Syrian civilians in need aren’t getting humanitarian aid
Orient Net | 2019-08-09 10:50 Damascuss
In April, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) discussed centralizing aid operations for Syria to Damascus. While no decision was formally made, various donor states protested the suggested action, which would result in the closure of OCHA’s humanitarian coordinator position in Amman, dealing a significant blow to the cross-border humanitarian operation.
Humanitarian actors in intrastate conflicts across the globe increasingly find themselves caught between the interests of competing political and military interests of states, complicating the implementation of relief actions. In Myanmar and Yemen, the obstruction of humanitarian access and delivery of aid to civilians in need has become a primary tactic of states to battle and defeat opposition forces. In Venezuela, UN officials warned against the west’s deployment of aid “as a pawn” in the political struggle over presidential legitimacy to justify external intervention against the regime of Nicolas Maduro. Humanitarianism is increasingly instrumentalized by state authorities in the pursuit of political agendas.
The humanitarian response in Syria is bifurcated over the question of neutrality vis-a-vis the Assad regime. Humanitarian organizations operating across borders in opposition-held areas do so without the state’s consent, both providing aid and simultaneously reporting on regime violence against civilians. These actors are slowly disappearing as the regime regains and consolidates its military and administrative control.
The Damascus-based humanitarian response is increasingly becoming the official international humanitarian presence in Syria, facilitating regime control and discretion over the distribution of services and aid. As a result, humanitarian actors operating in Damascus, principally UN agencies and as many as 31 international nongovernmental organizations (INGOS), are entrenched in the Assad regime’s bureaucratic framework. This has limited their access to civilians in need and constrained their ability to effectively implement programming and deliver aid.
A tale of two humanitarian operations
UN agencies operating in Damascus are obliged under international law to cooperate with the Assad regime. They cannot operate inside Syria without regime permission. UN OCHA, the lead UN humanitarian actor in Damascus, is, by its own mandate, subsidiary to the state authority of an affected country. In this view, the Assad regime has the primary responsibility for the “initiation, organization, coordination, and implementation” of humanitarian activities in Syria.
In practice, this relationship with the regime has produced various challenges. UN agencies and international NGOs are obligated to partner with preapproved government-linked organizations — the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the Syria Trust for Development — as a precondition for approval to operate in Damascus. Humanitarian actors must also cooperate with the Assad security regime in its day-to-day operations. UN actors are routinely barred from accessing many hard-to-reach areas, most often outside of regime areas. When relief programming is approved, it cannot occur without the presence of regime-approved organizations. Most recently, the Assad regime continuously denied permissions to UN actors seeking to deliver aid to critical humanitarian emergencies in Syria. The result is a humanitarian response with limited operational effectiveness due to regime imposed constraints.
The Assad regime’s use of military and administrative impediments on access and aid empowered humanitarian actors outside of government areas to deliver aid and provide humanitarian services to opposition areas. The UN Security Council (UNSC) authorized cross-border humanitarian operations in 2014 under Resolution 2165 (2014) and 2449 (2018) legitimizing two additional regional humanitarian centers in Amman, Jordan and Gaziantep, Turkey.
Operating in Syria without regime permission, these cross-border humanitarian actors have assumed a de facto affiliation with the Syrian opposition, an abrogation of their responsibility to political neutrality. Doctors Without Borders justified its decision to operate exclusively in opposition areas by defining their role as supporting those in need even if it means violating political neutrality.
The perceived opposition affiliation continually raises concerns with the Assad regime and Russia over the possible links between humanitarian actors and terrorist activity in opposition areas. In the UNSC debate over renewing authorization for cross-border aid in December 2018, Russian UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya argued that the resolution was “divorced from reality” and criticized western countries for politicizing humanitarian action.
As the Assad regime regains control over former opposition areas, the cross-border humanitarian regime and its affiliated actors will be forced to close their doors or relocate to neighboring countries or areas under Turkish or US-led coalition control. It is unlikely that any Damascus-based humanitarian actors would replace them in these areas given ongoing access constraints imposed by the regime.
Centralizing aid in Damascus
Concurrent to the regime’s administrative advances over the humanitarian system, UN actors are increasingly considering the future of cross-border operations and centralizing aid in Damascus. With the operational space closing in opposition areas, humanitarian organizations are also cautiously considering relocating to Damascus from neighboring states.
Little is known on exact details of the registration process for new NGOs except that it can take as long as two years and is highly selective. Obscure processes create a confusing system of approvals, requirements, and logistics that privileges those NGOs with the financial capability to explore the process or political ties with the state apparatus.
If aid operations are recentralized to Damascus, it will have several implications for the future of humanitarian aid in Syria. Humanitarian organizations in neighboring countries would face pressure to relocate to Damascus to work legitimately in Syria alongside Damascus-based UN partners. Humanitarian personnel will also be required to relocate Damascus to register transitioning NGOs, as well as to staff already approved NGOs. All of these humanitarian personnel must also be vetted and approved by the Assad regime, through increased scrutiny, the Assad regime could systematically deny approval for aid organizations and personnel that do not fit its interests, and conversely, approve those that do.
A Damascus-based UN humanitarian regime will remain subject to the complex regime bureaucracy and its reoccurring administrative and bureaucratic constraints to access and programming. Such a move would enable the Assad regime to consolidate control over the Syrian humanitarian response, resulting in a humanitarian regime more acquiescent to the interests of the Assad regime or, at the least, silent to the violence employed against Syrian civilians throughout the war.
The result is a compromised relationship at a time when cross-border humanitarian operations face an uncertain future. If the United Nations cannot insulate humanitarian operations from regime-imposed constraints on access, civilians in communities who participated in the Syrian revolution will likely continue to face barriers to state services and assistance, as well as increased obstructions to humanitarian relief.
By Jesse Marks
Edited according to Orient Net