fact, no, even when migrants and immigrants come in and set up a business, they tend to employ more of the local – (chuckles) – nationals rather than the immigrant communities. So I use that as a suggestion also, to enable work permits and business licenses to these refugees.
Again, if you’ve ever been through – if you ever read about Zaatari Refugee Camp and you hear about the Champs-Elysees, the economy of the Zaatari Refugee Camp is enormous. It’s incredible. This is the ingenuity of the Syrian refugees themselves. This is the kind of ingenuity and social entrepreneurship that can be – can be fueled across the region, again, country by country, town by town, governorate by governorate, and then nation by nation.
This gets to – again, Karen pointed out the fact that the Lebanese have added a third shift to the school system. This is where I’m going to combine these ideas. Yes, there are at least two school shifts every day in Jordanian schools, not yet a third as far as I know. But this also – this not only puts pressure on the Jordanian local host communities to find the teachers to teach two separate shifts, when you have all of these Syrian refugees who – not all of them, but you have so many Syrian refugees who are licensed teachers back at home but they’re not permitted to teach. So find ways to enable those teachers, those plumbers, those licensed doctors, those licensed professionals to actually provide the service to their own people.
Open our borders more widely is one of our recommendations, but I turn to Susan Akram to discuss that. If I have time, I have to – I have to jump back to a political recommendation. This is not a humanitarian recommendation. I think fundamentally the United States needs to mobilize our diplomatic and intelligence and economic and military might towards ceasefires, safety zones, humanitarian corridors or otherwise an actual resolution of the civil war. It won’t stop by itself. I’m not sure what we’re waiting for – a better time? We need to move in this direction.
We were having dinner last night, the panel and another friend of ours from the Boston Consortium, Richard Norton, and I’ll use his imagery. He said, we need to plant a flag. Not an American flag – I don’t know if you meant that – but we need to plant the American flag, among other flags from around the world, and say: This issue is important and we need to mobilize all of these resources and move on it now. That means dealing with a bizarre cast of characters, yes it does. It certainly does. The – I won’t call the EU bizarre, but if you put all these people together – the EU, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, just for starters – you get strange bedfellows. But guess what? That’s what we need.
We also can add some of our closest friends in the region – such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. And I agree, we can bring in the Arab League, despite the dysfunction. It is a legitimating and legitimizing organization. I’m thinking – why do I think of James Baker? It wasn’t just the PBS Frontline documentary I saw about him, but that international coalition that he put together – and maybe we can call in his resources, at least for advice. But we need to bring in this bizarre cast of characters and mobilize them. Until such a time that a determined United States works with all or most of our – most of these competing powers who otherwise influence Syria events towards the savagery, we can still pursue our humanitarian action to help in powerful ways and to help the victims of this evil war.
Now, we all might have our particular groups that you want to target your aid – whether it’s children, or women, or the disabled, or the elderly, or single-headed households, or survivors of rape, or survivors of chemical attacks, or adolescent boys, or, or, or, or whatever our particular focus, our particular niche that we care about, it’s there. Every possible group in need is in need. And you can find your own particular group. I’ll focus on children just for the last few minutes that I have.
Children are, of course, among the most obvious, the most vulnerable, the most – the greatest in need. UNICEF states that there are close to 2 million Syrian refugee children in great need – in what they call great need. Add another 5 ½ million Syrian children inside Syria. So their needs are everything imaginable. Polio vaccinations, overall health care, psycho-social support, hygiene, access to clean water and, of course, the overall lack of proper education in general.
UNHCR just issued a report three weeks ago called “Strategic Key Messages.” And they say that some 50 percent of Syrian refugee children and adolescents are not in school. Again, you compare that with the fact that, OK, Lebanon’s putting in a third shift, Jordan has two shifts, and yet you have hundreds of thousands of children not in school. And yes, they’re not going to be in school for the next 10 years. What will happen then?
Beyond the international organizations, which are critical – especially UNHCR, UNICEF, UNRWA – we can also target our support more locally through host governments, as I’ve said, through local and international NGOs, doing great work. One of my personal favorites – and it’s not a commercial for them, it just happens to be one I think is doing great work – is called Questscope. Questscope is an international NGO. It began in Jordan 25 years ago. It had its roots in Beirut in 1982 when the founder, Curt Rhodes, was a professor of public health at American University in Beirut when this event happened called Sabra and Shatila.
He quit academia and has done a great job ever since. And he moved his operations to Jordan. And Questscope now works in Jordan, inside Syria as well, Lebanon, northern Iraq, Yemen, Egypt and beyond. It focuses on school dropouts, on promoting – on working kids, on juvenile offenders, on low-income young women. And it runs mentoring programs and vocational training and provides alternative education to these at-risk groups. There’s so many more Questscopes for us to look – to support.
The point is to find – I’ll sum up right now. The point is to find – I’ll sum up right now. The point is to find these success stories, support them on the ground, as they do the most – as they get to the most vulnerable groups, as well as to support the big international organizations, without which we cannot do this. So in summation – in summary: Support both the refugees and the host communities. Tailor our support country-by-country. Target our aid to municipalities, as well as to national governments. Target our aid to refugee children as much as possible. Find the Questscopes and the other grassroots organizations country-by-country. And for god’s sakes, mobilize our foreign policy establishment to end this savage, evil, bloody, evolving and expanding civil war. Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Susan Akram.
SUSAN M. AKRAM, Clinical Professor, Boston University School of Law;
Supervising Attorney, Boston University Civil Litigation Program
Thank you very much. And I realize that even the order of speakers has been very carefully thought out, because I think we all pick up from where the prior speaker left off and complement each other. And I really want to thank the Middle East Policy Center and also the Carnegie Fund for both inviting us and putting this together, and also allowing this conversation to happen amongst people who are in very different disciplines, bring our work together to hopefully amplify our voices.
And I’m going to share the research conducted by the Boston University International Human Right Clinic today. We have a very dense report available on our website. And we brought some executive summaries today. If you would like one, just touch base with me or Violeta Haralampieva, who’s in the back and has a number of copies.
So as you’ve heard already, and all of you here know, the Syrian refugee crisis has brought tremendous challenges to the region. And our research attempted to map out one aspect of the crisis that has received very little attention so far, and to provide a very concrete proposal for addressing the human beings who are the victims of this refugee crisis.
So our aim with the study that we completed in July of 2014 was to first map the interplay of laws and policies at the domestic and regional level, affecting the refugees in four main host states – Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – and then to address the key protection gaps between existing legal obligations and implementation on the ground. Our second focus links those findings to international obligations of responsibility sharing – and I mean legal obligations, binding legal obligations – and then to assess the concrete legal mechanisms that require third states outside the region to offer refugee and humanitarian status to refugees in their territories.
So the primary recommendation in our report is a call for a comprehensive plan of action, or a CPA, for the Syrian refugee crisis. Our focus has been to identify legal obligations in the European and American regions and in key third states to grant refugees and other displaced persons a combination of short and long-term status through immigration, humanitarian, temporary protection, subsidiary protection and family unification mechanisms.
I want to make a few main observations before giving a bit of background to the recommendations and then breaking them down slightly more. As you heard from Denis, no more than 20,000 Syrian refugees have sought asylum outside of the region to date. And very few have been granted so far. The U.S. and Canada together have recorded asylum seekers in the hundreds, and that’s not likely to grow under current reception policies. Visas to Syrians from Europe and the U.S. fell dramatically, primarily as a result of the closing of embassies in Syria and more restrictions placed on them in other embassies in the region.
Other restrictive policies in Europe and the Americans that have been penalizing illegal border crossers and preventing access to refugee status are creating enormous barriers to Syrian asylum seekers. All actors agree that resettlement under current policies will not address more than a few thousand Syrian refugees from outside the Middle East region. For example, the U.S.’s yearly quota of 70,000 resettlement slots has not even been met over the last decade, let alone any serious discussion of expanding that number to respond to this crisis.
Although Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon have insisted on resettlement as a condition of their allowing refugee processing of Syrians in their country, they have grave concerns about being the status where large resettlement actually takes place to the West, because it will make them a draw for more refugees to come to their territories.
