Can the UN offer relief to hard-pressed Syrians?

A Turkish tank heads towards the Syrian border, in Karkamis. Ismail Coskun / IHA via AP
A Turkish tank heads towards the Syrian border, in Karkamis. Ismail Coskun / IHA via AP

Many have referred to Turkey’s move to push back ISIL fighters in a strip along the Syrian-Turkish border as game-changing. Yet the move was not so much an attack on ISIL but more one to stifle Kurds and Kurdish-held areas. The threat was too much for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, and his reaction was to join the Syrian theatre of war. But will this move create a humanitarian disaster?

Hitting the Kurds will only strengthen ISIL, one of many dilemmas facing Mr Erdogan who is straining to keep cordial relations with the United States.

Some would argue that the Kurds – with the help of the US – have taken so much of northern Syria that they can almost grasp the autonomous Kurdish state they have long craved.

Yet now, with no cross-border trade at all, ISIL fighters are about to starve. Not only will food become difficult to find – as we will have to assume that Turkey will block the border, fearing it will end up feeding its enemies – but they will also no longer be able to buy arms and ammunition. And perhaps most importantly, foreign fighters will no longer be able to arrive.

Completely closing the ISIL supply route is the right move to make. Kurds will not be affected by it, but ISIL will be hit hard. The snag is that innocent civilians will also starve.

Perhaps now is the time for the West – and in particular the US – to lean on the UN.

The UN could grasp the nettle and change the shameful dynamics that have so far stopped US and EU-backed humanitarian food drops in Syria because they don’t have Bashar Al Assad’s approval.

The Syrian president plays a smart game with NGOs and UN staff in Damascus. Many worry that if they push the government harder to get into besieged areas, their visas will be revoked.

Yet some believe that Mr Al Assad is ready to play a more diplomatic game now with the West. David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, believes that the Syrian leader is ready to trade more with the West.

“The Assad regime can’t afford to kick the UN out of Damascus. The UN is feeding so many of Assad’s own people,” he said. This prompts the question: is the UN ready to now take the lead on humanitarian sorties?

On its own, of course it is not. But with the right push from an outgoing US president, it is not a great leap of the imagination to assume that the West could steer the UN in the right direction.

Of course, this creates a new dilemma in the chequered Syrian conflict: who is more of an enemy to Assad – the Kurds or ISIL? It also provokes consideration of another more awkward scenario: only if Turkey moves to take much more ground in Syria will aid reach ordinary Syrians.

But in a week when the EU said it can no longer take any more Syrian refugees, doesn’t the West at least owe the Syrian people a little lobbying of the UN?

Martin Jay is a freelance Beirut correspondent for a number of UK titles and the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle

On Twitter: @MartinRJay

Published: September 7, 2016 04:00 AM

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