A member of the Idlib Health Directorate sees a patient in the Idlib town of al-Ghadfa. Photo courtesy of Idlib Health Directorate.
AMMAN: German development agency GIZ reinstated vital funding to health directorates across northwestern Syria according to “strict conditions,” local officials told Syria Direct on Monday, after it cut funds following major advances by hardline Islamist fighters in the region last month.
The renewed funding will help cover administrative costs of local health directorates and medical facilities, as well as pay the salaries of hundreds of medical and administrative workers who have worked without pay since the funding was halted in late January.
“Thankfully, the funding has returned,” Firas al-Jundi, the health minister of the Syria Interim Government (SIG), told Syria Direct on Monday.
Based in the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep, the SIG was established by Syria’s opposition in 2013 to administer areas under its control.
GIZ abruptly withdrew funding to health directorates in rebel-held areas of Idlib, Aleppo and Hama provinces last month after Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), a hardline Islamist alliance fronted by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, routed its major factional rivals and consolidated control across much of Syria’s rebel-held northwest.
Funded primarily by GIZ, local health directorates manage a range of medical facilities in the opposition-held northwest including hospitals, blood banks and mobile clinics.
Health directorates initially emerged out of a network of medical workers operating in the absence of Syrian government institutions linked to the Ministry of Health, when areas of the northwest began to shift to opposition control after 2011.
For organizations reluctant or unable to cooperate with HTS—an internationally designated terrorist organization accused of numerous human rights violations—the coalition’s most recent expansion made even funding hospitals in these areas a risky endeavor that could see funds appropriated by hardline militants.
With funding now set to be reinstated, GIZ is reportedly enforcing strict controls on its funds and closely observing the financial activities of recipient institutions, local officials say.
GIZ representatives could not be reached for comment before publication.
“The funding has returned, but under strict conditions,” Mohamad Katoub, advocacy manager with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) told Syria Direct on Monday, adding that all funds sent to support medical facilities in northwestern Syria will be strictly monitored to ensure they do not reach armed groups.
“Additionally, this grant is threatened with cancellation should any armed faction or institution linked to it interfere with humanitarian operations,” Katoub added.
A prime concern for international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) in northwest Syria is inadvertently or indirectly supporting HTS or the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), an HTS-affiliated governance body that manages civil affairs and governs regions under the hardline coalition’s control.
HTS and the SSG control all crossings in and out of the northwestern rebel enclave, levying taxes on goods and supplies passing through. NGOs operating in areas under their control are also subject to taxation.
According to Katoub, there is “real concern” that interference from groups like HTS could lead to a second stoppage of funding.
Under the new conditions tied to the reinstated funding, bribes or extortion by HTS, or even taxes paid to the group by third parties supplying humanitarian operations, could lead to another interruption.
HTS has a history of coercing local actors into compliance. The hardline coalition dissolved a number of local councils in the northwest after their members refused to integrate with the SSG last year, and HTS has been accused of kidnapping numerous aid workers in Idlib province in recent months.
Madeline Edwards contributed to this report.