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Civil society in Syria: A hostage of fear, bureaucracy and politics

“You must be joking. No one can talk, even if [they’re] a foreigner,” was the reaction of a director of a regional aid organization to Syria Direct’s attempts to find sources involved in humanitarian work in Damascus and other areas controlled by the Syrian government.

4 July 2019

“You must be joking. No one can talk, even if [they’re] a foreigner,” was the reaction of a director of a regional aid organization to Syria Direct’s attempts to find sources involved in humanitarian work in Damascus and other areas controlled by the Syrian government.

Other relief workers in Damascusboth Syrian and foreignavoided giving their accounts on the state of humanitarian work in the city, fearing a backlash from the government which could jeopardize their work or personal safety. 

“The information available on the nature of humanitarian work in Damascus is scarce,” an employee who works in an international humanitarian organization which operates in Damascus, told Syria Direct from Amman. 

“Information is limited to budgets, financial allocations and programs. Foreign employees in Syria avoid talking about any political challenges [they face] which may be used to criticize the Damascus government.”

In March 2019, the Syrian Human Rights Network (SNHR) reported that 1,109 humanitarian aid workers had been killed by the various sides in Syria since the conflict’s outbreak in March 2011. 

According to the report, most workers— 872 —were killed by the Syrian government, while 91 were killed by Russian forces, and 52 by Islamist extremist organizations (IS and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham). 

In addition, 3,984 aid workers are still missing, 3,847 of whom were forcibly disappeared or arrested by the Syrian government, the report alleges. 

However, despite the danger for aid workers in government-controlled territory, some continue to provide assistance, citing the critical needs of the population there. 

Shortages in goods and services have grown increasingly acute in recent months as the international community shuttered many of its aid projects in previously opposition-controlled territories and continues to shy away from engaging with Damascus.International donors are struggling to find ways to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Syria without cooperating with the Assad government. Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian human rights activist, characterized the international community’s fears in a speech during the Third Brussels Conference, saying that engaging with the Syrian government would be tantamount to “making deals with criminals who are wanted by the international community for crimes against humanity.” 

International community wary of aid to Damascus

In March 2019 at the EU-hosted Third Brussels Conference to Support the Future of Syria and the Region, international donors pledged $6.75 billion dollars for humanitarian aid for Syria and its neighbors, aimed at supporting countries and communities that have hosted Syrian refugees since 2011. 

However, donors created a sharp distinction between what constitutes aid and what constitutes reconstruction, adamantly refusing to provide funds for the latter.

The E.U. and U.S. have recently imposed fresh sanctions against Syria, including against 11 businessmen and five companies which have assisted Damascus in reconstruction efforts. For its part, the Syrian government has repeatedly called on the international community to lift these “unilateral” sanctions. 

Further, with the resumption of government control in Southern Syria, donors and international organizations struggle to properly direct aid to Syria without cooperating with the Assad government.

“Although we are an organization that works in rebel-held areas, we haven’t requested a complete suspension of support to Damascus”, said Dr. Shadi Qatifan, director of Aurantis, a humanitarian aid group that served southern Syria before the government’s return. 

Qatifan pointed out the importance of distinguishing between humanitarian support and reconstruction, arguing that reconstruction should “not be supported, so it can be kept as a means of pressuring the [different] political actors to come to a political solution.”

Still, Dr. Qatifan stressed the need to continue “the humanitarian work that alleviates the suffering of ordinary citizens.”

There are some organizations that work closely with the regime, focusing their efforts on encouraging refugees to return, reconstruction and the lifting of sanctions on Syria, as well as development, health and education. 

Despite the tension between the opposition and Damascus, “the role of civil society groups in government-controlled areas is important and necessary,” said Sami Baroudi, a volunteer in a local organization in areas under Syrian government control who declined to provide his real name for security reasons.

“Most of the initiatives and activities fulfill real needs for people.”

But on the other hand, human-rights activist and former detainee Anwar al-Bunni was skeptical of the best way forward, asking: “How can we build solutions with a war criminal guilty of crimes against humanity?” 

In a response to the Third Brussels Conference, which the Syrian Government was not invited to, the Syrian Foreign Ministry accused the international community of “politicizing” and “exploiting” the humanitarian crisis. 

