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Twelve years of an aid quagmire in Syria

The international community’s failure to adequately help victims of the February 6 earthquake in northwestern Syria encapsulated the main ills of the aid sector in Syria over 12 years of uprising and conflict.

17 March 2023

ATHENS – The failure of the international community to help hundreds of people under the rubble in northwest Syria in the days following the devastating February 6 earthquake encapsulates the ills of the aid sector in Syria, a country ravaged by more than a decade of conflict.

This week, as Syrians anticipated the twelfth anniversary of the March 2011 uprising, the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry (CoI) launched an investigation to clarify why the United Nations, international community, Syrian government and other parties to the conflict failed to “allow and facilitate life-saving aid” in the northwest after the earthquake.  

By any measure, the UN response was sluggish. No earthquake-specific aid or rescue equipment entered northwestern Syria for days, as local first responders battled time to save the lives of those they could. The UN waited a week for Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad to approve two additional border crossings into the northwest, slashing the chances of finding survivors. 

Meanwhile, the Syrian government and the two actors in control of northwestern Syria—the Turkish backed Syrian National Army (SNA) and Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS)—blocked aid convoys from reaching the northwest. 

On the twelfth anniversary of the Syria uprising-turned-conflict, more people in the country need humanitarian aid than ever before: 15,3 million out of a population of 22.1 million. With Assad controlling most of Syria, the country is in an economic down spiral, and is the fifth-largest recipient of humanitarian aid in the world. UN agencies are the main actors facilitating aid, but experts say their role over the past twelve years has been deeply troubled.

UN capitulation to Assad

When conflict began in Syria, the UN increased its presence in Damascus. It was meant to be a short-term mission, operating under the assumption that Assad would soon fall. Twelve years later, Assad, having consolidated power, has perfected the art of siphoning international aid to regime cronies. 

“The Syrian regime has been really effective at manipulating the UN and at controlling every minor activity that happens in every town or village under its control or influence. This has weakened the UN’s ability to stand up for itself,” said Charles Lister, Director of the Syria Program at the Middle East Institute. “The UN’s neutrality has been completely compromised by the regime, and by the UN’s blind determination to retain its position in Damascus at all costs.”

Carsten Wieland, former UN advisor for the UN political process in Geneva and author of the book Syria and the Neutrality Trap, said the concept of impartial and neutral aid quickly evaporated in Syria. “The UN and other agencies had to make compromises throughout these years on whom to reach. It wasn’t necessarily the ones that were most in need, it was the ones the regime let aid be delivered [to],” he said.

The Syrian government has “proven itself very agile at manipulating humanitarian aid,”human rights lawyer Sara Kayyali said. At the same time, she too pointed to an “overtly deferential” UN position towards Damascus. “The UN failed to articulate very clearly to the Syrian government that they need transparency, access, human rights due diligence, that hasn’t happened at all for fear of losing access and funding,” she added.  

In all conflicts, humanitarian workers must reach compromises with problematic actors in order to deliver aid to those who need it. But “the extent to which the UN has been willing to subject itself to regime pressure, that makes Syria one of the most extreme examples,” Lister said. “The scope, the sophistication and the systematic approach of the Assad regime taking advantage of the international aid is remarkable in the Syria case,” Wieland echoed.

In the conflict in Yemen, when the Houthis tried in 2019 to “dictate to UN agencies where they could or not provide aid, the WFP immediately publicly said if this continues, we are going to be pulling all our operations from Yemen,”  Kayyali explained. When a similar scenario played out in Syria, “it was all completely hush-hush and agencies pretending nothing was happening.”

For years, rights organizations and think tanks have denounced the weaponization of aid by Damascus. Aid has regularly been  denied to perceived opponents and diverted to regime cronies. In 2020, the regime diverted 51 cents of every UN aid dollar, thanks to a distorted exchange rate.

