When the WHO dances among the ruins of Syria

Life seems sweet in Damascus, the capital of a country torn apart by ten years of war. Everything is going so well that the Syrian office of the World Health Organization (WHO) can embark on a filmed choreography. Jump on a roof and dance there, all smiles, to the sound of Latin music. Even its representative, the Turkmen Akjemal Magtymova, lends itself to it. The staging ends with a UN or Syria flag in hand.

This video, posted on social media on October 27, was supposed to celebrate United Nations Day. The message is incomprehensible at best, in any case out of step with the situation: the Syrian population is living an economic ordeal in the middle of the ruins, weapons still crackle in certain pockets of the country and bombardments by pre-regime forces regularly pound the insurgent enclave of ‘Idlib.

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The WHO delegation in Syria quickly backtracked. On Twitter, she justified herself for wanting “Promote solidarity, determination and a healthier future for all”. But the team pulled the clip a few hours after it was uploaded, after “Reactions” according to which the sequence “Did not best represent the intended message”.

“This video shows the lightness of approach, by these people, of the situation in Syria, their way of seeing the conflict. As if it were a natural disaster, which did not involve the destruction of the social fabric ”, criticizes the Syrian expert Bassel Kaghadou, based in Beirut, where he works as a consultant for the United Nations.

Disconnected from realities

The WHO dance steps also made people cringe in other UN offices in Damascus. A diplomatic source familiar with Syria judges the approach thus “Not very smart. It sounds like a little gift to the regime ”. A previous representative of the WHO delegation in Syria, Elizabeth Hoff, had already distinguished herself in 2016 by warning against the dangers of tobacco as if it were a priority under the bombs. Without a word for the deprivation inflicted on the rebel areas, then under siege by the regime.

This last failure is not likely to restore the image of the United Nations with a large part of the Syrians, who accuse it of being disconnected from the realities. In neighboring countries, refugees criticize the bureaucracy, and opponents have for years accused the United Nations of submitting to the wishes of Syrian power. It is he who authorizes access to the land, supervises the recruitment of local staff and issues – or not – visas to expatriates. Agencies have defended this approach in the name of pragmatism: working with the most disadvantaged, whatever the cost. But several officials left the country denouncing compromises.

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According to Mr. Kaghadou, some United Nations offices are doing good work in the field, but he denounces “The adoption by some UN officials posted in Syria since 2011 of the regime’s narrative, either out of conviction or because they live in isolation and have no other benchmarks. To change your approach, you need courage and willpower ”. The times do not seem favorable: Arab countries, such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, are approaching Damascus. And some European countries are now wondering what to do next.

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When the WHO dances among the ruins of Syria