An “urgent need’ for humanitarian aid in government-controlled territory

On the eve of the Syrian government’s return to East Ghouta in April 2018, around 90 local and humanitarian aid organizations shut down their operations in the area, an employee of the United Relief Office (URO) told Syria Direct, on the condition of anonymity. URO was formed to coordinate humanitarian aid in East Ghouta until it relocated to North Syria after East Ghouta was recaptured by government forces. 

In the absence of international aid, people like Suha Amr find themselves in dire straits. 

Amr, a 25-year old mother of three from the town of Harasata in Damascus, had been receiving a widow’s relief stipend of 25,000 Syrian pounds per month (about $50) since her husband was killed during the Syrian government’s bombardment of East Ghouta in December 2016.

The stipend ended when the aid organization left East Ghouta in April 2018. 

“We lived for years under siege in Ghouta, but the humanitarian relief movement [at that time] was big. Sometimes we saw as ourselves as lucky to be receiving more financial and in-kind assistance than others. But today I’m without a breadwinner or assistance,” Amr told Syria Direct.

A volunteer from the SARC gives food to beneficiaries in the countryside of Damascus, June 25, 2019 (SARC)

Some local organizations are trying to meet the needs of residents but must conduct their work in “secret” when working in government-controlled areas. 

However, such work “is risky and doesn’t even meet the needs of 10 percent of those we used to help,” according to Adnan al-Hosni, a member of an organization that cares for orphans whose real name has been concealed for fear of his family’s safety in government-held areas. He currently resides in the northern countryside of Aleppo. 

A campaign of arrests carried out by government security services in July 2018 against moneychangers in East Ghouta on charges of transferring money from rebel-controlled territories in Northern Syria to Ghouta was a stark reminder of the dangers that face those that work between government and opposition-controlled territories. 

“The need in East Ghouta is urgent right now.” al-Hosni added. “There are a large number of widows and orphans who didn’t leave East Ghouta. So, we resumed our work in spite of the danger to our employees and beneficiaries.” Al-Hosni’s organization currently cares for 1,500 orphans in East Ghouta. 

In Damascus, aid is needed just as badly. Yet the challenges and needs differ in the Syrian capital, as residents face longer-term problems like poverty and poor medical care, rather than issues such as hospital closures and lack of food which plague opposition areas.

Aid also tends to be inconsistent in Damascus. Aid campaigns launched are limited in scope and tend to address a seasonal need, such as clothes distribution in the winter, or meals during Ramadan. 

“Last winter, a small local organization distributed clothes to needy families in our area,” Um Zayd, a 30-year-old mother of four from Damascus told Syria Direct. This was the last time we received in-kind assistance.”Although her husband is practically unemployed and they need help, “the local organizations’ conditions do not apply to us because the support is directed first and foremost at widows and orphans, and some institutions in Damascus specialize [only] in supporting IDPs,” she said.

A former volunteer with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) emphasized the importance of long-term development projects in Damascus, rather than just relief projects. “Humanitarian work in Damascus is very important today, particularly development and employment assistance rather than handouts,” the volunteer said. “People want to work, they don’t want a food basket that will run out after a [few] days.”

“Humanitarian work can’t be separated from politics” 

With the Syrian government’s return to the country’s south, the government sent a message to aid groups operating in rebel held territory, announcing that they would be legally allowed to operate in Damascus.

“During meetings with the UN Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), it was mentioned that the regime encourages humanitarian organizations to open offices in Damascus, but only under certain conditions,” an administrator in a regional relief organization told Syria Direct from his residence in Amman.

“According to the discussions, which are informal and indirect with the regime, if any organization wants to register in Damascus, it must be done under a name different than the one it used in opposition-held areas,” the administrator said. “Some individuals must be excluded from the organizations as well, and the operations have to be carried out under the umbrella of the Syrian Red Crescent.”

The SARC supervises almost all humanitarian work in government-controlled areas. The group is the exclusive deliverer of international aid from Damascus to Syrian opposition-held areas, such as the Rukban camp. 

However, international organizations have expressed doubts about the SARC since the beginning of the conflict, alleging that it is too close to the Syrian regime. The Union of Syria Medical Relief Organizations previously accused the SARC of giving “95%” of international aid to supporting the Syrian regime. 