Last October, the first qualitative study looking into the top 100 UN suppliers in Syria in 2019 and 2020, found that 47 percent of procurement funding was awarded to individuals linked to Syrian regime figures, security services and affiliated militias.  “Nearly a quarter of UN spending [$68 million] goes to suppliers who are sanctioned by the same countries that send much of that humanitarian aid: western countries,” said Karam Shaar, co-author of the study and a Syrian economic analyst.  

“The head of the WFP handing over gold coins and cars to regime officials, and the hiring of people affiliated with the regime as UN employees in Syria,” are the most flagrant examples of the UN’s compromised role in Syria, Shaar said.

For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) employs the wife of Faisal Mekdad, Syrian deputy foreign minister, and the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) has hired  the  daughter of Hussam Louka, head of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate. 

In January, the Syrian Legal Development Programme and Human Rights Watch released a guide for the UN to strengthen its procurement practices from a human rights perspective.  In response, the UN said it had taken corrective steps and created a Regional Dialogue Mechanism: a forum for UN agencies and donor countries to discuss human rights risks.

Kayyali and Shaar are unconvinced of the impact of these measures. “We’ve seen an overture by the UN at the highest levels, but we haven’t seen this really play out in reality,” Kayyali said. “If they were genuine about these steps, they would have made the corrective steps publicly available, but they didn’t,” Shaar added.

One compromise, for some UN agencies, was to avoid directly addressing human rights violations committed by Damascus, such as torture, enforced disappearance and arbitrary arrests, according to Kayyali. “The protection sector primarily focuses on gender-based violence and child protection, nothing else has been covered the way it needs to be covered in Syria and this is a major failing,” she said. “You are operating in an area where you can’t even use the words ‘human rights,’ you don’t have access to detainees, you can’t really highlight these issues—this is one of the biggest failures.”

Experts and analysts who spoke to Syria Direct were in agreement that the UN has not used its leverage to deal with Damascus. “They are being bullied by the regime and the UN is not taking advantage of its leverage: they are the ones that hold the purse strings,” said Shaar.

In conflict zones, warring parties “need humanitarian assistance to flow, they want to avoid famine or starvation or malnutrition because that will affect their ability to control those areas,” Lister noted. But the “the UN has given its leverage away to the regime, and that violates every principle that should rule how humanitarian aid is provided,” he added. 

Instead of the current “fiefdom style negotiation” in which each UN agency negotiates by itself, Kayyali said, “the UN could have used its leverage better first of all by presenting a united front.” 

Cross-border aid and sovereignty

In 2014, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) voted to create a cross-border aid mechanism authorizing UN agencies to deliver aid to Syria via four border crossings. But by 2021, Russia and China had used the threat of their veto power to reduce the approved crossings to one: Bab al-Hawa, between Idlib province and Turkey. Currently, the Security Council must renew the mandate every six months, a cycle that condemns humanitarian actors to a short-term outlook and leaves cross-border deliveries under constant threat. 

“They are not sure whether their access into the northwest will be renewed,” Shaar said. “This should be a reason for them to move away from working with the UN to work instead directly with actors on the ground in the northwest.”

The need to regularly renew the mechanism has also proven to be a valuable bargaining chip for Russia, Assad’s main backer. “It is not justifiable in international and humanitarian law to say ‘you can have six more months of cross border but we want to have more reconstruction’,” Wieland said. “Humanitarian deliveries are supposed to be unconditional, not traded with other benefits.”

After the February 6 earthquake, Assad and his allies advocated—as they have done for years—for a cross-line aid response, with aid centralized in Damascus and delivered to areas outside government control. However, cross-line has a problematic track record of aid obstruction, with Damascus denying aid to areas outside its control. 

The debacle of delivering aid to the northwest after the quake has reignited a legal debate: Is Security Council authorization or the Assad government’s permission required in order to deliver humanitarian aid through the border?

“There’s a very clear legal basis in international humanitarian law that you don’t need a UNSC resolution for the delivery of aid, especially where the authority in control of the area—where the needs are so great—is unwilling or unable to provide consent for the aid to go in,” said Kayali.

