Humanitarian aid in Syria is being politicized — and too many civilians in need aren’t getting it


Displaced Syrians who fled from their villages in the south of Idlib province to escape bombing by Syrian government forces return home shortly before a truce fell apart between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, on Sunday. (Aaref Watad/AFP/Getty Images)

In April, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) discussed centralizing aid operations for Syria to Damascus. While no decision was formally made, various donor states protested the suggested action, which would result in the closure of OCHA’s humanitarian coordinator position in Amman, dealing a significant blow to the cross-border humanitarian operation.

Humanitarian actors in intrastate conflicts across the globe increasingly find themselves caught between the interests of competing political and military interests of states, complicating the implementation of relief actions. In Myanmar and Yemen, the obstruction of humanitarian access and delivery of aid to civilians in need has become a primary tactic of states to battle and defeat opposition forces. In Venezuela, U.N. officials warned against the west’s deployment of aid “as a pawn” in the political struggle over presidential legitimacy to justify external intervention against the regime of Nicolás Maduro. Humanitarianism is increasingly instrumentalized by state authorities in the pursuit of political agendas.

The humanitarian response in Syria is bifurcated over the question of neutrality vis-a-vis the Syrian government. Humanitarian organizations operating across borders in opposition-held areas do so without the state’s consent, both providing aid and simultaneously reporting on regime violence against civilians. These actors are slowly disappearing as the regime regains and consolidates its military and administrative control.

The Damascus-based humanitarian response is increasingly becoming the official international humanitarian presence in Syria, facilitating government control and discretion over the distribution of services and aid. As a result, humanitarian actors operating in Damascus, principally U.N. agencies and as many as 31 international nongovernmental organizations (INGOS), are entrenched in the Syrian government’s bureaucratic framework. This has limited their access to civilians in need and constrained their ability to effectively implement programming and deliver aid.

A tale of two humanitarian operations

U.N. agencies operating in Damascus are obliged under international law to cooperate with the Syrian government. They cannot operate inside Syria without state permission. U.N. OCHA, the lead U.N. humanitarian actor in Damascus, is, by its own mandate, subsidiary to the state authority of an affected country. In this view, the Syrian regime has the primary responsibility for the “initiation, organization, coordination, and implementation” of humanitarian activities in Syria.

In practice, this relationship with the state has produced various challenges. U.N. agencies and international NGOs are obligated to partner with preapproved government-linked organizations — the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the Syria Trust for Development — as a precondition for approval to operate in Damascus. Humanitarian actors must also cooperate with the state security regime in its day-to-day operations. U.N. actors are routinely barred from accessing many hard-to-reach areas, most often outside of government areas. When relief programming is approved, it cannot occur without the presence of government-approved organizations. Most recently, the Syrian regime continuously denied permissions to U.N. actors seeking to deliver aid to critical humanitarian emergencies in Syria. The result is a humanitarian response with limited operational effectiveness due to state imposed constraints.

The Syrian government’s use of military and administrative impediments on access and aid empowered humanitarian actors outside of government areas to deliver aid and provide humanitarian services to opposition areas. The U.N. Security Council (UNSC) authorized cross-border humanitarian operations in 2014 under Resolution 2165 (2014) and 2449 (2018) legitimizing two additional regional humanitarian centers in Amman, Jordan and Gaziantep, Turkey.

Operating in Syria without government permission, these cross-border humanitarian actors have assumed a de facto affiliation with the Syrian opposition, an abrogation of their responsibility to political neutrality. Doctors Without Borders justified its decision to operate exclusively in opposition areas by defining their role as supporting those in need even if it means violating political neutrality.

The perceived opposition affiliation continually raises concerns with the Syrian government and Russia over the possible links between humanitarian actors and terrorist activity in opposition areas. In the UNSC debate over renewing authorization for cross-border aid in December 2018, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya argued that the resolution was “divorced from reality” and criticized western countries for politicizing humanitarian action.

As the Syrian government regains control over former opposition areas, the cross-border humanitarian regime and its affiliated actors will be forced to close their doors or relocate to neighboring countries or areas under Turkish or US-led coalition control. It is unlikely that any Damascus-based humanitarian actors would replace them in these areas given ongoing access constraints imposed by the government.

Centralizing aid in Damascus

Concurrent to the regime’s administrative advances over the humanitarian system, U.N. actors are increasingly considering the future of cross-border operations and centralizing aid in Damascus. With the operational space closing in opposition areas, humanitarian organizations are also cautiously considering relocating to Damascus from neighboring states.

Little is known on exact details of the registration process for new NGOs except that it can take as long as two years and is highly selective. Obscure processes create a confusing system of approvals, requirements, and logistics that privileges those NGOs with the financial capability to explore the process or political ties with the state apparatus.

If aid operations are recentralized to Damascus, it will have several implications for the future of humanitarian aid in Syria. Humanitarian organizations in neighboring countries would face pressure to relocate to Damascus to work legitimately in Syria alongside Damascus-based U.N. partners. Humanitarian personnel will also be required to relocate Damascus to register transitioning NGOs, as well as to staff already approved NGOs. All of these humanitarian personnel must also be vetted and approved by the Syrian government, Through increased scrutiny, the Syrian government could systematically deny approval for aid organizations and personnel that do not fit its interests, and conversely, approve those that do.

A Damascus-based U.N. humanitarian regime will remain subject to the complex government bureaucracy and its reoccurring administrative and bureaucratic constraints to access and programming. Such a move would enable the Syrian government to consolidate control over the Syrian humanitarian response, resulting in a humanitarian regime more acquiescent to the interests of the Syrian state or, at the least, silent to the violence employed against Syrian civilians throughout the war.

The result is a compromised relationship at a time when cross-border humanitarian operations face an uncertain future. If the United Nations cannot insulate humanitarian operations from state-imposed constraints on access, civilians in communities who participated in the Syrian revolution will likely continue to face barriers to state services and assistance, as well as increased obstructions to humanitarian relief.

Jesse Marks is an MPhil Candidate in International Relations and Politics at the University of Cambridge, formerly a Fulbright visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies in Jordan and Scoville Fellow at the Stimson Center.

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