All the nongovernmental organizations that we met across the region in the two years of this work expressed concern about the huge backlog of refugee applications from other pre-existing refugee populations in those states – Somali, Sudanese, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians – some of whom have been waiting for years after refugee registration for resettlement. One Egyptian NGO staff member said bitterly to us: Our backlogged refugees now have make way for the flavor of the month.
And finally, a major concern about the Palestinians who have been trapped in a region that has opted out of the international refugee regime, who have no protection agency or access to durable solution. And each wave of Palestinian refugee flow has exacerbated their very unique protection gap. As you’ve heard, there are now close to 4 million refugees from Syria in the neighboring states. In each host country, the refugees face different laws and policies and different reception conditions and barriers to protection.
I want to give just a quick overview of the situation in each of the four countries we focused on in our two years of research – Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey – and some of the main protection problems, and then close with unpacking briefly some of the main recommendations about the CPA.
So starting with Egypt, since its 1954 agreement with UNHCR, Egypt has turned all responsibility for registration, documentation and refugee status determination to UNHCR. The Egyptian government gives residence permits to those deemed refugees by UNHCR. And UNHCR, interestingly enough and rather uniquely in the region, is party to both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 African Convention on Refugees, which together expand the definition of refugee to a far greater category of persons than just the 1951 refugee convention alone.
And because UNHCR in Egypt recognizes refugees on the basis of both of these treaty definitions, the number of registered refugees has soared. Unfortunately, resettlement countries with which UNHCR negotiates do not accept the 1969 OAU definition. Thus, there’s little or no access to durable solution for the vast majority of refugees in Egypt and the thousands of refugees have been waiting for years for resettlement prior to the Syrian crisis, and today.
So, Syrian refugees arrive in Egypt in the wake of these large numbers of other refugees who’ve flooded the country – Palestinians, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Iraqis and Somalis. And these refugees have faced significant hardships. And if they entered illegally through the Sinai and are caught trying to enter Israel, they’re detained and removed immediately. From 2008 onwards, thousands of Eritreans, Ethiopians and Sudanese have been detained and deported from Egypt.
At the start of the crisis, Syrians could enter for three months on a tourist visa. And when Syrians entered this way, they did not go to UNHCR for registration. But these entry requirements changed in July of 2013 when the government required procurement of a visa prior to arrival in Egypt, along with security clearance, which of course they could not get. Once their visas expire, Syrians are expected to register with the government and refugee status determination in Egypt has increased dramatically, with about 125,000 Syrian registration card holders as of last year.
But Egyptian policies have changed over time towards both the Palestinians and – from Syria, and the Syrians. And Palestinians from Syria have very distinct challenges in Egypt. They can enter if they have Syrian travel documents, but most do not. UNHCR is ostensibly responsible for Palestinians from Syria, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not allowed UNHCR to register Palestinians. And they have had difficulty renewing their visas. Palestinian refugees in Egypt comprise one of the largest pre-existing refugee populations in the country, but Egypt excludes Palestinians from protection or assistance from UNHCR and does not recognize them as refugees under either of the two treaties that I mentioned, the Refugee Convention or the African Convention of ’69.
For the Palestinians from Syria, the situation in Egypt has become desperate. Many are being detained and arrested for illegal presence. There have been over a thousand Palestinians from Syria detained. And the government has made their release conditional on obtaining airline tickets out of Egypt. Since there’s nowhere most Palestinians can go, they’ve been trying to leave Egypt illegally by boats, heading to Italy, or getting out of Egypt any way they can through the use of smugglers. And they’re among the highest number of casualties in the drownings in the Mediterranean.
So let me move to Jordan very quickly. Jordan also has no established refugee law, but over 2 million refugees – registered refugees live in Jordan. As many as 450,000 – besides the Syrians, as many as 450,000 Iraqi refugees are residing in Jordan, while the government gives the number of Palestinians in Jordan as 2 million – and that is now on top of the 1 million or 1.3 million Syrians between the registered and unregistered. Again, Jordan is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the protocol. The primary reference to refugees under Jordanian law is its constitution, which refers only to political refugees. But that is only applied in exceptional cases and no provisions exist for defining asylum eligibility.
Prior to the Syrian refugee crisis, of course, the primary non-Palestinian refugees were from Iraq. And as I said, as many as 450,000 Iraqis may be living in Jordan today. UNHCR’s been operating in Jordan since 1991 under a memorandum of understanding which was just recently amended this last year. And this allows asylum seekers to remain in Jordan pending their status determination. And UNHCR-recognized refugees can remain for six months after recognition. But Jordan, like Lebanon and Egypt, both claim – all claim that they are not asylum countries. An asylum-seeker is someone who is registered in that country but is seeking asylum elsewhere.
Jordan accepted this agreement of the six-month stay on the condition that the refugees would be resettled or repatriated within the six months. Despite the six month limit on permits, Jordan was, as a matter of practice, renewing the permits and service cards of Syrian refugees until late last year when Jordan closed its borders to new Syrian refugee arrivals entirely. The major protection and status problems in Jordan have been the conditions in the camps, the reluctance of many refugees now to register because of the six-month limitation, the inability to work and the situation of Palestinians.
Palestinian refugees from Syria are registered as Palestinians ex-Syria, not new registrants into Jordan. And the Jordanian government early on put a policy in place of not one more Palestinian in Jordan. That was early in 2014. There is no detention and removal of Palestinians back to Syria, and neither UNRWA nor – I’m sorry – there is detention going on now of Palestinians back to Syria.
And neither UNRWA nor any of the NGOs we have spoken to have been successful at intervening in the detention and deportation of Palestinians. Hundreds of Palestinians have been deported. And mixed Palestinian-Syria and Palestinian-Jordanian families have been separated, as the non-Palestinian spouse has been able to remain but not the Palestinian spouse. At the same time, Syria has put an unofficial policy in place that any Palestinian who has registered – been able to register before the policy changed who leaves the country cannot return.
So quickly to Lebanon, which is very similar to Jordan except for the no camps. As of January 2014, an estimated 1 million Syrian refugees are currently in Lebanon, as you heard from both Karen and Denis, 25 percent of Lebanon is now refugees. And Lebanon, like Jordan, is not a party to the refugee treaty or the protocol. As in Jordan, UNHCR and UNRWA are the two main agencies dealing with refugees from Syria and Palestinian refugees from Syria. UNHCR makes all the refugee status determinations of non-Palestinian refugees.
Aside from Syrians and Palestinian refugees, again, there’s pre-existing refugee populations from Iraq and Sudan in Lebanon, and of course, the 60-plus-year refugee community of Palestinians, from ’48 onwards. Lebanon is very similar to Jordan in that it has not comprehensive domestic legal framework on treatment of refugees. All refugees, like foreigners, fall under the single law regulating entry stay and exit from Lebanon of 1962, which has a very narrow definition of refugee and very limited provisions on refugees, and no asylum process.
UNHCR’s agreement with the government allows refugees to obtain a temporary circulation permit for 12 months. And during that time, UNHCR is supposed to resettle the individual somewhere else. The memorandum of understanding allows these circulation permits to be given to non-Palestinian refugees. They can be renewed for six months and then for three-month periods. Removal is taking place and the government doesn’t typically inform UNHCR in advance of removing refugees.
So the major protection problems in Lebanon are the informal camp settlements, because Lebanon’s official policy is not one more camp in Lebanon. And most of these unofficial settlements are on private land in rural areas and outside cities. And many landowners are requiring the refugees, in addition to paying rent, to work on their fields in order to stay in their settlements.
Lack of registration of refugees in the cities, difficulties with service provision, again, lack of status because as time goes on permits are not renewed, people are falling out of status, and a new phenomenon of statelessness because children of refugees being born in Lebanon are not able to get birth certificates and registration in any country. Arbitrary detention and, as I mentioned, reported forced returns.
Ten percent of the Syrian refugee population, probably higher now, lives in these tented settlements, non-recognized by the government. And Palestinians have primarily gone to reside in the pre-existing Palestinian camps, exacerbating a huge problem because the poorest people in Lebanon are in the Palestinian refugee camps. So Syrian Palestinians who have been used to quite a high standard of living are now living in the most impoverished conditions.