In the “progressive school” of international law, “under a massive humanitarian disaster, the host country can’t simply deny access for whatever reason, meaning that cross border access is allowed,” Wieland explained. But the UN adheres to a “conventional reading of international law based on the hard notion of state sovereignty, where even humanitarian deliveries are seen as an infringement of sovereignty,” he added. 

The UN was established to work with sovereign governments, Lister acknowledged, but he described the “very strict and rigid” interpretation of sovereignty by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as the underpinning reason for why the UN waited for Assad’s permission to provide earthquake relief through crossings not authorized by the Security Council. 

“Humanitarian aid all around the world should always and only ever be provided whenever there is need and to whatever populations need it, no matter the circumstances,” Lister concluded. “That humanitarian imperative has been violated by the UN itself.”

Northern Syria 

The picture of what humanitarian aid looks like in parts of Syria that remain outside Damascus’ control varies according to the dynamics of the de facto authorities on the ground and how international actors approach them. 

Syria’s northeast, governed by the Autonomous Administration (AANES) and controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, has no authorized crossing for UN cross-border deliveries.

Instead, the de facto authorities “rely on more indirect routes” over the border, as well as “cross-line assistance from Damascus,” Lister said. “International humanitarian NGOs, not UN affiliated, have access and the sort of coordination that allows them to operate well,” Kayali explained.

The humanitarian situation is more dire in the northwest, where Al Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, HTS, controls much of Idlib and portions of neighboring provinces while the Turkish-backed SNA and other proxy groups hold northern Aleppo province. 

“HTS influence has restricted the extent to which western governments are willing to provide strategic, stabilization and early recovery aid, but it has not limited humanitarian assistance,” Lister explained. Due to counter-terrorism measures, organizations operating there have “a stricter due diligence than the UN would be doing vis-à-vis the Syrian government,” Kayyali said.

Lister said Senior UN officials have told him they “faced less interference and aid diversion [in northwestern Syria] than in regime areas or in the northeast, mainly because the aid need is so significant that whoever was controlling Idlib will be absolutely crazy to put obstacles in the way of any aid mechanism.”

The devastation caused by the earthquake in Turkey and its effects on the resources of humanitarian workers there, according to Kayyali, also raises the question of whether Turkish NGOs—and the Turkish government—will maintain “as active of a role” in the northwest, or if they will wind down their activities.  

Lessons learned?

As Syria enters a thirteenth year of conflict, the need to reform the way humanitarian aid operates appears evident, but out of reach.

“We need intense rethinking of how humanitarian aid operations work in Syria, but for the UN to fix something, the pressure has to be continuous from civil society and donors,” Kayyali said. For her, the main lesson learned is that “for any aid operation to really fulfill its potential, it needs to be principled—you don’t negotiate on the fundamentals.” 

Overreliance in the UN is one of the main faults, in Lister’s view. “Since 2014, the international community has become completely and lazily overreliant on the UN mechanism. Before that year [2014], there was no UN mechanism that required Damascus’ permission to provide cross border assistance into Syria, we just unilaterally provided cross border assistance,” he said, adding that “there’s no reason why we couldn’t get back to doing that again.”

The earthquake has been a “wake up call” for policy makers in the United States and European Union to face the “deep-rooted problems with the existing over reliance on the UN mechanism,” Lister said. The idea of  “channeling aid directly into local NGOs rather than doing it through the UN” might become a “more significant part of the conversation,” but he expects governments “to remain beholden to the status quo.”

Weiland emphasized the role donors can play to push for diversification “away from the UN, towards NGOs who do the job more according to humanitarian principles than the UN is able to do when it works together with Assad.” 

The UN’s failure to adequately respond to the victims of the earthquake in northwestern Syria should be a turning point to reformulate the problematic aid sector as a whole, Kayyali said. “We can’t have another Syria, another situation where a government—by virtue of being a government—can restrict access to life-saving aid, when it on its own is abusing its own people,” she said.

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