POMED Notes: “What’s Next for Syria: Humanitarian and Political Perspectives”
On Monday, January 14, 2013, the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings hosted a panel entitled “What’s Next for Syria: Humanitarian and Political Perspectives.” The panel featured Panos Moumtzis, Regional Coordinator for Syrian Refugees for the UN Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and Frederic Hof, Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. Elizabeth Ferris, Senior Fellow and Co-Director of Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, moderated the discussion.
For full event notes, continue reading or click here for the PDF.
Panos Moumtzis discussed the humanitarian challenges presented by the conflict in Syria. He placed the number of Syrian refugees at 620,000 and claimed that approximately one in four Syrians (both inside and outside the country) is in need of assistance. He said UNHCR’s primary concerns are maintained security for those still in Syria and continued open borders between Syria and its neighboring countries. He also expressed concern about the “political stability of the region itself,” particularly with respect to the upcoming Jordanian elections and growing tensions in Lebanese politics. Moumtzis described the four priorities outlined in the UNHCR’s recently released Humanitarian Plan for the next six months, which include protection for refugees, mechanisms for dealing with new arrivals in the camps, emergency preparedness, and support for refugees in urban settings. Moumtzis stated that the speed with which the humanitarian situation is deteriorating exceeds traditional funders’ ability to address these priorities. As a result, UNHCR is exploring new avenues for funding, including increased involvement of non-traditional actors. Speaking to the relationship between humanitarian and political considerations, Moumtzis said it is difficult to achieve a balance between these two concerns and, “clearly the humanitarian solution is not the solution to the problem; it must be a political solution.”
Frederic Hof focused on the political situation in Syria. He characterized Assad’s actions as a “poison pill strategy” to prevent a takeover, hoping the extremist elements of the Syrian opposition will come to dominate the opposition and he will then be able to remarket himself to Western nations as a newly desirable alternative to the rebels. Hof also said Assad is attempting to implicate the entire Alawite community in the crimes committed by his regime and thereby to deepen sectarian divides in the country. He expressed concerns that Assad will still have input in the transition and will be able to impede a true transfer of power. Hof also argued that the course of events in the country will be determined by the combat on the ground in Syria. Giving a broad assessment of the conflict, Hof said, “prospects for a peaceful, managed transition are not very good,” and, “I see a country headed for systemic state failure.”
Following Moumtzis and Hof’s presentations, Ferris moderated a brief conversation expanding on the panelists’ earlier points. The panelists agreed on the necessity of reconstruction following a political solution, with Hof stating that security and money must both be present for reconstruction to occur. Both also discussed the role of the United States and the international community in the conflict. Hof stated that “there has to be a fairly significant role for the United States” if President Obama chooses to become involved and attempt to influence the winners and losers of the revolution. Moumtzis declared that it is crucial to “show [the governments of countries hosting Syrian refugees] they are not alone” through a continued show of solidarity from the international community. In addressing the regional implications of the conflict, Hof expressed concern that Turkey could become a “Pakistan to Syria’s Afghanistan” and stated that Lebanon and Jordan were increasingly concerned about keeping the conflict in Syria under control.
In the question and answer session, Moumtzis responded to questions concerning funding and mechanisms for handling the refugee crisis. He said humanitarian funding for Syria from the U.S. should not come at the expense from other operations and therefore “broadening the donor base…is really crucial.” He also described efforts to reform the refugee registration mechanism to produce more accurate counts in order to ensure that those truly in need receive assistance. Hof addressed the role of both Assad supporters and opposition forces. He argued that although Assad has almost no true supporters in the country, the Syrian people are afraid of “what’s next” after his regime. He declared that “it’s the job, first and foremost, of the Syrian opposition to address those concerns in a relentless, consistent way.” He also said Nusra Front’s activity in Syria benefits Assad by allowing him to cast himself as a source of security standing between the Syrian people and the dangers posed by the group.