Even before the Syrian crisis, Lebanon was thought to be detaining hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees, including those registered, and authorities continue to arrest refugees for illegal entry. Between the time we completed our report in July of 2014 and when I returned to the region in March of this year, as I mentioned, both Jordan and Lebanon had closed their borders to any new refugees coming from Syria.
So I’ll end with Turkey, which is a completely – presents a completely different picture from the other countries. Before 2014, Turkey’s refugee laws were in its 1994 regulation on procedures on movements of aliens. And under that regulation, non-Europeans could obtain something called temporary asylum in Turkey. Only Europeans can get asylum in Turkey under the way Turkey has ratified its commitment to the refugee convention.
But these non-Europeans could not get refugee recognition or permanent asylum. As the number of refugees from the Syrian conflict started growing in 2011, the Turkish government put in place a policy to grant people arriving from Syria temporary protection status. The Turkish government informed us that their temporary protection procedures were modeled on the EU qualifications directive on temporary protection that was passed during the Balkan crisis.
And under that policy, Syrian nationals arriving in Turkey and entering one of the17 camps – now there’s 20-plus camps, right, 22 – run by the Turkish government have immediate access to an application for temporary protection, a very minimal registration process, immediately granted essentials – shelter, food, health care, housing – in state-of-the-art camps, really, I think we all agree about that. Syrian nationals living in urban areas in Turkey are now getting registered with UNHCR. And all registered refugees are guaranteed non-refoulement amongst the essential service provision.
Now, the biggest development in the entire region is the passage of Turkey’s new 2014 law on foreigners and international protection, the LFIP. The LFIP has created a new migration agency, the DGMA, which removes the management of refugees and other protection-seekers from the ad hoc policies of the police in the different regions and centralizes all the procedures related to foreigners, asylum seekers, refugees and other entrants into Turkey.
The LFIP institutionalizes the temporary protection program that Turkey has put in place that provides this temporary asylum, temporary protection and also authorizes asylum and refugee processes for the different groups. It also contains a provision that tracks both Article 1(d) of the ’51 convention and another Article 12(1) of the European Union’s 2004 directive. And these together extend recognition to Palestinians as beneficiaries of refugee or subsidiary protection status. So Turkey is the only country that makes no distinction between Syrian nationals and Palestinians from Syria in the granting of protection.
And this leads me to the relationship between policies in the region and policies in other regions on the world that affect the Syrian refugees. You’ll notice in reading the agency European and Regional Response Plans that they all focus on money. Billions of dollars have already been spent on the crisis. Turkey alone has spent over 4 billion of its own money, exceeding the entire donation of the EU so far to the crisis.
But these plans all work on a paradigm of containment of the refugee crisis in the region. Our goal in our work is to push back against the paradigm and refocus a refugee advocacy dialogue on a shared protection program that identifies status mechanisms to allow refugees to move out of the region and lift the crisis from the Middle East to become a shared responsibility towards the refugees themselves.
Taking these main issues into account, our recommendations are for a comprehensive plan of action, focusing first on a temporary protection plan in the region modeled on Turkey’s temporary protection program, which is working incredibly well. We’ve proposed an extension of this plan for Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, grounded in the Casablanca protocol, which all the Arab states are party to, and the Arab charter, but closely modeled on the Turkey-EU temporary protection directive.
The temporary protection plan allows for basic rights to be afforded uniformly in each of the host states with the assistance of the aid funding flowing into the region to make this feasible. Second, the European Regional Protection Plan, much like the one after the Balkan crisis that puts in place a temporary protection program that would allow Syrians to enter on two-to-three year statuses, hosted by refugee agencies and Arab communities in each state to guarantee short-term integration while the crisis plays itself out.
Third, for the U.S., Canada and the EU, expedited resettlement and expanded resettlement slots for the backlogged non-Syrian refugees throughout the region. Other refugees should not have to pay for the Syrian crisis either. And there’s a way to provide protection to both groups, one short term and one long term, under existing laws.
Fourth, a temporary protection plan for Syrians and Palestinians in the U.S., Canada and Latin America, processed directly through the consulates in the Middle East region, and an admission plan with three to five year statuses in key states in Latin America, under the Mexico plan of action, modeled on a similar program after the Iraq War.
I’m happy to talk about more of these in the question and answer, but I think I’ve run out of time and I’ll end here. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you.
SARA ROY, Senior Research Scholar, Center for Middle East Studies,
Thank you. I’d like to begin by thanking Denis Sullivan for the Middle East Policy Council for inviting me to join this very distinguished panel. I’m very delighted to be here.
The refugee crisis in Syria is now four-years old. Gaza’s is 67-years old. I was asked to speak about humanitarian action in Gaza as an example of what the international community should avoid in its approach to the Syrian humanitarian crisis. Despite the differences in the two situations, Gaza’s experience with humanitarianism, broadly defined as the capacity to alleviate suffering and help those in need, may hold some vital lessons.
During my first research trip to Gaza in 1985, and in one of my first interviews about the occupation with the late Dr. Hatem Abu Ghazaleh, he told me, quote, “Nothing is more permanent than the temporary. As you proceed in your work, never forget this.” End quote. The condition of Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip, where the majority are refugees, powerfully evokes Dr. Abu Ghazaleh’s admonition.
As Professor Ilana Feldman, who has written extensively on humanitarianism in Gaza, observes, “Humanitarianism, most often pursued under U.N. auspices, could be said to be one of the most consistent aspects of Palestinian life since the displacement and dispossession of most of the population in the 1948 war,” end-quote.
As a former student of mine who worked for years in the humanitarian community in the West Bank in Gaza wrote in her exceptional master’s thesis on the subject, quote, “Despite the temporary nature of the humanitarian mandate, humanitarianism has progressed in parallel with the durability of Israeli occupation of Gaza, creating a permanent aid infrastructure to meet the needs of the local population.”
Now, for purposes of this discussion, I argue that humanitarianism in Gaza has two principle dimensions that are vital to address, especially in light of the Syrian crisis – the consistently profound and expanding need of the population on the one hand and the deliberate use of humanitarian aid to frustrate or achieve specific – or achieve specific political ends, including the prolongation of conflict and suffering on the other.
The situation in Gaza, as elsewhere in the world, speaks to a larger and extremely important debate in the field. Should humanitarian action, which can include a variety of interventions, confront the political causes of the crises it is there to address, or merely confine itself to the impact of those crises? Indeed, despite more than $25 billion of assistance given Palestinians over the last two decades, they are no closer to their political goals than they were in 1948, arguably they are further from them. In this regard, there is no such thing as neutral aid – humanitarian or otherwise.
Now, a bit of historical context about the humanitarian imperative in Gaza: In the near three decades that I’ve been involved with Gaza and her people, I have never seen the kind of human, physical and economic destruction that I see in Gaza today. This has given rise to certain dynamics never before seen in this – in that society. I’m going to assume that everyone here has some knowledge of conditions in Gaza and I’m not going to describe them in any detail.
But I will say this: Gaza is characterized by unprecedented levels of unemployment and impoverishment, with a population that is largely, and according to some accounts almost entirely, aid-dependent. These are talented, resourceful and energetic people, able and desperate to work. But they are denied that right and forced instead to rely on handouts. What is happening to Gaza is catastrophic. It is also deliberate, considered and purposeful. The international community, particularly Western donor governments, has directly contributed to creating and maintaining this terrible situation.
According to a recently released report by the Association of International Development Agencies, despite pledges of $3.5 billion for Gaza’s reconstruction after last summer’s military assault, reconstruction has barely begun, 100,000 people are still homeless and not one of the 19,000 homes totally destroyed out of 160,000 damaged in the war have been rebuilt – or, has been rebuilt. The report further charges that there has been no accountability to address violations of international law, what OCHA in a separate report referred to as a pervasive crisis of accountability, underscoring the total failure of the international community to challenge Israel’s damaging closure on Gaza, which has long undermined any form of economic activity, let alone economic recovery.
How did we arrive at this point? From the beginning of my work in the territory, prior to the First Intifada, humanitarianism had a prominent place in Israeli policy. In the mid-1980s I was there conducting research for my doctoral dissertation. I spent a good deal of time with Israeli government officials, all of whom make one point clear almost immediately, some more explicitly than others: There would be no economic development in the Palestinian territories, I was told. There were two reasons for this. The first, and relatively less important, was the need to eliminate any source of competition with the Israeli economy. The second and far more crucial reason was to preclude the establishment of any form of a Palestinian state.
