MARSEILLE — Millions of Syrians lost a lifeline this month, after the World Food Program (WFP) suspended all in-kind food assistance across Syria due to an unprecedented budget shortfall, owing in large part to drastic cuts in United States government funding, senior humanitarian sources told Syria Direct.
The United States Agency for International Aid (USAID), through its Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance (BHA), not only supports United Nations (UN) programs like the WFP, but also directly funds non-governmental organizations in Syria.
BHA funding cuts of up to 50 percent for many programs are expected this year across all humanitarian sectors, two senior humanitarian sources based in northeastern Syria told Syria Direct.
“Gaza of course has an impact on Syria,” one humanitarian source said, referring to the humanitarian crisis resulting from Israel’s ongoing war in the Palestinian territory. The other noted that cuts are expected “across all the [humanitarian] sectors,” including “camp-based activities,” with the exception of Al-Hol camp holding families of former Islamic State fighters.
The WFP is funded primarily by governments, alongside private donations. The US, the single largest donor to the WFP, has so far contributed around $207 million in 2024 as of January 15. In 2023, it gave a total of $3 billion, down from $7.2 billion in 2022. Germany, the second-largest donor, has contributed $127 million so far this year, in addition to $1.3 billion in 2023 and $1.8 billion in 2022.
According to the WFP’s 2024-2026 management plan released in late 2023, the UN food body expected to receive $10 billion in 2024, while it projected it needed $22.7 billion for operational requirements.
In Syria, even before the latest WFP cuts, “the level of aid did not correspond to the level of need,” Saleem Algerk, media coordinator at Shafak organization, one of WFP’s implementing partners, told Syria Direct. “Thus, if aid decreases, the difficult humanitarian situation and the number of people under the poverty line will increase,” he added. Ninety percent of Syrians already live below the poverty line.
Direct US funding for NGOs working in Syria poses another stark challenge. In the opposition-held northwest—home to more than four million people, more than half of whom are internally displaced—the US is the largest single donor for service delivery, Nicole Hark, Mercy Corps Country Director for Syria, told Syria Direct.
‘Getting by has become very hard’
For Layla, a 41-year-old mother of six living in a displacement camp in Syria’s opposition-held northwest, losing WFP food aid this month was only the latest blow.
Initially displaced from their native Hama to Idlib province, her family’s home in the town of Jenderes was destroyed last year in the devastating February 6 earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey. They found themselves displaced once more—this time to a camp.
“Getting by has become very hard,” Layla told Syria Direct. Her husband, who has Hepatitis B, has not been able to work for four years. Each time aid is cut, the family falls further into debt, borrowing money to survive.
In July 2023, around 45 percent of the 5.5 million Syrians receiving WFP food assistance lost it. Layla’s family still received aid, but distributions were reduced from once a month to once every two months. This month, however, they were completely cut off—among the 3.2 million Syrians still receiving aid after the July cut who have now lost support.
This follows repeated WFP aid cuts in recent months to Syrians both inside Syria and in neighboring countries—as well as other countries across the world. In 2024, the UN food body faces an unprecedented 60 percent funding shortfall due to increasing needs and decreasing contributions. For 2023, less than half of the $23.5 billion needed to fund its global operations was secured.
“I wish the aid would come back for the displaced people who left their homes and are staying in camps,” Layla. “We hope it comes back so that we can live.” Her family not only relied on food aid for sustenance, but sold portions to buy bread, medicine and other foods not included in it.
The WFP estimates that 12.9 million Syrians—more than half of the country’s total population—will go hungry this year, with another 2.6 million people at risk of becoming food insecure.
One humanitarian source involved in cross-border WFP aid delivery, who asked to remain anonymous, speculated that food assistance could resume, albeit with a reduced scope. The source suggested aid could be delivered directly by the UN body, rather than implementing partners—organizations on the ground funded to distribute assistance on its behalf—as has previously been the case.
Some direct WFP cross-line shipments to northern Syria, originating from regime-controlled areas rather than delivered across the border from Turkey, have taken place in the past, but with little visibility, the source added. If the WFP were to directly deliver aid, it could mean that all food assistance would be distributed cross-line.
For Syria’s opposition-held northwest, where an estimated 75 percent of the population relies on UN assistance, the way that aid arrives is crucial. Cross-border aid deliveries, rather than cross-line aid originating in regime-held territory, are a way to ensure that vital supplies are not withheld or diverted by Damascus. But the future of cross-border access, by the WFP or other UN agencies, is far from certain.