Regardless of doubts concerning the SARC, the Syrian government’s apparent openness led international organizations to try to open offices in Damascus. The government agreed to grant visa applications to members of an international organization affiliated with the European Union in October 2018. However, the government still “exercises influence over humanitarian aid work in the capital,” a member of an international aid organization told Syria Direct.

The government exercises such influence mainly by limiting the approval of licenses and authorizations needed by humanitarian teams, and by restricting where aid can be distributed. The government also prevents Damascus-based organizations from accessing opposition-controlled areas from the capital. 

During the Third Brussels Conference, Carsten Hansen, the Middle East director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, criticized the “restrictions the [Syrian] government has placed upon aid workers.” Syria Direct attempted to contact the NRC’s Damascus office but received no response.

“Humanitarian work can only be conducted within the framework set by the Ministry of Social Affairs according to the country’s situation [needs],” a former volunteer with the SARC told Syria Direct. “It is not possible for humanitarian organizations to operate outside the umbrella of the state.” 

“Now the state is focusing on supporting the families of those who died in the [Syrian] army,” he explained, noting the need for “international and local organizations to support these families until they get the assistance they need.”

A Human Rights Watch report released at the end of June details just how much Damascus exercises control over humanitarian work performed in government-held areas. Based on interviews with aid workers in government-held territories, the report alleges that “the Syrian government has developed a policy and legal framework that allows it to co-opt humanitarian assistance and reconstruction funding to fund its atrocities.” 

The report also accuses the Syrian government of giving “selective approval of humanitarian projects” and by forcing international organizations to partner with local actors, “[ensures] that the humanitarian response is siphoned centrally through and for the benefit of the abusive state apparatus.”

According to al-Baroudi, an aid volunteer who works in Syrian government areas, the work of carrying out an international aid project in Syria is divided into about 30% legal registration procedures, which are relatively painless, and 70% research, security and approval procedures. 

The latter procedures pose a significant obstacle, as the government is wary of the political implications of aid projects, as well of anyone with links to the opposition. 

After clearing all those hurdles, he said, “You can be turned down due to the Syrian government’s security file on you or a file on one of your relatives.”

Another member of an international organization who had visited Damascus several times in recent months said, “Among the constraints upon humanitarian work in Syria are the bureaucratic processes imposed by the Syrian government, and by other national actors, such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.” The member spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.

These bureaucratic procedures have led to the cancellation of some visits to Syria by international humanitarian organizations, according to the aid worker’s colleague.

“One of the obstacles facing our partners in Damascus is a delay in the approval of projects, and their inability to travel from Damascus to other areas of Syria under government control, which prevents or delays the implementation of some of their projects,” he added.

“The challenges are great and vary from one institution to another” Baroudi said, adding that “no work can be funded without the intervention of the Ministry of Social Affairs or other authorities.”

In response to accusations that the Syrian government has been obstructing aid work, a lawyer from Damascus told Syria Direct that “in every country in the world, humanitarian work is overseen by the appropriate [government] ministry. That ministry has a supervisory role over the organizations, their decisions and their financial allocations and how they spend them.”

The Syrian Associations and Institutions Law number 93 states in Article 44 that “associations of public benefit are subject to the supervision of the relevant administrative authority, and inspectors appointed by the appropriate minister are to supervise and ensure their conformity with the laws, with the system of associations and with decisions of the general body.”

Yet testimonies of humanitarian workers in areas controlled by the Syrian government indicate government’s intervention and surveillance of humanitarian work goes beyond the law, alleging that the government itself compounds the security threats and challenges faced by local organizations.

“Humanitarian work does not protect you from security risks or from forced conscription,” Baroudi said.

“Foreign work or funding without the government’s knowledge makes you accountable,” he said, adding, “the word ‘foreign’ alone can make any conversation tense.”

“Humanitarian work cannot be separated from politics,” Baroudi concluded. 

“There are policies in this country that impose upon this type of work,” he said, citing one case where the Social Affairs Ministry forbade humanitarian actors from cooperating with a local organization. Even after the ministry’s decision was canceled, people still refused to work with the organization.

“Nobody wants to enter into that maze,” he said.


This investigation was supported by OPEN Media Hub, with funds provided by the European Union

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