I’ve never forgotten what one highly placed official in the Ministry of Defense told me almost 30 years ago, and here I am paraphrasing. He said, real economic development in the West Bank and Gaza could produce a viable economic infrastructure that, in turn, could provide the foundation for the establishment of a Palestinian state. And this will never be allowed to happen. Instead, I was told Israel provides for the social needs of the Palestinians – education, health and welfare – and for a certain level of employment in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs inside Israel and in their own under-developed economy. Hence, humanitarianism was couched in the language of social services, an improved standard of living and benign occupation, whose aim was explicitly political and directed to extinguishing any and all Palestinian political claims.
The struggle between political claims and humanitarian needs assumed a somewhat different form with the first Palestinian uprising, when people struggled to end the occupation, insisting that their problem was primarily political rather than humanitarian. Israel ultimately extinguished the uprising through massive economic pressure and restriction, a top priority for the Israeli economy at that time, imposing a long-term closure for the first time in 1991, a closure now in its 24th year.
With the 1993 Oslo peace process and the expectation of a brokered settlement to the conflict, the role of the donor community increased dramatically, as did the level of assistance to the Palestinian population. The Oslo process enabled Israel to claim that it was mitigating if not ending the occupation when in fact it was doing the exact opposite. Deepening its control of the territories through a variety of policies, including the growing isolation of Gaza from the West Bank and Israel, the territorial fragmentation of the West Bank and the large-scale expropriation of Arab land and other resources, largely for the building and expansion of Israeli settlements, all of which were meant to ensure Israel’s continued presence and preclude the establishment of a Palestinian state.
But now Israel was pursuing its political agenda with the tacit if not explicit support of key donor countries, which in effect where, intentionally or not, providing cover for if not actively facilitating this agenda. To the contrary, the political and economic illusions created by Oslo and the Oslo negotiation framework, and supported by a compliant Palestinian Authority and donor community, led to a range of economic programs and initiatives promoting economic peace under occupation. Economic peace argues that economic change, however defined, must precede political change, creating a context conducive for future political compromise.
In effect, this policy sees any form of economic improvement, no matter how insubstantial and meaningless, as a substitute for a just political resolution, in this case for ending occupation and the dispossession and denial that accompanies it. This approach, which still obtains, is fundamentally no different from Israeli policies in the early years of occupation, which similarly aimed to preclude Palestinian political demands through limited economic gains, under an occupation that continued to extract resources and negate Palestinian rights.
Over the last 15 years, conditions among Palestinians have eroded dramatically. And humanitarianism has assumed a dominant and defining place in Israel’s relationship with Gaza. Key events include the second Palestinian uprising in 2000 and its militarization, Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, and the accompanying argument that it no longer occupies Gaza, the election of Hamas in 2006 and its takeover of Gaza in 2007, and three massive assaults on Gaza in the last six years.
While a detailed analysis of the changing relationship between Israel and Gaza is beyond the scope of this talk, I’d like to highlight certain points that have had a profound impact on humanitarian action in the territory. A critical feature of the last 15 years is that Gaza’s status as an occupied territory has ceased to be a matter of international concern, the focus of attention having shifted after Hamas’ 2006 election and 2007 takeover, to Gaza’s enforced isolation, containment and punishment.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was reshaped to center on Gaza and on Israel’s hostile relationship with Hamas. Consequently, the occupation was transformed from a political and legal issue with international legitimacy into a simple border dispute, where the rules or war not of occupation apply. The West has largely come to accept Israel’s recasting of its relationship with Gaza from one between occupier and occupied to one between warring parties, which has facilitated Israeli attacks on Gaza, rendering as illegitimate any notion of freedom or democracy for Palestinians.
A key part of this transformation has been the imposition of Israel of an intensified closure, more commonly referred to as a blockade, which has devastated Gaza’s economy and produced a man-made humanitarian crisis. The Israeli government has referred to the blockade as a form of economic warfare. According to the Israeli NGO Gisha: “Damaging the enemy’s economy is in and of itself a legitimate means in warfare and a relevant consideration, even while deciding to allow the entry of relief consignments.”
Such measures are intentionally designed to undermine and deplete Gaza’s economy and productive capacity as part of Israel’s policy to bring down the Hamas regime and punish Gazans for supporting Hamas, and promote the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. In this regard, not only have major donors participated in the draconian sanction regime imposed on Gaza, they have privileged the West Bank over Gaza in their programmatic work. Consequently, donors have reinforced the division of Palestinians into two distinct and isolated entities, offering economic peace to one side and impoverishment to the other.
The recasting of Israel’s relationship with Gaza from occupied territory to entity governed by the rules of war has consequences in terms of Israeli policies towards the Palestinian economy, and the role of humanitarian action. Whereas prior to the First Intifada Israel sought to control and dominate the Palestinian economy, shaping it to serve its own interests, current policy attacks Gaza’s economic structure with the aim of permanently disabling it. In the process, transforming the population from a people with national, political and economic rights into a humanitarian problem, charity cases in need of relief, which is a more extreme version of humanitarianism as it was understood during the first two decades of occupation.
A senior official at Gisha captured the essence of Israel’s approach to Gaza: “In the rest of the world, we try to bring people up to the humanitarian standard. Gaza is the only place where we are trying to push them down, to keep them at the lowest possible indicators.” In this way, Israel creates and uses a humanitarian problem to manage a political one. Given the policy of economic warfare against Gaza, it is but a short step from the goal of isolation and disablement to that of abstraction and deletion.
Israeli policy has also shifted from addressing the economy in some manner – whether positively or negatively – to dispensing with the concept of an economy altogether. That is, rather than weaken Gaza’s economy through punishing closures and other restrictions, as has long been the case, the Israeli government, through its intensified closure or blockade, treats the economy as totally irrelevant, a dispensable luxury where market forces no longer play any role. Humanitarianism has been a vital policy instrument in this effort, shaping the way the international community interacts with Gaza.
Within this construct where Israel, with the support of the U.S., EU and Egypt especially, creates and maintains a continuous humanitarian problem, Palestinians are not only reduced to a humanitarian issue, a demographic presence in an impoverished enclave deprived of their economic and political rights and dependent on the goodwill of the international community for food, shelter and other services, they are rendered disposable and irrelevant, making no difference except as charity cases and terrorists.
Consequently, as Ilana Feldman makes clear, because Gaza’s humanitarian space is restricted to military actors, recipients and aid and humanitarian workers, “It is not only Gaza as a space, but Gazans as a people that can be further isolated in the humanitarian frame.” My former student writes: “What happens when humanitarian actors who are meant to work under short-term circumstances that are immediate and life-threatening, are intentionally stripped of political agency and made to work in a highly politicized and restrictive environment that is long term in nature and that perpetuates the conditions that create and maintain the ruin?” This is a question that aid providers must consider with regard to the Syrian humanitarian crisis.
Hence, Gaza and the humanitarian community currently must confront a very distorted reality, whose principle features include: the depoliticization of Gaza and its transformation into a humanitarian problem under conditions of continued belligerent occupation; the derogation by the occupier of its responsibilities to the international community, where humanitarian actors are used as a political tool; andthe implementation of policies by the occupier, notably the blockade, and restrictions on access that severely restrict the humanitarian community from fully carrying out its work, often forcing it to do what is possible rather than what is needed. Gaza’s humanitarian crisis is a result of occupation. And any discussion of humanitarian aid must confront and engage this political fact directly.
Now, I’d like to turn briefly to some recommendations based on the Gazan experience. A colleague and friend with 30 years of experience working as a humanitarian and development actor in different parts of the world, including a considerable amount of time in Gaza, recently wrote me the following: “In Gaza, it’s difficult to escape the profound mismatch between the tools of humanitarian aid – temporary, minimalist, needs-based – and the demands of the situation, which are political, enduring, aspirational and economic. Humanitarianism is not the appropriate response to a nation in manmade limbo.”
