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A Framework for Neutral Aid Work in Syria Is Urgently Needed

  • Haid Haid

    Consulting Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

    زميل مشارك استشاري، برنامج الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا

It is time to put pressure on the regime to allow the impartial provision of humanitarian aid in territories it controls.

The Syrian regime’s military victories over the past year have fundamentally changed the dynamics of the conflict, and one area that has been increasingly affected is humanitarian aid.

The regime’s strict control over all humanitarian activities in its territories allows it to decide where aid is delivered and by whom. Consequently, humanitarians used to working in non-regime territories are facing a dilemma: how to provide aid in regime areas without empowering it.

It is not simply a binary question of either accepting Damascus’s conditions or continuing to solely operate in non-regime areas. Neither option helps civilians trapped in retaken former rebel areas or loosens the regime’s restrictions on aid work or its ability to manipulate it.

Therefore, the best strategy is to develop a collective operational framework to ensure that all aid work inside regime areas is carried out in a neutral and impartial way.

Neutrality as a humanitarian operational principle means that those in charge do not allow the surrounding armed conflict or the warring parties to intervene in their aid work. But that is not what is happening in Syria. Humanitarian organizations operating in regime territories have continued to allow Damascus to control their work and use it to consolidate its authority.

Since the beginning of the conflict, the regime used UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182, which gives the affected state the primary role in managing humanitarian assistance within its territory, as a tool to channel all humanitarian work through Damascus and organizations affiliated with the state or hand-picked by it. On top of forcing aid agencies and workers to apply for permissions to carry out their activities, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs requires organizations that rely on local implementing partners to choose the latter from a list of entities approved by the regime.

In addition, the dependence of humanitarian organizations’ aid on regime approval, for security reasons, has allowed the regime to increase its ability to control who receives relief as well as where and when. For example, the regime prevented humanitarian workers based in regime areas from providing aid in rebel-held territories, which allowed it to use starvation a weapon of war.

In response, some, such as UN agencies, have agreed to obey the regime’s restrictions in order to serve the millions of civilians who live in these territories. Others took the decision to work in non-regime areas only, either through cross-border relief operations or via local partners not regulated by Damascus.

Such arrangements worked well enough for a time, but now that the majority of Syria’s territories are under regime control, they can no longer function effectively. Recent reports state that hundreds of thousands of Syrians in areas recaptured by government troops this year remain starved of humanitarian aid. The unregulated relief agencies which helped for years are no longer able to reach them, while the requests of those operating from Damascus to step in are denied.

Thus, humanitarian agencies are again facing the same question they have been avoiding for years: what should be done to help civilians, but not the regime?

The focus should be on coming up with a new framework to regulate how aid should be distributed in regime areas. This operational guideline should ensure that humanitarian actors have the ability to provide aid wherever needed, despite any political considerations. Similarly, those actors should be allowed to choose their partners freely based on competence instead of their loyalty to the regime.

For this to be effective, the framework should take into consideration the measures needed to ensure the protection of local partners. Likewise, the laws that regulate the work of Syrian organizations should be reviewed to ensure that those groups have equitable opportunities. Having full access to all data, activities and locations is equally important to establish independent and reliable monitoring and evaluation processes. For example, the UN should start asking its partner organizations to disclose their own subcontracting partners, to ensure that regime-sanctioned entities are not benefiting from UN funds.

Enforcing such a framework will not be an easy task, but it is not impossible either. This operational guideline can only be implemented if all UN agencies and other key international humanitarian organizations are able to build an alliance to collectively pressure the regime. The states funding aid work inside Syria are the main ones who have the ability to build that coalition and enforce the framework.

Aid work in Syria has maintained a massive flow of money into the regime’s crippled economy, leverage that should not be underestimated. According to the 2018 Humanitarian Response Monitoring Report, an estimated 13 million people are in need across the country, the vast majority of which live in regime areas. Similarly, an unpublished report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research estimates that in 2017, the international community’s total humanitarian expenditures in Syria—including both UN and non-UN sources of funding—were equivalent to some 35 per cent of the country’s GDP. In addition, the cessation of hostilities in regime areas should make it easier to pressure the regime to give humanitarian workers more access.

It is especially important to come up with, and enforce, such as framework now, as the number of humanitarian agencies who are considering operating in regime-held areas is rapidly increasing. Likewise, the importance of ensuring the independence of UN agencies in Syria is not only limited to its aid work there; it will become even more crucial when, and if, reconstruction funds arrive.