Winter affects parts of Syria where the United Nations refugee agency has been distributing aid to the displaced population to keep them warm and dry. The Elders call for the international community to work together to get vital assistance to people in the conflict-ridden country. Photo by: A. McConnell / UNHCR

Upon launching The Elders in 2007, former South African President and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela urged the group to “support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.”

All of us in The Elders team are very familiar with these words, but never have they seemed so urgent a call to action than now, as the Syrian crisis descends to ever more heartbreaking depths of human tragedy.

As I write, a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding, the likes of which have not been seen since the end of the Second World War. But as a global community, we seem to be powerless to end the suffering in Syria. If ever there was a need to “inspire hope where there is despair” — it is here, and now.

Despite the best efforts of the United Nations, aid agencies and governments, sufficient humanitarian aid is not getting through to those who need it most.

The international community has shown it can work together in ridding Syria of its chemical weapons. Now it is time to invoke that same spirit of solidarity and cooperation to get vital assistance to the people who are suffering the most in this appalling conflict.

A turning point?

Hopes are pinned on the so-called Geneva II peace talks scheduled for Jan. 2014, and humanitarian access must be an urgent priority at this meeting.

As 2013 draws to a close, Syrians are facing a harsh winter, with those who have been forced to flee their homes enduring even greater deprivations. And it is not only the Syrian people who are suffering: A quarter-million Palestinians in Syria have now become refugees all over again.

The biggest burden falls on the most vulnerable: children, the sick, the wounded, older people, and the women who take responsibility for looking after all of them.

The number of children killed in this conflict is truly heartbreaking: more than 12,000 — that is one in every ten of the Syrians who have lost their lives. And more than a million children are now refugees. The immense psychological trauma suffered by the children who survive will continue to haunt Syrian society for decades to come.

Two members of The Elders — former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi — have been personally and directly involved in trying to bring all sides into a political process. As the current U.N.-Arab League peace envoy to Syria, Brahimi is now entirely focused on ensuring that the peace conference scheduled in Geneva takes place as planned and delivers meaningful decisions for the people of Syria.

No military solution

The Elders have said repeatedly that there can be no military solution to the crisis.

After a catastrophic year for Syria, the Geneva conference is an important opportunity to initiate a political process; to turn the bitter rivalry of partisan interests into international cooperation for the benefit of the whole region. In practice, this means agreeing on strategic goals, like preserving a multi-ethnic and multi-faith state of Syria, protecting its shared heritage, and planning its shared future.

It is only through this political process that there is any hope of resolving this brutal conflict and bringing some relief to Syrian civilians.

I and my team, all of The Elders and our supporters, we are all committed to supporting Brahimi’s efforts, and we salute the quiet persistence and determination with which he doggedly pursues a peaceful resolution to this tragic conflict.

Many of us are now preparing to celebrate Christmas, a time that traditionally symbolizes peace and hope for all humankind. But at this time, people of all religions and none can join together in solidarity with the people of Syria in the hope that 2014 proves to be a turning point in the conflict, ushering in an era of regional and global cooperation that brings peace to Syria and the wider Middle East.

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About the author

  • Lesley-Anne Knight

    Lesley-Anne Knight is CEO of The Elders since January 2013. Born and raised in Zimbabwe and with over 30 years experience in development, Knight was previously secretary general of Catholic relief organization Caritas International and also worked for CAFOD and HelpAge International.

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