Gaza’s long experience with humanitarianism holds some lessons for Syria’s humanitarian crisis. And here, I draw on the work of former students and other humanitarian actors I’ve known. First, if the separation of the humanitarian and political realms is necessary in the short term, it is dysfunctional and harmful in the long term. Quoting a colleague: “Gaza’s chronic humanitarian need is very real, but has been artificially created and intentionally maintained."
Over time, a complex humanitarian infrastructure has developed to respond to these needs and by its continued presence helps sustain them. The humanitarian community remains, while the political community is largely obstructive and complicit in maintaining these damaging conductions, opting for a policy of managing conflict through containment and impoverishment, rather than resolving conflict through political actions. Without a political resolution, this approach is as unsustainable as it is volatile.
Second, assistance and those actors responsible for delivering it cannot replace a political solution, but must engage it. Professor Larissa Fast, who is a scholar of conflict resolution and who has focused on aid and humanitarianism states that in an ideal situation humanitarian aid would not need to address root causes of the conflict, since other parties would have the will and the capacities to do so, trying to address the problem politically while humanitarians address the suffering.
But in Gaza, this is not the case. Hence, donor agencies need to hold Israel and their own host governments accountable for the very real and damaging cost of occupation. And the humanitarian community should insist that donor agents engage politically. And third, while humanitarian action cannot substitute for political intervention or compensate for the absence of a political process, it should not allow itself to become instrumentalized or weaponized by that process.
Now I’d like to turn very briefly, before I conclude, to a few recommendations that speak to more programmatic concerns of a long-term crisis that exceed the provision of immediate relief. First, in Gaza’s case, the separation of the political and humanitarian spheres has produced considerable internal confusion, with little protest of the restrictions to which humanitarians are subject. As constraints on movement and service delivery increase, the humanitarian community often accedes, for fear of losing access and funding, rather than contests.
Thus, it is imperative that humanitarian actors act as a coordinated collective, with a common, clearly articulated understanding of its objectives, purpose and resources, insisting on and publicizing needed reforms without fear of retribution. In Gaza, for example, say my informants, the humanitarian community should maintain a collective position toward Israel and lobby strongly on issues like the free movement of humanitarian personnel, especially local staff wishing to enter and exit Gaza, on obtaining permits for local and international staff, on lifting access restrictions and lifting restrictions on contact with the Hamas authorities.
Second, humanitarian actors must serve as a source of information for donor agencies and donor governments concerning the very damaging conditions and the impact of their policies. Third, Ilana Feldman has powerfully argued that “degraded expectations are part of a process and practice of isolating Gaza.” Humanitarian action, therefore, must focus on empowering, not disempowering people, as has happened in Gaza, addressing and strengthening human agency before it is diminished. In this regard, it is essential to acknowledge the refugees’ role in decision making, engaging people and their political representatives as agents in their own betterment and in shaping a reality where they can imagine a future for themselves and their children.
Fourth, in Gaza’s highly restricted environment humanitarian actors will seek projects for which they can obtain approval. And they can include a range of contributions, from food and shelter, teacher training and mental health rehabilitation, to certain kinds of economic activity, such as infrastructural works, water desalination and sewage treatment projects. Whether by design or default, and despite the importance of the services provided, humanitarian action over the long term runs the risk of further weakening, if not supplanting, an already diminished local economy, effectively acting as a vital if not principle source of economic activity. It is essential, therefore, that humanitarian action, to the degree possible, become integrated with, not replacements for, the local economies in which they work.
And, in conclusion, what is a humanitarian actor to do when donors use aid in lieu of political solutions, a looming possibility in the Syrian case? My colleague responds: “In Gaza, we are beyond this. Now relief is the politics of choice. At present, it is very difficult to find any development funds for Gaza. Unlike the past, donors won’t invest because they don’t want their assets bombed. While this is understandable, the net result is that Gaza is condemned to relief, not progress. There is no investment in civil society or in imagining alternatives or futures.”
In fact, for too long the approach of foreign assistance providers has not been about moving Gaza forward into the future but at best about restoring Gaza to a less-compromised position of the past. Will Syria’s displaced be similarly condemned to this approach – to relief instead of progress? Again, quoting my colleague, "when that happens, she says, and when the relief is massively inadequate, as it is in Gaza today, then at some point one has to ask whether it is ethical for an actor to agree to be used to keep this tatty, threadbare lid on the place. Is it ethical to consent to implement the fairness of such scarcity?"
In the world of aid, there have been certain milestones of change. At one point, my friend says, "we believed the recipients of humanitarian aid should be innocent. We acknowledge the distorting potential of aid in a place of scarcity and we decided that aid should do no harm, a thoroughly different ethical standard from the one we see today. We evaluated impacts other than need. Then we began to proactively wield the power of the commodity of aid.
"We came away with categories of the deserving and less-deserving displaced, and I feel as though humanitarianism has increasingly become the management of troublesome populations at the edge of perpetual conflicts. It seems to me that with Palestinians, we’ve reached a policy of not solving, a policy of agreeing not to envision solutions. This does not feel like an oversight. It seems like a choice. The management of inconvenient populations with no vision of anything but further management, no vision even of reconstructing the homes lost last summer."
The question I shall leave you with is this: Will Syria’s displaced be the next iteration of this truly unacceptable choice? Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Well, I’d like to thank all the speakers. And we do have some good questions from the floor.
I just want to say, before – I didn’t hear enough of this. Anybody who watches television or reads the newspaper already knows this, but for the record for our event, why are there refugees and internally displaced and why do we need a political solution in addition to a humanitarian solution? Let me just go through the list in Karen’s report.
On the side of the Syrian government we have mass killings, encirclement and siege of population centers, bombardment and shelling – some of it indiscriminate, some of it apparently quite deliberate – on people waiting in bread lines and in schools, arrests, torture, disappearances, rape, systematic rape, denial of humanitarian aid, deliberate attacks on humanitarian aid workers and deliverers. That’s on the Syrian government side.
On the side of the non-state actors we have executions, amputations, lashings, stonings, torture, rape, sex slavery, again indiscriminate shelling and deliberate shelling, hostage-taking for ransom, more sieges of population centers, car bombings, suicide bombings, mass killings and enlistment of child soldiers. That’s why we have refugees and internally displaced I think, and why a political solution is important.
And as a matter of fact, the questions from the floor – a lot of them are about a political solution. And so let’s just ask for all of you – the most general question of all is: What do you believe the U.S. can do but hasn’t done to resolve this civil war? More specific questions are: Do you believe that if the U.S. had acted militarily when chemical weapons use was first discovered in 2013 we would be looking at a different picture today?
Then we could go back even beyond – even earlier than that, and say if no-fly zones and safe havens had been established, would we be in a different situation today? And if they were established now, would it be better for the refugees to be in camps inside those zones? And on the question of humanitarian assistance, given the mix of groups fighting in Syria, how is it possible to know we’re providing aid to the right people?
So let’s start with those general questions – American policy and the policy of its partners and friends. Anyone?
DR. SULLIVAN: Do you want to start with that one? No, not at all? Tag, I’m it. Is this working OK, or –
DR. MATTAIR: Yeah, the mics were turned off because of feedback. Have they been turned back on? But I think the room is small enough – yeah.
DR. SULLIVAN: As I was saying over there, tag I’m it. On the political solution, I guess since I did insert my political recommendation and I am recovering political scientist, I’ll do this.
The political solution, what can the United States do? A couple years ago – I think it’s almost three years ago, but at least two, two and a half years ago there was movement to have a Geneva discussion with Russia and the United States. I say that’s the first thing we should do. Yes, we’re having lots of problem with our dear friend Vlad – Vladimir Putin, but we need to be discussing with him. We need to – President Obama has invited the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Emirates, Omanis – the GCC leadership to Camp David. This should be – this should be top agenda. I know Iran is the top agenda, but all of these things, of course, are – pay into one another.
So I think – I do think the United – I was quite serious about the – it doesn’t have to be James Baker, but it can be Bakeresque, where we have an international coalition coming together trying to figure this out. And without the United States and Russia inviting the players, it ain’t going to happen. So that’s the first thing that should be done.
