Last week, important negotiations between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov found common ground in the peaceful elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. This was a welcome, positive step toward the comprehensive political solution needed to end the conflict in Syria. Although significant questions remain about the agreement’s viability and ability to protect Syrian civilians, it represents a newfound urgency to the U.S.-Russia talks after more than two years of diplomatic morass. The talks demonstrate the power of diplomacy-but they do not, as Secretary Kerry acknowledged, mean the suffering in Syria is approaching an end.
While the current agreement between the United States and Russia addresses the critical issue of chemical weapons, it ignores the widening regional implications of the conflict and the dangers of increased flows of arms into Syria. As it stands, the agreement is a one-legged stool and will not withstand the weight of the single largest humanitarian disaster in the world.
Two weeks ago, as the world debated the merits of U.S. military intervention in Syria, I visited villages, towns, and cities in Lebanon and Jordan where the majority of Syrian refugees now reside. Since the conflict began, more than 2 million Syrian refugees, half of them children, have sought safe haven in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey. These countries have been generous about opening their borders to asylum seekers, but the increasing demand for basic resources, including schools, hospitals, and municipal services like water, is straining the ability of governments to respond and meet the needs of their own citizens. With thousands of additional refugees expected in the coming months, growing strain on these nations threatens to undermine regional stability.
Overall, about 80% of Syrian refugees live outside of refugee camps. I met hundreds of refugee families while reviewing Oxfam’s programs. Each one just wants to go home. Most have exhausted their life’s savings, they work if and when they can, and they are losing hope about returning to anything approaching normalcy in their homeland. In West Beirut, for example, in a neighborhood historically settled by Palestinian refugees, I saw hundreds of Syrians crowded into a former hospital. An opportunistic landlord had “built” two floors of apartments on top of the existing building, constructed of nothing but cement blocks, no windows.
Moreover, inside Syria, where Oxfam is seeking to repair and rebuild municipal water services, nearly 7 million people need urgent humanitarian assistance. They lack adequate food, clean water, housing, and medical attention. The UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos has cited severe malnutrition among children and the spread of skin and respiratory diseases. Other reports show at least half of all Syrian children cannot attend school, while hospitals and housing are decimated. Meanwhile, funding from national governments to support humanitarian assistance is insufficient. The United States has acted admirably to pledge humanitarian aid to address symptoms of the crisis, but much more must be done. The UN’s $5 billion appeal for Syria is just 40% funded.
While the Kerry-Lavrov agreement took shape last week, the U.S. government began to transfer arms to Syrian opposition forces. Russia has continued to supply the Syrian regime with deadly weapons throughout the two-year conflict. The abhorrent use of chemical weapons in Syria on August 21 was a clear violation of human rights and international humanitarian law. Before the most recent attack, however, more than 100,000 Syrians-including more than 7,000 children-had been killed in the conflict, mainly by conventional weapons. For Syrians to be protected from all forms of violence, including chemical weapons and indiscriminate killing by conventional weapons, an arms embargo must be part of any responsible political solution.
Therefore, presidents Obama and Putin must ensure that there are three legs to the stool of this agreement: a solution on chemical weapons, an end to arms flows, and adequate resources to address the deepening regional humanitarian crisis.
The United Nations meetings next week in New York are the best opportunity yet for Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov to announce a peace conference as a pathway toward a durable political solution. I remain hopeful that world leaders will bring this conflict to a swift end. But any agreement must be able to bear the full weight of the crisis.