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Syrian relief worker: Regime siphons off humanitarian aid for fighters

International aid organizations have struggled to meet the needs of […]

28 April 2015

International aid organizations have struggled to meet the needs of more than 10 million Syriansin need of humanitarian assistance, as assessed by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs last summer.

To expand distribution, the United Nations passed a resolution last July allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid into Syria across the Turkish, Jordanian and Iraqi borders without permission from the Syrian government.

Nevertheless, aid delivery and distribution remains flawed, particularly given the propensity of various combatant parties to siphon off humanitarian supplies destined for the needy and divert them to their supporters and fighters.

At least some of the aid supplies going to regime areas “are distributed to army members, shabiha (pro-regime militias), and their followers,” Islam al-Halabi, the alias of an aid worker who moves back and forth between Turkey and Aleppo, tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani.

The same is true of rebel fighters, including the Islamic State, al-Halabi says.

The Islamic State is known for “harassing relief workers and placing restrictions on them,” but aid in areas under their control stopped flowing entirely last August after IS demanded “a 30 percent share of the aid supplies to distribute as it wished.”


Syrian Arab Red Crescent delivering aid in Outer Damascus Monday. Photo courtesy of SARC Rural Damascus Branch.

Q: Has UN aid made Syrians dependent on international support?

This support really only covers a small, small amount [of the total necessity], so some people do whatever is necessary to get what they lack. And what they lack is a lot, which is why there are young childrenworking hard, undesirable jobs to support their families.

Q: A disproportionate amount of UN aid goes to areas controlled by the regime. Is this a bad thing as far as you are concerned, even if aid is being delivered to those who are suffering?

Yes, there is a portion of aid going to regime areas and that is because, unfortunately, the UN council still recognizes the regime’s sovereignty. That is the reality of the situation.

As far as I’m concerned, as long as the aid is reaching those who need it—and there are many in regime areas who can’t leave because of various reasons, including them a lack of alternative shelters.

I have no issue because relief assistance is humanitarian work, not political, and must go to every person who needs it.

Unfortunately, the aid supplies going to regime areas are distributed to army members, shabiha (pro-regime militias), and their followers. The aid doesn’t reach those in need. This is the reality of the situation that I observed in 2013 on my visit to refugee shelters in regime-controlled areas in the university area of Aleppo.

Q: Last July, the United Nations passed a resolution allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid into Syria across the Turkish, Jordanian and Iraqi borders without the need to seek consent from the Syrian government. What is your opinion of this decision? Was the United Nations already delivering aid across the Turkish and Jordanian borders before the decision was passed?

It was a good decision, although a delayed one. It should have been made sooner when some areas were beginning to be freed from the grasp of the despotic regime.

Of course the UN delivered aid prior to 2014, but the amount of aid was very small and was limited to refugees living in:

1. Public places (such as schools, universities, centers used by the regime, and police stations).

2. Unprepared living spaces such as barns, partitioned buildings, and camps.

Later, in 2014, the aid began to include refugees regardless of where they were sheltered.

Q: Are you still receiving food supplies from international organizations? If so, where is it coming from and is it always provided? What are the organizations that are still operating inside Syria?

I am from the eastern Aleppo countryside, an area controlled by the Islamic State, so the aid has been stopped since August 2014. This is due to IS harassing relief workers and placing restrictions on them, as well as arresting some of them. Additionally, IS demanded that it supervise the distribution and registration process.

As volunteers, we had no problem with the supervision, because we were confident in our work and in the integrity of it. However the big disaster that led to the halt of aid occurred when IS demanded a 30 percent share of the aid supplies to distribute as it wished, and most likely, this aid would have gone to its fighters. We refused and alerted the director of the relief office in our area, which led to the issuing of a decision to halt aid to areas under IS control. As for the areas under the control of opposition forces, aid supplies are still reaching them periodically.

In Islamic State areas, not a single relief box has been distributed in the last eight months. IS started a donation box (zakat) that relies on taking tithes from the rich and distributing them to the poor in cash form, but of course, this doesn’t cover the extent of need we were fulfilling as a relief team.

Q: Many parties have accused the Red Cross of being close to the regime. In addition, the Syrian government refuses the entry of UN aid supplies to opposition-controlled areas. What is your opinion of that? Do you think the Red Cross is participating in the crimes of the Syrian regime?

A small amount of aid from the Red Cross has reached liberated areas, but the supervisors of that aid in the liberated areas are regime employees. Because of that, in my opinion, the Red Cross, indirectly, is a partner to the regime’s crime of starving the people.

Q: Who benefits more from the humanitarian supplies, the regime or the opposition?

The people in liberated areas truly do benefit from the aid. The aid reaches those who need it because of fair distribution and the absence of injustice.

As for the needy individuals in regime areas, they have benefited very little because the priority is regime followers, (whether they are in need or not, very little reaches those in need).

Therefore, the primary beneficiary is the regime and not the opposition.

Q: Are aid organizations forced to negotiate with the local governing factions to distribute aid? For example, dealing with Jabhat a-Nusra in Idlib prior to distributing aid to civilians. Are local governing factions using the aid for their own benefit?

They aren’t forced to cooperate, except regarding protecting the supplies from being stolen or the involvement of some fighters in the process of distribution and registration.

Yes, there were some powerful individuals who attempted to employ the aid for their own benefit, but the volunteers refused and threatened to stop working if they were exposed to [this kind] of pressure.

In some areas, we were threatened with weapons to register some families who did not need aid, or some families who carried weapons knowing that many factions were giving aid to fighters.

Q: How do the UN and local organizations decide how to deliver limited aid supplies, and to whom?

This is done through forms sent by volunteers to their representatives and offices, and the aid is delivered based on a priority scale: First, the “Extremely Needy” who possess no source of livelihood or breadwinner, such as widows and orphans. Then the “Very Needy” and so on…

The social survey operation is run by volunteers who search for refugees in need and register them. Then after a short period of time, there is an unplanned visit to their homes for an inspection which provides information on their needs, as well as a survey on whether or not they have a source of livelihood or a breadwinner who works outside the country, such as those who have sons working in the Gulf and some of the other Arab countries who have salaries specifically for spending on their families.

The sealed box is delivered to the individual as is, and if it is opened accidentally during the delivery, the contents are checked and compared against what is written on the box’s cover to ensure there is nothing missing.

Q: Do the UN, the Red Cross, or local organizations have supply depots? And are they protected by soldiers or are they not exposed to attacks because these are considered neutral parties?  

The depots are rented in the area of distribution and instead of paying rent, the organizations pay transportation costs. In some cases, donors provide the depots and the transportation, and from there the aid is sent to the relief offices for storage in storehouses that the offices have rented or those that have been donated (by generous people).

The aid isn’t stored for more than a week and the aid is distributed quickly, primarily because of the people’s (urgent) need. Additionally, our areas are bombed by the regime so we fear for depots that aren’t directly protected (i.e. there aren’t guards placed there). The area is generally protected because there are revolutionary police who go on patrols to protect the area from thieves, and they advise residents living close to the depots to keep an eye on them.

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