I can just answer two of the other questions and then give the podium up. Had we bombed Syria, would Syria – I’m paraphrasing the question – but had we bombed Syria, how would Syria be different today? I can only imagine it would be far worse and hundreds of thousands of dead, on top of the 220,000 dead that we already know of. That’s my assumption. I don’t believe that bombing Syria was going to be the solution.
And that gets to a third question that I heard, the – raising the issue of safety zones, humanitarian corridors. This is something I’ve been – I’ve been trying to promote, the idea. Turkey, I believe, has instituted very small scale safety zones inside the Syrian border. I don’t know if they’re still in effect, but a couple years ago – about a year and a half ago, I think there’s – is that a yes that they’re still in effect? Good. Yes, they’re still in effect. These are – these are humanitarian corridors and safety zones. If the United States were to do this, again, it would require Russia’s participation.
So again, it all starts with – getting back to my first point, of the political solution that has to be moving – we have to plant the flag. We have to hold our talks, whether it’s Geneva or somewhere else. We’ve got to get this going.
DR. MATTAIR: Any other panelists?
MS. ABUZAYD: Yeah. Let me add something – I don’t know – well, I think it’s working now.
DR. MATTAIR: Are these mics working yet?
MS. ABUZAYD: I think so. No?
MS. ABUZAYD: OK. When we were talking inclusive from the point of view of the commission, and I think other parts of the international community, we mean, yes of course, Russia. We also mean Iran, and it has to be part of this solution or they will still continue to do what they do with Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shia militia and so on. So unless the whole international community is united, we’re still not going to get anywhere.
DR. MATTAIR: Susan.
PROF. AKRAM: I think I would differ slightly from Denis in Turkey on the no-fly zones. And I think safety zones and humanitarian corridors are not the same thing. And in terms of no-fly or safety zones, I think the experience of the international community with those has been extremely negative. Zepa and Srebrenica are very much in my mind. And I think those have – we don’t have a successful precedent for no-fly or safety zones.
But humanitarian corridors are very much needed, necessary. And I think Turkey is doing some of that. In fact, beyond Turkey’s borders there are – Turkey is actually supporting refugee camps inside Syria and humanitarian assistance is going inside Syria from Turkey. But humanitarian corridors allows for people to leave safety and no-fly zones and trap people. So I think those are quite different.
And I guess I am just flummoxed, is the best word, about why we don’t have an international arms embargo on any arms company selling arms that are going in the direction of Syria. That’s another piece of an international coalition. And that is something that the U.S. has successfully done against Iran and other countries for, you know, decades, knows how to do it. And that, frankly, was the final straw to end Apartheid in South Africa, the complicity of corporations, including arms corporations. So those are my two cents worth, and I’m not a political scientist.
DR. MATTAIR: Are these mics – they’re not working. OK. So can I ask the Washington Court Hotel to turn the table microphones on, since we have paid for them? (Laughter.)
DR. SULLIVAN: You’re Ronald Reagan. (Laughter.) We paid for these microphones.
DR. MATTAIR: Yeah, I remember that.
All right, what is the level of willingness on the side of the – of anyone in the conflict to enter into negotiations toward peace? Is there any consensus among anti-Assad forces on what they want to establish if and when Assad is gone? Would a U.N. peacekeeping force be feasible and/or necessary?
MS. ABUZAYD: It one day could be necessary. Whether it’s feasible? No. It’s all those other divisions among the various parties to the conflict and the parties that are supporting them, so you’re just sort of stuck at the beginning. You can’t even get to first base.
DR. MATTAIR: Here is a question for Karen from a friend. And evidently you helped him and another Karen to visit seven regional refugee camps in 2009. and while they were doing that in Damascus Senator Kerry and President Assad were having dinner a few blocks away. Is there any chance that their relationship is being used? Maybe Ford can talk about that as well.
MS. ABUZAYD: Better than me.
AMB. FRAKER: So I think overlaying all the discussion this morning is the political discussion, because humanitarian aid if you look through the history of conflicts throughout the world not just in the Middle East, it’s the political overlay, it’s the political solution, it’s the parties who have a political interest in the region who are the ones who in the end come together the effect some kind of a result.
So if you look at Syria, you know, the political actors are well-known. You have – you have the Iranians, you have the Russians, you have the Americans, you have the EU. And I think it’s very clear to everybody that there’s been very little movement on a political solution in Syria because of other activities, principally the U.S.-Iranian engagement on the nuclear side, which I feel very strongly has prevented any useful dialogue happening between the United States and Iran on any kind of a Syrian solution.
So I think that the issues to track are the political ones. And until you see certain events having occurred that will allow the principle actors then to turn their attention to Syria, you won’t see any progress there. And in terms of the specific question about Secretary Kerry using his relationship with Assad to move things forward privately, that is definitely not happening.
MS. ABUZAYD: Tom, before we go on, could I just make a couple of – yeah, it’s working now, I think. I want just to make a couple small points that – just because they’re interesting and important but very small, is this question of, Denis mentioned, why would people go to Iraq? It must be really bad as a refugee.
The people who’ve gone to Iraq – Iraqi Kurdistan are all Kurds. A few Arabs among them, but they’re still treated like the Kurds. So they have – they’re the best-off refugees anywhere. Their kids are in school. They can get jobs. They’re free to act as Kurds among Kurds. And as I say, after 30 years of refugee work, it’s the first time I’ve ever been with refugees who say to me, we have no problems.
The other – one other small thing is that third shift in schools – in Lebanese schools, that’s – the space has been opened up for a third shift to allow the teachers and the Syrians to provide the education for the school kids.
DR. SULLIVAN: Syrian teachers.
MS. ABUZAYD: Yeah, Syrian teachers, right.
DR. ROY: I just want to – is this on?
DR. ROY: I’d just like to say that obviously the political is vital, it’s essential. And nothing meaningful can truly occur in my view, when we’re talking about Syria or Gaza or Palestine as a whole, without a political resolution. Among some of my friends and colleagues in Gaza, people I’ve known for many years who are very astute analysts who are from there, they’re beginning to ask questions that I’ve never heard before. And the main question I’m starting to hear from these people is, have we reached a point of no return politically? Has the situation deteriorated to such a degree that at least in the short to medium term it is unsalvageable politically?
And one can certainly make arguments supporting that. And one of the big concerns among people I talked to is that the continual marginalization, demonization and criminalization of Hamas – whether we like them or not – has created a vacuum. And that vacuum is being filled by forces that will become far more difficult to deal with and will further compromise the situation in a way that will prove extremely damaging.
Now, the problems – the reasons for this are many, but the point is that we need to think about how far along this political continuum we are and what does it mean? And I’m hearing these kinds of questions asked by people who are certainly not Hamas supporters, but who are, you know, nationalists, who are astute analysts, who understand the situation, who have lived it for their whole lives. And their response, or the response of some of them, has been to say to me, we are leaving. We see no future here. We see no solution that’s acceptable. We see no end point other than further deterioration.
So I don’t know if we’ve reached that point in the Palestinian situation, but I think it’s clearly a question worth thinking about. People there are beginning to ask it – or are asking it. And it’s a question that we need to think about with regard to the Syrian situation as well.
MS. ABUZAYD: Well, I would say that that’s – it’s a question already being asked by Syrians, because they don’t see – they see this going on and on and on. They don’t see an end to it and they don’t see how we’re ever going to get everybody together to get some agreement and move forward. I mean, we have, for example, six-point plans that are going along – around the international community which include things like end the violence, have a political process for transition which includes Syrians – Syrian led process. I mean, are any of these reasonable? Of course, increase humanitarian aid, which then we get back to what we’ve done in Gaza.
There should be freedom of movement and freedom of action and people should be allowed to demonstrate. Are these reasonable? Is that what is needed at the moment or not? And then some specific things, like let’s release all those who are arbitrarily arrested, and then what about all those others? What about all those people that are tortured in detention and so on and so forth? It’s – you know, this is – we’re just at such a stage we don’t even think clearly about a plan – that’s what I like to hear, a plan on resettlement at least. Thanks.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, here’s a very specific comment and then a question. Someone is telling us that on “60 Minutes” on Sunday there was a piece on the use of sarin gas in Syria. Sarin gas or chlorine gas?
MS. ABUZAYD: Sarin.
