Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Massive scale of suffering cries out for political action

International sabre-rattling must not deflect attention from the very real humanitarian crisis afflicting Syria, writes Oxfam's Jim Clarken

The use of chemical weapons in Syria has long been mooted as a turning-point in a protracted conflict
The use of chemical weapons in Syria has long been mooted as a turning-point in a protracted conflict

The use of chemical weapons in Syria has long been mooted as a turning-point in a protracted conflict that has so far caused the death of more than 100,000 people.

In this, the third year of the conflict, it is unacceptable that, in spite of the staggering scale of suffering inflicted on the Syrian people, it took a single act – the apparent use of chemical weapons in Damascus – to prick our collective conscience.

For too long, political – and now military – posturing between the US and Russia, the two countries most capable of yielding influence on the parties to the conflict, has served only to prolong the crisis.

The international community urgently needs to convene peace talks that can deliver a solution.

The talks must address the underlying causes of the conflict, bring an end to the suffering of the people of Syria through an immediate ceasefire and progress efforts to bring peace and stability to the region.

Have we become so immune to daily images of lives lost, families separated, homes and communities destroyed, weary refugees crossing borders with what few possessions they can carry and cities constructed of tarpaulin tents that we are not moved to act? Behind each of these tragic images is a person like you, or me. People like 12-year-old Reema – forced to live life on the margins with an increasingly uncertain future.

Reema escaped to Tripoli, Lebanon, with only her clothes after her home in Syria was destroyed. She now sleeps with her parents and four siblings in a stark, un-plumbed room.

And she's a lucky one: she escaped. There are three million children still at risk inside Syria.

Missile strikes won't protect civilians and will only make political solutions more difficult. Rather than military intervention, families like Reema's desperately need humanitarian support – shelter, food, water and medical care.

While Oxfam and other agencies have endeavoured to meet the ever-growing humanitarian needs in Syria and surrounding states, the scale of the crisis is simply overwhelming.

Relief agencies are simply overstretched and struggling to cope with a massive surge in refugee numbers.

To date, Oxfam has helped more than 200,000 people affected by the Syria crisis and hopes to have reached 650,000 people by the end of the year in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria combined.

Oxfam is calling on the UN Security Council to help improve humanitarian access by using its influence to urge the Syrian government and opposition groups to do all they can to ensure help reaches those most in need.

The almost universal outcry about the alleged use of chemical weapons, regardless of who is actually responsible for using them, now in fact presents a real opportunity to build international consensus on a way towards peace.

The long-awaited and frequently deferred Geneva peace talks, which once promised so much hope, offer the opportunity for real progress and if successful would be the best way of protecting civilians.

The international community should not give up on a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

World leaders must demonstrate true courage and leadership in showing restraint.

This will avoid an even greater tide of violence with possible consequences well beyond the borders of Syria.

People everywhere have a chance to steer the course of events in Syria by raising their voices to impel all those with influence to help convene a political solution.

The women, men and children of Syria are clamouring for their right to be free from violence. The world must listen and press for a political solution to the crisis.

The longer we wait, the greater this challenge will be – as decades of conflict on this island have taught us only too well.

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