Would Al Shabab agree to humanitarian corridors in Somalia?

Rep. Christopher Smith wants the US to press for 'corridors of tranquility' to get aid to famine-stricken south Somalia. But that would mean negotiating with Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab.

Jerome Delay/AP
Somali children play in the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees Ifo Extention camp outside Dadaab in eastern Kenya on Friday Aug. 5.

A congressman with longtime interest in humanitarian affairs is proposing that the United States take the lead in establishing “corridors of tranquility” into rebel-held southern Somalia to get urgently needed food and other assistance to the famine-stricken region.

With an estimated 30,000 children already dead and as many as 2 million Somalis in southern Somalia under threat of starvation, Rep. Christopher Smith (R) of New Jersey said Friday that the Obama administration should press the international community on opening humanitarian corridors.

The proposal would involve negotiating with the Islamist extremist organization Al Shabab, however, since the Al Qaeda-linked group controls much of the areas the United Nations says are suffering from famine.

Congressman Smith said he has sent a letter to the Obama administration with the proposal and is awaiting a response.

Al Shabab has been on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations since 2008, and US laws prohibit any relationship or activity that might benefit the group. Humanitarian organizations have cited those regulations as a chief cause for the steep drop in US assistance to Somalia that some experts say has exacerbated conditions there.

The proposal to negotiate some kind of humanitarian deal with Al Shabab came the same day the UN accused the radical group of benefiting from the famine conditions. Officials with the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees said in Geneva that their investigations show the militants are using the food shortages to recruit followers – either by promising increasingly scarce food or handing out money to new recruits for food purchases.

Al Shabab has banned all but the International Committee of the Red Cross from providing food and other humanitarian aid in areas it controls, labeling other agencies and nongovernmental organizations as undesirable Western influences.

Smith acknowledged that successful negotiations in the past for humanitarian corridors or humanitarian ceasefires were held with governments and more-conventional rebel groups. He said he has no illusions about Al Shabab, but that the prospect of millions of deaths might have an impact on some of the leaders of an organization that is not thought to be monolithic.

“Al Shabab is difficult, I agree,” Smith said in comments after speaking on C-SPAN. “But if we don’t try something, people will just die in place.”

Smith’s proposal came amid signs that a humanitarian crisis the world has been accused of ignoring is finally drawing urgent attention.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Friday that Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, will tour refugee camps in the Horn of Africa this weekend to assess needs and determine what kind of aid the US should provide. Refugee camps have mushroomed in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia as hundreds of thousands of Somalis have fled their homes in search of food and water.

Also on Friday, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, proposed an urgent meeting of Muslim countries to ramp up their efforts in the largely Muslim drought-stricken region.

Minister Davutoglu’s call for an urgent meeting of Muslim nations followed an announcement that the African Union would not hold a donor’s conference for humanitarian assistance to the Horn of Africa until the end of the month. UN estimates that without at least $300 million more in international aid “immediately,” tens of thousands more Africans will die.

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