DR. MATTAIR: OK.
MS. ABUZAYD: (Inaudible.)
DR. MATTAIR: Uh-huh. And it’s chlorine gas that’s being used now. And sarin was used when?
MS. ABUZAYD: That was the earlier – the first chemical weapons.
DR. MATTAIR: In the suburbs around Damascus.
MS. ABUZAYD: Yes, al-Ghouta.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. And the question: Among the grave concerns raised by the crisis the fate of school-age children who will become a lost generation educationally and morally. The possibility of recruitment by extremist groups is already apparent. What more can be done to improve the educational opportunities? And should an international organization such as UNRWA be created to deal with that?
You were talking about children –
MS. ABUZAYD: Yeah.
DR. SULLIVAN: Yeah, I’ll go ahead and let Karen speak and then I’ll address that as well.
MS. ABUZAYD: Yeah. UNRWA at least has access to the people that it’s serving. I don’t know the people that – I don’t think we want to create another UNRWA to do this. I would think that some of the NGOs and others that are interested in education might think about a way to deal with the refugee loss of education. But even worse is what’s happening inside Syria in terms of the loss of educational opportunities. And that will be a real problem in who can do that, who could go in, who could help.
DR. SULLIVAN: So I’ll just use Jordan as my primary example, but what I’m hearing from Karen increasingly is that this third shift inside Lebanon is, I do think, the model for what one answer to this question, and that is that the third shift in Lebanon is the use of Lebanese school facilities in the system, but bringing in the Syrian teachers to teach Syrian children. This has been denied in Jordan and so hundreds of thousands of children in Jordan, tens and tens of thousands of those are not even in school.
And again, while Zaatari Refugee Camp, which is, you know, considered sometimes the – I guess it is considered the third largest – no, it used to be the fourth-largest city in Jordan. Now it’s the third-largest city in Jordan. It’s anywhere between 90(,000), upwards of 100,000 people at any one time. I mean, people go in, people go out. But when I was there last summer, the last quote I had was something like 30,000 children are not – are eligible for school that are not receiving it. There’s another 10(,000) or 15,000 children that are going to the schools. So part of it is getting the facilities.
The model of – again, that I’m really – I don’t know if excitement is the right word when you hear about this – but I’m really eager to hear more about this Lebanese third shift model, because that’s really – that helps both the local communities as well as the Syrian refugees. And I think that’s what – I think that’s what we’re arguing for, is this notion of these are bound together – their destinies are bound together for a good many years. And if we can find a solution for one that also benefits the other, that’s exactly where I think the aid community needs to go.
And the schools – yes, there’s a great need for education and there’s great solutions available. It does require that trigger from the Jordanian government, in this case, to do what the Lebanese are about to do, and that is to allow the Syrian teachers to teach the Syrian children. It’s not the total solution, but that’s a great start.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, there are no more written questions, but I do see a lot of people here who we know well, the chairman of our board, Omar Kader is here. The editor of our journal, Anne Joyce is here. We have a board member, Richard Schmierer, here. We have a lot of people we know from Palestinian support community and the Syrian support community. So if – we will – we will turn to questions from the floor, but – if you have them – but please ask them loudly so that the recorders pick them up, and then they’ll be answered here from the mics.
Tom, do have a – was that a hand?
Q: I would like just to ask a political question. Is it time for some international actors who haven’t done so in years to start talking to the Assad regime?
DR. SULLIVAN: Yes. Yes, it’s time to – the question was, is it time to talk to the Assad regime? My answer is yes.
MR. ABUZAYD: I think it’s increasingly the answer of other people, other actors, not that we have to talk to Assad, but Assad has to be part of this solution. And of course, everyone who says that gets in big trouble with the opposition, but that’s what we’re going to say. We can’t – who are you going to negotiate with, OK? Some of his nominees, that’s all right too. But let’s understand that, otherwise we just keep going in two different directions.
DR. MATTAIR: You know, it’s – I’ll just say that neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey immediately turned on Assad. Both of them tried for six or eight months to convince him to deal with this resistance in a moderate way. And only when he didn’t did they reluctantly give up the relationship with him that they had worked so hard to develop. So there may be some personal reluctance to talk to him as an individual, but certainly everybody thinks that in a political transition some people from the regime will have a role.
Q: The other Tom. And we were partners many times in Palestine when we had to go to the Israeli authorities to keep our permits. So, Sara, the ethical issue is a burning issue. And I’m wondering, is there a possibility that you and we or a team could go to the Association of NGOs and really say it’s time – we cannot any longer – I’m thinking of Jerusalem, because that’s as close as we’re going to get to Damascus right now – but it’s – we are really doing what you said, in undergirding the occupation by our humanitarian efforts and increasingly becomes relief rather than development.
And we want to keep our permits, but I’m at the point of saying to hell with the permits. Let’s say the truth and see what happens. We tried that with individuals, but we never got our association, even when we were the chairpersons, to be willing to risk the access.
DR. ROY: Well, exactly. We’re as individuals or as, you know, individual organizations of course it won’t work, because you can be denied access, you can be penalized. The Israeli authorities have punished different local and foreign NGOs for speaking out or engaging in certain kinds of complaints. There is strength in numbers. And the question is, at what point do humanitarian actors and the donor agencies to which they’re accountable and the donor governments to which those agencies are – some of those agencies are accountable, speak out?
I think it’s very important, at this point in time particularly, for this community to come together as a collective and to be willing to bear the potential costs, and to speak out – to speak out about issues, you know, at the sort of program level involving access, free movement, et cetera, et cetera, and then to – as I said, to push donor agencies and host governments to understand the real impact of their policies and to speak out against it. For me, that’s essential. But there are costs. But I think that as a – or, potential costs – but I think if it’s done collectively and persistently and these agencies are willing to publicize and stick with their complaints and their demands, it might – it might force some kind of opening.
But as it stands, the humanitarian community – and again, I’m not here to criticize people on the ground. They do very important work. They’re very courageous. They’re trying to do the best job they can under very, very difficult circumstances. But we are at a point, and have long been at a point, in my view, where that community is being used politically and it is being used to sustain the very situation and to sustain the crisis that they are there to address, while the occupation authorities impede them from addressing it. So at what point do these actors come together and say enough is enough? And I think Palestinians would be the first to say do it.
Q: It’s what happened in South Africa.
DR. MATTAIR: I see a question in the back. Nabil (sp)?
Q: You know, chlorine gas was used as a weapon of mass destruction –
DR. MATTAIR: We can’t hear you. And we do have a tape recorder going, so please speak up.
Q: Chlorine gas was used as a weapon of mass destruction in World War I. Why is the use of chlorine gas by the Syrian regime being ignored?
DR. SULLIVAN: Why is it being used?
MS. ABUZAYD: Ignored.
Q: Why is it being ignored, chlorine gas use. The documented cases of chlorine gas use –
DR. SULLIVAN: Why is it being ignored.
Q: Why is being ignored when it was used as a weapon of mass destruction in World War I?
MS. ABUZAYD: There are some problems about the question of using chlorine gas and whether it’s a – whether it’s prohibited, especially from the Syrian side, what they’ve signed up – what they haven’t signed up it is to not use chlorine gas, and that’s what they’re doing. I don’t know what you mean by ignored or what we mean when we say that there are Security Council resolutions about the chlorine gas.
And the chlorine gas, as I mentioned, is definitely – since it comes from the air, it’s the government that’s responsible. The problem with some of the earlier chemical weapons, like sarin gas, is at least our commission and some others have not been able to determine who really used these chemical weapons. But the recent use of chlorine bombs is the government. And you know, there are Security Council resolutions, but then what does that mean if you don’t act on them?
DR. MATTAIR: Yes.
Q: Hi. I’m Penny Starr with CNS News.
And I wanted to go back to the question at the beginning that was – the first set of questions about how do – or how can we determine – this is a political question for anyone – how can we determine whether aid going to people opposed to – opposed to Assad – well, humanitarian is one thing, but then there’s also military aid. How do we – how can the United States or anyone else determine it’s going to the right person – the right people that have – you know, we talked about the Free Syrian Army and now there’s all these other players. So how do you determine who to negotiate with or to aid? Thank you.
