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The Future of Humanitarian Operations: Aid and Politics in Syria

July 7, 2021 • 9:30 – 10:30 am EDT

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International assistance to Syria has gone on far longer than most anticipated. Across the world, humanitarian assistance intended for acute crises has gone on for a decade or more, leading governments and quasi-governmental organizations to become increasingly skillful instrumentalizing aid for political purposes.

The UN Security Council mandate for providing cross-border assistance to areas outside Syrian government control, which expires on July 10, casts many issues in sharp relief. The government of Syria, with backing from allies, asserts that cross-border assistance is an affront to its sovereignty. It insists that it should assume responsibility for providing aid to populations in areas outside government control. The Syrian government’s record, however, is troubling, and aid to hostile areas is often diverted or delayed.

While humanitarian access and sovereignty have clashed in other crises, the savviness of aid manipulation has been unprecedented in scale and scope in Syria. What are the larger implications of debates at the Security Council on humanitarian access? How can the aid community adhere to humanitarian principles and not do harm? Should there be red lines?

As we approach the expiration date of the UN mandate to provide cross-border assistance to Syria, our panel of experts will delve into these questions and assess the consequences of business as usual for the aid sector and for long-term stability. CSIS Humanitarian Agenda director and senior fellow, Jake Kurtzer will provide opening remarks and CSIS senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Middle East Program director, Dr. Jon B Alterman, will host the event and moderate the panel.

Dr. Zaher Sahloul is the President and Co-Founder of MedGlobal, a humanitarian INGO providing health care in disaster areas. He is also a critical care specialist and Associate Professor in Clinical Medicine at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Dr. Sahloul is a leading expert on the humanitarian crisis in his homeland Syria, as well as applying lessons learned to other emergency responses including Yemen, Gaza, Greece, the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, Colombia, and more. He has testified to the U.S. Congress and the United Nations Security Council multiple times on defending medical neutrality, the use of siege and chemical weapons, and the siege of Aleppo. Dr. Sahloul was awarded the Gandhi Award for Peace in 2020 for his humanitarian work in Syria and at the global level. He also joins us from a recent trip to northwestern Syria.

Charles Petrie OBE is a former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations. Petrie served in various high-ranking capacities with the UN, including as the UN Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator, where he supported General Roméo Dallaire during the Rwandan genocide. Later he served in Gaza, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, and Burundi. Petrie resigned from the UN at the end of 2010 but continued to work in diplomacy. In 2012, Petrie was designated by the UN Secretary General to lead an internal review of the UN’s actions in Sri Lanka. The report led to a new policy within the UN called Rights-up-Front. In February 2015, Petrie was designated by the UN Secretary General one of seven members undertaking a review of the UN's Peacebuilding efforts. He also served as an advisor to the Syrian Negotiations Committee (SNC).

Natasha Hall is a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Natasha has over 15 years of experience as an analyst, researcher, and practitioner in complex humanitarian emergencies and conflict-affected areas with a specialty in the Middle East. Most recently, she has worked on the Syrian conflict with The Shaikh Group, GIZ, Mayday Rescue, Center for Civilians in Conflict, and the U.S. government’s Refugee Affairs Division. She has lived and worked in over 15 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the Southern Caucasus, and Europe. Her reports have spurred congressional hearings and high-level donor responses on Syria. As a director with Mayday Rescue, she led these responses, working with the White Helmets to reinforce critical civilian infrastructure and protect civilians from explosive weapons and other consequences of the war.

This event is made possible through general support to CSIS.
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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program

Zaher Sahloul

President, MedGlobal

Charles Petrie

Former Assistant Secretary General, United Nations