Kristalina Georgieva, European commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response, told Al-Monitor, “We are now at the point where we cannot fully cope with this crisis” in Syria.
Georgieva is responsible for the European Union’s disaster response, humanitarian assistance, and preparedness and prevention in addressing crises around the world.
The commissioner, who holds a doctorate in economics and is an expert on development and environmental strategy, said that the crisis in Syria “is the one with the most dramatic spillover risks that exists today. None of us can say that we have not seen this coming, because we see it coming, and yet there is this paralysis that exists” on ending the war.
Georgieva, who hails from Bulgaria and previously held senior positions at the World Bank, warned, “We have to act now, proactively, before it is too late” to assist Jordan and Lebanon, which are dealing with the strain of refugees from Syria, who now number 1.4 million.
Speaking with Al-Monitor Editor Andrew Parasiliti at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., Georgieva lamented the flow of arms to Syria and the "paralysis" in movement toward a political, negotiated solution to the crisis, saying, “Our experience, from what we do as humanitarians, we just have not seen so far the pouring of arms into Syria to be helping raise the probability of a political solution or a negotiated exit. We haven’t seen it — with the exception of the Patriot missiles in Turkey that have had a deterrent impact on a part of the territory. The rest of throwing arms into Syria only meant more fighting, more suffering, more people running into neighboring countries. And not more appetite for negotiation, so far.”
Georgieva, who has visited Syrian refugee camps throughout the region, spoke with passion about the plight of Syria’s children. “The scars that conflict leaves in the memory of a child,” she said. “And this is what we are all avoiding talking about: That the longer this conflict goes, the deeper will be the wound, the harder will be the healing and the more the fate of Syria as a country will be in doubt with unintended, but probably dramatic, consequences for the whole region, the whole Middle East and therefore the whole world.”
The strains of the Syrian war on limited humanitarian resources create an “immoral dilemma,” Georgieva said, “where we have to make choices to take away help from others who so badly need it, because there is no political will” to end the war in Syria.
The commissioner appealed to donor countries to follow through on their pledges for funding for humanitarian assistance and for all concerned countries to overcome political paralysis and bring an end the conflict. “The fact that it is going to be excruciatingly difficult is not an excuse” for not trying, she said.
An excerpted version of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: You have a global responsibility for Humanitarian crises around the world — Syria, Haiti, Mali, Central African Republic — how do you prioritize given limited time and resources?
Georgieva: This year we saw Central African Republic going up. DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] has become a bigger crisis.
But Syria continues to be the most difficult, the most troubling crisis we face today. I have been a commissioner more than three years. This is the crisis that makes me lose my sleep, this is the crisis that I think is the toughest, because of the political paralysis that unfortunately we don’t see a sign will be unlocked, meaning that it is going to go on and on. We don’t see the end of the crisis. And because of the spillover risk for the neighbors, with the potential spillover risk for Europe and the rest of the world.
It is very obvious, people vote with their feet. Eight thousand people cross the borders every day now. And what I always think is, what would Jordan and Lebanon look like if we crossed two million, which is not out of sight.
So what I can say as the humanitarian commissioner is that we are now at the point where we cannot fully cope with this crisis. Even the most experienced humanitarian workers see it as the most difficult crisis. We cannot reach out to enough people because of fighting going more intense. And we are running out of money.
And I want to make here a second point, not everybody is delivering on pledges they make. We went to the Kuwait donor conference. We all made pledges. We in the commission, we have fulfilled our pledge in full, and we are now striving for our next commitment, we are going to bring additional resources. But out of $1.5 billion pledged, only a third has been delivered.
And then comes the third and most difficult point. As a humanitarian commissioner I do not believe that we can cope anymore just with humanitarian budgets alone. We need to expand the instruments we deploy especially to south Lebanon and Jordan. We have to act now proactively, before it is too late for these countries to get the resources that will help them avoid the destabilizing impact of this crisis.
In very simple terms, even if everybody delivers fully on their humanitarian pledges, this is not going to be enough because it is really a political solution that can put an end to the suffering of people. We cannot, the world cannot, devolve of responsibility, saying you humanitarians, manage this crisis as best you can. Renewed appetite to find a political solution has to be generated and there has to be a more-comprehensive funding approach to the consequences of this crisis. There is a saying, I’m sure you have heard it: You can avoid reality but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality. And that is what we are facing now, we have to wake up to the consequences of both the world and the Syrians themselves of not mustering the political will, not finding the pathway for negotiations. In the end every conflict, we know it, from countries close to my home, the former Yugoslavia, in the end it has to be a negotiated political solution.
Al-Monitor: Let me ask on that point, when you talk about the need for a political solution, is it complicating when some of the countries who you might go to for are supplying arms to parties in the conflict, or when other parties in the region continue to provide arms. It seems that humanitarian assistance is always complicated while fighting continues and the flow of arms allows this fighting to continue.
Georgieva: Our experience from what we do as humanitarians, we just have not seen so far the pouring more arms into Syria to be helping raise the probability of a political solution or a negotiated exit. We haven’t seen it. With the exception of the Patriot missiles in Turkey that have had a deterrent impact on a part of the territory. The rest of throwing arms into Syrian only meant more fighting, more suffering more people running into neighboring countries. And not more appetite for negotiation so far. It’s not my job, this is not my responsibility. But so far we don’t see it.
Al-Monitor: You visited a refugee camp last year in Kilis, Turkey. Tell me about conditions that you have experienced personally and how the camps are managing.
