Syria and a woman from Wakenaam

Valerie Amos would probably have dismissed the suggestion had it been made four or five years ago that the end of 2013 would find her engrossed in performing one of the least enviable tasks in international diplomacy, and yet that is precisely the position in which the 59-year-old international civil servant from Wakenaam  finds herself.

Since 2010, having distinguished herself in public and political life in Britain, Baroness Amos has served as United Nations Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. Her appointment coincides with the persistence of some of the more enduring global humanitarian crises and the emergence of new, equally challenging ones. This past year, particularly, Syria has handed the international community what, arguably, has been its toughest contemporary humanitarian challenge. The country’s savage civil war has spread beyond its borders. Whereas it was once one of several manifestations of the so-called Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war has become a regional conflict, some analysts say, a global one.  Syria, unquestionably, will put the skills of the Guyanese-born international civil servant to their sternest test.

Stripped of its complexities Baroness Amos’s assignment is to ensure that around US$6 billion in UN financial aid is transformed into food, shelter and health care for an estimated 2.5 million Syrians holed up both inside their own country and in other countries, including Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The undertakings associated with the execution of that task have been as challenging as they have been thankless, like the occasion of her March visit to the devastated  suburb of Baba Amr in the war-ravaged city of Homs. Not only was her assignment in Homs dismissed by an anti-Assad activist as a “distraction” but, according to an Amos aide, gunfire could be heard within earshot of the location of the visit.

If Valerie Amos’s task had stopped simply at managing the logistics of administering the delivery of food, shelter and medical supplies to the victims of the Syrian civil war, that, in itself, would have been a huge logistical task.  The devil of the assignment reposes in the details.  The crux of her challenge has had to do with using her diplomatic skills to help create an enabling environment in which to facilitate the delivery of the humanitarian aid.

It is a challenge that has pitch-forked the UN diplomat into bouts of high-stakes wheeling and dealing with the principal parties in the conflict, in circumstances where the outcomes could set the tone for the long-term stability of the entire Middle East.

The toughest of the challenges confronting the UN’s humanitarian effort reposes in the delivery of aid inside Syria itself and it is here that Valerie Amos has become absorbed into a diplomatic game bigger than any fixture in which she has played before. The conflict in Syria, embraces both the internal protagonists and external, actors, including – from a global perspective ‒ the United States and Russia, and from a regional one, countries like Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iran, all of which are, in various ways, being affected by the internal events in Syria.

Experienced diplomat that she is, Baroness Amos will understand that long before she can get her logistical game going to deliver shelter, food aid and field hospitals to the victims of the Syrian conflict, she must first ‘trot out’ her diplomatic game. These past months she has been doing just that ‒ negotiating conditions on the ground that allow for the delivery of the aid to an estimated 2.5 million people holed up in what Amos herself has described as “hard to reach communities” inside Syria.

The same demanding diplomatic effort will be required of her if the well-intentioned humanitarian efforts of the UN are not to run afoul of the authorities inside a paranoid and increasingly jittery Israel and in countries like Jordan and Lebanon, where state capacity to cope with prolonged refugee-related responsibilities is severely limited.

Syria, then, appears to be a critical juncture in Valerie Amos’ career, a point at which she would by now have come to terms with the fact that in the world of international diplomacy, success and failure can co-exist cheek by jowl. Earlier this month, for example, she reported progress in exchanges with the Syrian government on “administrative procedures” associated with the issuance of visas to aid workers, the opening up of additional UN “hubs” inside, while, both the Syrian government and the opposition have identified their respective interlocutors for talks on facilitating ongoing humanitarian access. Simultaneously, she declared that “we have not seen any progress… in some of the more difficult areas” like the demilitarization of schools and hospitals, access to besieged communities and “cross-line access to hard-to-reach areas.” There will be more mixed moments like those for the woman from Wakenaam before the door closes on her assignment in Syria.



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