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Important step in bid to help the suffering Syrians

LAST winter I saw for myself the terrible humanitarian crisis the war in Syria is creating.

Along the country's border with neighbouring Lebanon, I met some of the three million refugees who have sought sanctuary away from the killing fields of cities like Aleppo and Homs.

Huddled in flimsy tarpaulin shelters they struggled to survive the bitter cold and snow that grips this region during winter time. The same season this year will almost certainly be worse, with aid agencies under ever increasing pressure to provide emergency support.

Doubtless in the coming autumn and winter months ahead newspaper column inches will be given over once again to the plight of these now desperate people. Inevitably there will be those who will ask "did we not see this coming?"

The short answer is yes, which is precisely why I'm flagging it up now. As the world's attention has understandably been focused lately on Gaza, Syria has continued to bear the brunt of a humanitarian catastrophe that is one of the worst in modern times.

That Syria's conflict has far reaching implications way beyond its border was brought home again yesterday when Benedicte Bjoernland, the director of Norway's Police Security Service, confirmed reports that militant Islamists with fighting experience in Syria may be planning an attack in Scandinavia in the coming days. In response, security services across Norway have beefed up armed units at borders, airports and railway stations.

Yet again it is more troubling news from a conflict that seems to go from bad to worse. For so long now the international community has failed miserably either in finding a diplomatic solution, brokering a lasting ceasefire or making any substantial impact on the humanitarian crisis thrown up by the fighting in Syria.

With the Middle East disintegrating from Iraq to Gaza, Syria's humanitarian tragedy has for some time been in danger of becoming something of a sideshow.

Regular readers of this column will know that I have some grave reservations when it comes to the effectiveness of the United Nations' ability to provide any meaningful intervention in many of the world's trouble spots. To date the world body's track record on Syria has been less than impressive.

UN appeals have not been funded and its peace talks have gone nowhere. Aid convoys' access into the country have been at the mercy and whim of President Bashar al Assad's henchmen on the ground and most UN resolutions are ignored by Damascus.

All the more reason then to welcome the UN Security Council's passing of Resolution 2165 last week, albeit accompanied by little fanfare or media attention.

In fact, it is probably fair to say that a little bit of history was made in the passing of 2165, which gives an explicit mandate to UN officials to deliver aid across borders from Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq to rebel-held areas without Syrian government approval.

Under its terms, the UN now need only give notice of such intentions without necessarily having the consent of the Syrian regime. This effectively could result in the creation of humanitarian corridors or enclaves to ensure displaced and wounded Syrian civilians inside the country receive aid.

It would be a big mistake to underestimate the significance of 2165. To begin with it represents a major redefinition to the general principle of state sovereignty, which states that countries cannot interfere in matters within another country's borders without express permission from the host.

Yes, there are some precedents in this regard. Both the UN and individual countries in the past have deployed military forces into countries in the name of humanitarian intervention, among them Somalia and Sierra Leone. Some individual aid agencies too have moved their workers into war zones working in 'rebel areas' with only tacit approval of the host regime.

Never before though has such an action as Resolution 2165 been approved by the UN, an organisation ostensibly given to upholding state sovereignty.

For 2165 with its emphasis on humanitarian deployment to be effectively implemented, however, will necessitate a qualitative shift on the diplomatic front that works in tandem alongside it.

Here too there have been some encouraging signs given the UN's appointment of seasoned political negotiator Staffan de Mistura, who is tasked with the daunting job of carving out a deal between the al Assad regime and Syrian opposition. Over many years from the Balkans to Baghdad, Mr de Mistura has always been something of a wily operator when it comes to playing the humanitarian and political cards simultaneously.

However, even with the appointment of 'humanitarian envoys' to support him, as the UN proposes, Mr de Mistura will have his work cut out. For so long many areas of Syria have been no-go areas when it comes to delivering badly needed aid. Securing border crossings, ensuring aid shipments do not include weapons or allow volunteers to piggy back into the region are just some of the difficulties. How too can the UN ensure that aid meant for civilians is not used to sustain rebel fighters?

While the political and logistical challenges are immense, there is no time to waste. Speaking about Syria, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently summed up the problem with the humanitarian approach to date in Syria.

Too often, said Ms Albright, "complexity has become an excuse for inaction". For countless ordinary Syrians, this winter will determine whether UN Resolution 2165 can help overcome that.

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