Georgieva: Turkey has done a very good job in building facilities and creating conditions for Syrian refugees, but they are getting overwhelmed. At the time I visited there were 36,000 refugees and they told me that they are capable of accommodating up to 50,000 refugees and that up to 1000,000 refugees they can cope with but above that it would be very difficult. And we see that the impact already is that Turkey lets in women and children, keeping the borders open for the most needy people, but it is not in a position to keep the borders open for everyone. And of course they also have security concerns. But even aside from the security concerns they are getting overwhelmed.
We have provided some modest assistance to Turkey directly from a humanitarian perspective, from the humanitarian budgets. We are limited because we don’t give money to governments, we only work with authorized organizations, humanitarian organizations. Whereas Turkey has been, again for their own security considerations, which I respect, they have been quite restrictive in getting others to help. That may change because of the sheer volume of refugees.
But we have been helping Turkey from the Commission quite extensively on the overall managing of the refugees issue. When I was there we also opened, the European minister, a reception center, that EU funds, we have some 80-plus million euros helping in refugee reception as part of Turkey’s accession support, negotiations with the EU.
What I expect is that while it would be difficult, Turkey will continue to have the ability to accept refugees. But we will also see more and more people being stranded between fighting lines and the Turkish border because of this more selective open borders that Turkey now applies.
Lebanon is under tremendous strain. I have visited refuges in Lebanon; this is the only place where Palestinian refugees in Syria can go. There are 500,000 Palestinians in Syria; they were very well treated in Syria but now they are being dragged into conflict, meaning that some of them have to flee. Flee where? They cannot go to Jordan, so some of them go to Lebanon. Those who have visited Palestinian camps in Lebanon know how harsh that is.
I visited the Palestinian camps, met families who sleep in shifts in a small room, eighteen people and they tell me that some of them would rather go back to Syria than live in this condition just because of the way in which Lebanon has traditionally hosted Palestinian refugees in space-constrained camps, which have mushroomed into a danger-for-your-life places. You have wires hanging everywhere, last year thirty-eight people were electrocuted because of this expansion in a narrow envelope; so this is Lebanon.
Jordan has been good at hosting refugees. Jordan keeps the borders open, but less and less convinced that they can continue to do that forever, they are now talking about buffer zones in Syria. Because they are very worried, and rightly so, that a continued increase of refugees, and they do not accept Palestinians, that a continuing flow of refugees into Jordan can destabilize a very fine balance and is putting a huge strain on Jordan.
They have a different problem, if for Turkey the problem is that they have set high standards in camps for refugees, and the more refugees come the more money that costs and it becomes very hard. In Jordan it is a different economic problem, they have from day one, treated the refugees like their own people with access to education access to health care, subsidized water, subsidized electricity, but Jordan has huge economic, macroeconomic problems. They have a deficit that they have a hard time managing without this additional problem.
In Lebanon, where in fact this conflict became personally very hard ... because what I also realized was the strain on the Syrians and on their neighbors because of yet another violent experience of the people of the region. And it was when 6-year-old boy Ali gave me a present and the present was a drawing of tanks, guns, blood and the dead body of his cousin Abdullah. So for this 6-year-old these are the memories of home.
Al-Monitor: Can you comment specifically on the effect the war is having on Syria’s children.
Georgieva: This is what stares me in the face when you go around in Turkey and Lebanon and Jordan and you meet the refugee families. Bright eyes, smart girls and boys. They are missing out on school, especially girls, especially those from rural areas where it is very uncomfortable to send your children to a new place, especially girls. I talked to many families where the children are already missing a second year of schooling. Inside of Syria it is even more dramatic. Many schools are bombed, they are gone. Where schools are still standing there are places for internally displaced people. There are 1.5-2 million internal displacements. And they very often are in these public buildings.
And then there is the drama, the scars the conflict leaves in the memory of the child. And this is what I think we are all avoiding to talk about. That the longer this conflict goes, the deeper will be the wound, the harder will be the healing, and the more the fate of Syria as a country will be in doubt, with unintended, but probably dramatic, consequences for the whole region, the whole Middle East, and therefore the whole world. We are no longer in this world able to separate parts and say, 'OK, it’s your problem, deal with it over there,' and the rest of us can close our eyes and forget.
What is most dramatic in a situation like this, it is not the only one, we have other crises. But this is the one with the most dramatic spillover risks that exist today; none of us can say that we have not seen this coming, because we see it coming, and yet there is this paralysis that exists. It is also paralysis painted by significant cultural and regional interests differences indeed. It is not the paralysis that falls from the sky, there are roots of this paralysis, but not yet anyone saying time to take another shot. We have a very modest proposal from the humanitarian community and it is if the world cannot agree on the political solution can it please agree on the humanitarian solution, can we please agree on restoring respect for humanitarian law in Syria and using all the influence of everybody to call for that. Don’t shoot at ambulances, don’t bomb bakeries, don’t kill humanitarian workers, don’t kill civilians unnecessarily. We, and this is something that is very close to the hearts of Europeans, because the war has come to law of wars, writing them with blood and tears, and yet we are now in Syria shedding our shroud of saying, 'They don’t respect them, there is nothing we can do' and instead saying, 'Can we unite on respect at least for that part?' ... I am now at the point where I think that maybe it is now irreversible because so much of the conflict has degraded in terms of violations of international humanitarian law that it is hard to see how we can turn the tide on it.
But the fact that it is going to be excruciatingly difficult is not an excuse for at least not trying.
And I can tell you that the conflicting demands that are coming from other crises leaves some of my people, some of the people who are trying to help, bitter. They say money goes to Syria, what about the tortured souls, the dying children, starving children elsewhere?
Syria puts us in this immoral dilemma that we have to make choices, take away help from others who so badly need it because there is no political will to find a solution to the crisis.
Andrew Parasiliti is the editor of Al-Monitor. He is a former executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US and corresponding director, IISS-Middle East. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he received a doctorate from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.