DR. SULLIVAN: I have no clue.
MS. ABUZAYD: Well, that’s an enormous problem. And that’s one reason, I think, that the U.S. government didn’t get involved in the earlier stages of arming any of the even Free Syrian Army. You didn’t know who you were arming.
And the other thing about these groups is that they’re constantly transferable. They keep joining one another. And most of the ones that originally started as part of – related to the Free Syrian Army have become – as we said, they’re more and more Islamist. And many of them have joined Jabhat al-Nusra. The two powerful groups on the ground are Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. So who are you going to – who are going to be your boots on the ground? And are you going to, you know, support these people who eventually may go and join Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS because they’re winning? It’s an attractive proposition to go fight with the winning side.
And that’s what we’re finding. And it’s not all people that – many people talk about, you know, these are just the marginalized. Yes, there are marginalized youth around the world who see this as something to do to be part of something that’s Islamic and so on in that sense. But it’s – a lot of other people of great education, have families, are middle aged and they are joining this for ideological reasons.
I think if you haven’t seen a recent article in Der Spiegel that talks about the evolution of ISIS and how it came – and it has nothing to do with religion at all. It was people who were in – Iraqis who formed this. And that’s what they’ve done, when they’ve gone into Syria, is gone into every village and co-opted the most important people. And if they couldn’t co-opt them, they killed them. And you know, it’s been a really successful tactic and it’s – so it makes everyone hesitate about arming anybody.
AMB. FRAKER: One of the arguments three, four years ago for trying to impose safe havens and no-fly zones was to try and allow a legitimate opposition political entity to have the time and the space to become a credible, legitimate political opposition in the eyes of the West and everyone else. It’s hard to become that entity if you’re spending all your time running around trying to survive. And what we see now is the chaotic events that have taken place with so many different groups opting for power and position there, so that there is no logical person, no one group there that you can look at and say: These are the people we’re going to support. And it’s a huge problem.
DR. MATTAIR: I think initially the regional partners thought that their intelligence services were able to identify who they were willing to give weapons to. And we also had our own intelligence assets there trying to vet recipients of weapons. And as Karen said, people move from one organization to another organization, and people seize warehouses of arms and they do fall into the wrong hands.
And now, as part of the coalition established in September 2014 at meetings in Jeddah and other places, it’s been agreed that a new force is to be established, a new force organized by us and our partners is to be established and trained in Saudi Arabia and other places so that we will have more control over them. I don’t think, actually, that it has actually started. It was supposed to start in April, and I don’t think they’re on schedule. But that’s the plan.
Any more questions? Imat (ph).
Q: Thank you. For anyone in the panel.
Anybody care to comment on why Lebanon no more camps? I mean, why did they decide not to build more camps – especially give the political reasons behind it?
PROF. AKRAM: It’s because of the Palestinians. And it’s – the Palestinians are the reason that Jordan and Lebanon and Egypt don’t have a refugee policy and Jordan and Lebanon are not parties to the Refugee Convention or ’67 protocol. It’s all about the Palestinians. And I’ve argued elsewhere and for many years that the Palestinian refugee problem is the key to having – to normalizing refugee processing in the entire region. Until the Palestinian issue is resolved, the region will be dysfunctional as far as refugees and migrants are concerned.
MS. ABUZAYD: I just want to say that many of us have worked for the refugees for many years in UNHCR. Don’t think it’s an entirely bad thing not to have camps. There are advantages for the people being able to move around and find places to work. I mean, it’s pretty awful when there are too many of them and the situation is bad, but still in way the refugees would rather be free than be inside the camps.
Q: May I add to that a little bit?
DR. MATTAIR: Yes, speak up.
Q: Yeah, I – yeah, you’re right about – on both counts. But politically speaking, internal Lebanese politics is also forcing a certain look at the Palestinian – at the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, whether to build camps or not, number one. Hezbollah is against that, specifically because most of the refugees, if not all of them, are Sunni Syrians and that will mess up the sectarian balance in the country. And they are afraid that maybe in the future maybe there will resettlement, thus the Sunnis would be higher in number than the Shiites, and that would have political repercussions.
DR. MATTAIR: Yeah. We have five more minutes. Well, I’ll come, if we have time, Tom. Yes.
Q: Yeah, a question back to the political process. So when the Geneva negotiations happened in the beginning of last year, the difficulty – I know you’ve talked about the divisions among the opposition groups, and there are plenty, but on the negotiations and what the – what the opposition wants and the fact that the Syrian national coalition was representing those aspirations at the Geneva talks, there was broad unity. I think even still today there’s a general consensus about what the opposition wants out of a political process.
The big problem we actually had at that time was not how to get the opposition on board with the negotiating process, because I think even still today the opposition’s interest in the political process are more than even the regime’s interest. The question was how do you get the regime to the table in way where they’re willing to make political concessions that at least create enough of a compromise that the forces on the ground that are close with the moderate and political opposition create the critical mass of assent to an agreement.
You don’t have to get all the opposition guys on board right away, but if you create that critical mass with the opposition and the regime and there’s the political concessions on the regime side, we think you can move forward at least. It’s not going to solve everything overnight, because of all the reasons you listed, but you can move forward. So my question is, what do you see as the solution to that issue that we encountered in the previous negotiations, which is how do you bring the regime to the table with – and I think that’s what the train and equip is really designed to do.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. Yes. Anybody on the panel?
AMB. FRAKER: Yeah. So my own belief is that’s not going to happen until the other issues in the region, particularly the nuclear issue and conversation between the U.S. and Iran on that, happens because if you’re the – if you’re the Assad government today, why on Earth would you ever talk to anybody in the opposition. You’re essentially winning – or, at least you’re not losing the whole country. And you’ve got – you’ve got Iran and Russia sitting there supporting you. So those dynamics have to change somehow at the senior political level.
And for me, the nexus point is the U.S.-Iranian relationship and these nuclear talks. Either they’re going to happen or they’re not, and that will then – whichever direction that goes will spur certain actions. But I think we have to get through that. Until we do that’s, you know, a political – a sensible political conversation with regard to Syria is not going to happen, in my view.
DR. MATTAIR: Richard.
Q: I wonder if part of the problem is not how we think about and have talked about Syria in the policy discourse, because when you talk to people who’ve looked at the reconstruction cost for Syria, looking ahead, nobody really knows but educated guesses are 180 (billion dollars) to 200 billion dollars, right, to restore infrastructure, homes – at least. Where is that money going to come from? In the climate with which we’re familiar, those sorts of donations are never going to come. So that means you’re looking forward to a kind of dystopic Syria which is going to be something out of a horrible science fiction, you know?
So I wonder if it might not be helpful not just for the Middle East Policy Council, but for a number of think tank groups in the Washington area to try and put together a task force on Syria not just to look at these urgent, compelling problems – refugees, for example – but to think about that big picture. What happens if there is no solution? Why is this a major and should be a burning concern for U.S. policy, for European policy? This seems to me to be urgent. I mean, when I think back to the Lebanese civil war, which I experienced firsthand for as long as I wished to, I mean, I can imagine the Syria that makes the Lebanese civil war for years to come look like a playground.
So I think there really needs to be a focus on this. We’re not hearing it at the official policy level because the policy people are talking about the contemptible use of chlorine, whether Assad must go or whatever. So there needs to be a bigger-picture effort. And I’m wondering if we might inspire the Middle East Policy Council and other think tanks to take up that mission. I think it would be very, very important to do it.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you for that recommendation. And we are out of time. So I’ll thank you for coming, because evidently you care. And the livestream audience evidently cares. But I do wish there had been more people. And we will publish this in the transcript – we will publish this in the journal. So this will reach many, many, many thousands of people.
Thank you very much to the speakers, the audience. (Applause.)
Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, Mandated by the UN Human Rights Council
Former UN Under Secretary-General; Former Commissioner-General, UNRWA
Director, Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies
Co-Director, Middle East Center, Northeastern University
Professor, Political Science & International Affairs, Northeastern University
Clinical Professor, Boston University School of Law
Supervising Attorney, Boston University Civil Litigation Program
Senior Research Scholar, Center for Middle East Studies, Harvard University
President, Middle East Policy Council