Starting in July 2014, a cross-border mechanism established by a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution authorized UN aid shipments into Syria from Turkey without the need for regime authorization. But in July 2023, Russia vetoed the most recent vote to extend the mechanism, leaving authorization for cross-border deliveries under Damascus’ discretion. Following the Russian veto, the Syrian regime granted cross-border access for six months until January 13, 2024.
On January 12, one day before it was set to expire, the UN reached an agreement with Damascus to extend cross-border access for UN aid shipments from Turkey by six months until July 13, 2024.
However, under the latest agreement, only one border crossing—Bab al-Hawa—will remain open for the full six months. The Bab al-Rai and Bab al-Salama crossings, which were opened with the regime’s authorization following last year’s earthquake, will only be open until February 13, 2024. Their closure will impact the “ease and speed” of aid deliveries, Algerk said, in what he called an “increasingly difficult humanitarian situation.”
For nearly a decade, UN cross-border access renewals have progressively been shortened: from two years to one year, and finally to six months. Uncertainty about sustained access leads donors to issue short grants that do not allow for “sustainability or long-term planning,” Algerk explained.
In the absence of cross-border access, UN aid shipments would come exclusively via areas controlled by Damascus, which has “a long history in politicizing, manipulating, and weaponizing aid,” Mohamad Katoub, a humanitarian expert, explained.
Algerk feared “the regime would starve everyone.” In a 2019 report, Human Rights Watch exposed the systematic diversion of aid in favor of regime-affiliated figures and armed groups, as well as the blocking of aid to opposition-controlled areas.
Aid cuts across sectors
In-kind food assistance is not the only support threatened by dwindling funding and aid cuts. In northwestern Syria, cuts disproportionately affect displacement camps where 1.7 million people reside, Hark of Mercy Corps said. Her organization is among those that have been forced to cease services in camps there.
The implications for water and sanitation are particularly dire, Hark said. With the end of support for services displaced people rely on such as water pumping stations, “families have no other recourse but to use their limited income to buy water from private sources that lack quality control,” with risks for renewed cholera outbreaks. “Northwestern Syria is facing spikes and ebbs in cholera cases and this will likely exacerbate conditions towards an increase,” she added.
Since September 2022, when the first cholera outbreak since the Syrian conflict was recorded, northwestern Syria has faced several cholera surges—especially in the aftermath of the February earthquake, culminating in more than 13,000 cases last April.
Read more: Northern Syria’s cholera outbreak spreads, reaches Idlib displacement camps
Amid US aid cuts, one European diplomatic source said he expected regional actors, such as Turkey, to step in to fill the gap. This could mean funding projects by institutional actors like the UN or USAID. For example, Saudi Arabia has provided $100 million in funding to US stabilization projects in northeastern Syria.
It could also mean bypassing international institutions altogether. In the case of the latter, certain areas could be deprived of aid for political reasons. For example, northeastern Syria, which is controlled by Kurdish-led forces that Turkey considers terrorists, would likely be deprived of aid coming directly from Ankara.
No early recovery
The persistent threat posed by aid cuts is a symptom of a larger, structural problem: For nearly 13 years, the international response to the Syrian crisis has been frozen in an emergency phase, without sustainable solutions.
“The crisis has been ongoing for more than a decade and [yet] we’re still talking about emergency assistance,” one of the humanitarian sources in northeastern Syria said.
“Donors and UN agencies knew this moment would come one day and did nothing over the years,” Katoub said. He said that Syria programming is still in an emergency phase, rather than early recovery, because the humanitarian aid system is “very bureaucratic and very politicized.”
Early recovery is the transition from humanitarian aid towards development that allows for a “sustainable process of recovery from crisis,” according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This includes the rehabilitation of “markets, livelihoods and services and the state capacities to foster them.”
According to the senior humanitarian worker in northeastern Syria, resilience programming is “a key exit strategy for regular food assistance” to achieve “sustainability.” This could include “livelihood transitions, capacity development projects, better quality cash programming, and more focus on climate change adaptation,” notably “making agriculture sustainable” in a country that was self-sufficient in food production before the war.
However, according to Katoub, early recovery programming today accounts for less than 9 percent of what is needed. In its absence, he warned vulnerable communities will remain “dependent on aid,” making the consequences of any aid cuts “horrific.”