Can Srebrenitsa be forgotten?

Can Srebrenitsa be forgotten?

Why are the United Nations, Washington, and almost all of Turkey’s Western allies cool on the idea of the creation of a safe haven, a humanitarian safe corridor, or declaration of a no-fly zone over a certain region of Syria? Why is Turkey alone in such demands?

On the sidelines of an international conference of Syria donors I was talking with Panos Moumtzis, the United Nations regional coordinator for refugees. The conference was hosted by Kuwait’s Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah at the urging of the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The aim was to raise at least $1 billion to cover the needs of the increasing number of refugees and displaced Syrians up to June 30, 2013.

Wednesday’s conference was a great success, with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates each pledging $300 million and helping with the collection of over $1.5 billion in assistance promises from 60 countries and 17 humanitarian organizations within hours.

Naturally, the U.N. secretary-general, as well as the Kuwaiti sheikh, the Jordanian king, the Lebanese president and whoever else took the rostrum, appealed to both the Syrian government and the rebel groups to end violence and seek a resolution to the civil war through dialogue and compromise. Is this possible? At the stage the civil war has come to, this possibility has apparently been left far behind. Moumtzis agreed, but said efforts for dialogue should never be given up.

It is a daunting task to assist refugees numbering almost 700,000 for now and expected to exceed 1.1 million by June. Is the U.N. so pessimistic that it doesn’t expect an end to the Syria crisis anytime before June? “We have to have contingency planning for the worse,” said Moumtzis. There are currently around 165,000 refugees in camps in Turkey, 224,000 in Lebanon, 204,000 in Jordan, 77,000 in Iraq and 14,000 in Egypt. By the end of June, the number of refugees is expected to increase to 300,000 in Jordan, 300,000 in Lebanon, 90,000 in Iraq, 380,000 in Turkey and around 30,000 in Egypt.

Moumtzis explained that current trends in the flow of refugees had been examined in order to form these frightening estimations. He said the dedicated and exemplary efforts of the host countries, particularly Turkey, had lead to what he described as “five star-plus” camps and services for the refugees, but stressed that the problems of displaced Syrians inside the country was far more serious than those outside. Worse, he warned, was the situation of women and children, who were often subject to sexual ill-treatment.

Why, then, can’t the U.N. consider declaring a safe haven or humanitarian corridor, enforced by a no-fly zone in Syria? I was not expecting such a shocking statement from Moumtzis: “We have not forgotten the Srebrenitsa tragedy … Never again.” It was a tragedy, a genocidal act of barbarism staged by some Bosnian-Serb soldiers, in which almost the entire population in the U.N.-declared secure town of Srebrenitsa was indiscriminately and heinously killed on June 15, 1995.

“We have learned well that the declaration of safe havens, safe corridors and no fly zones might not be the best form of action,” Moumtzis said.

It is difficult, of course, to remember a past tragedy while dealing with an unfolding tragedy. That is the challenge facing those brave men and women involved in humanitarian assistance programs, diplomacy, and peace-building.

As for Turkey, providing “five star-plus” camps and services to their Syrian brothers in need shows that Turks are their brothers in deed. However, would it not have been better for Ankara to provide such humanitarian assistance while also managing to avoid actively supporting one side in the Syrian civil war, and maintaining its leverage and moderating capabilities - particularly on the Damascus government?