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The Monitor's View

Cry for food in Syria may be opening for peace

The UN warns it cannot feed some 1 million displaced Syrians, many in war zones with few bread supplies. A global response to this humanitarian crisis might help diffuse differences over political solutions.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / January 9, 2013

People gathered by a makeshift post last month where Free Syrian Army fighters were selling bread, in Maaret Misreen, near Idlib, Syria. The town is broke, relying on a trickle of local donations. The rebels, a motley crew of laborers, mechanics and shopowners, have little experience in government.

AP Photo

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Hope of finding an international consensus to ending Syria’s civil war usually focuses on the political and military. Will the anti-Assad opposition coalition ever be a viable alternative? Will rebels ever take a major city?

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Waiting for answers to such questions has only frustrated those wishing for peace and democracy in a country of 23 million at the heart of the Middle East. But as sometimes happens in a conflict, a consensus can be more easily found when there is a cry for humanitarian aid. A collective and compassionate response then provides an opening to discuss the really difficult issues.

On Tuesday, the United Nations warned that its food aid can no longer reach an estimated 1 million Syrians who have been internally displaced by fighting. With a winter setting in and bread prices nearly six times the norm, this plea should not be ignored by countries currently at odds over Syria’s future.

International aid is reaching more than 600,000 Syrian refugees in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. And in rebel-held areas in Syria along the Turkish border, a semblance of services is being provided.

But the ruthless way in which President Bashar al-Assad keeps attacking pro-democracy areas – even bombing bakeries – has resulted in an estimated 2.5 million people seeking shelter elsewhere in their country. Now nearly half of them are in areas too dangerous to be reached by the UN World Food Program or its Syrian affiliates.

By any international standard, this many displaced people should not be allowed to become casualties of neglect by foreign powers with the means to help them. The very kind of disaster that many warned would happen if the West intervened in Syria is happening because it has not intervened, as Sen. John McCain has said.

At the least, the humanitarian disaster should put pressure on the West and its Arab allies to speed efforts toward the Syrian National Coalition taking charge in rebel-held areas. The legitimacy of the regime can also be undermined by recognizing this coalition as Syria’s representative in foreign capitals.

One glimmer of hope came Wednesday when the Assad regime released more than 2,000 Syrians in exchange for the release of 48 Iranians held by rebel forces. It was the first major prisoner swap since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011 and represents the kind of humanitarian diplomacy that might lead to breakthroughs in other areas. Leaders in Turkey and Qatar helped broker the deal.

Such a compassionate approach shows how a post-Assad transition might be handled and may help reduce the fears of those in Syria who don’t want to oppose the regime out of concern for the future.

At a practical level, Russia and China should be asked to join in an effort to bring food supplies to the 1 million Syrians in need. This might soften their resistance to easing Mr. Assad out of power. Sometimes acting from the heart can lead to a meeting of the minds.

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