Amidst Syria’s Deadly Politics, Can Humanitarians Find a Better Way to Deliver Aid?

Resigning from his post as UN Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi protested the “total inattention of the international community” to resolving the conflict. For three years, a deadlocked UN Security Council has proved incapable of stemming the tide of violence in Syria, and increasingly beyond its borders. Previous wake-up calls have gone unheeded. The result has been a horrific human toll, exacerbated by a commensurate failure by the international community to ensure consistent humanitarian access to civilians.

The numbers are disheartening. According to a UN report from earlier this year, almost a quarter million Syrians are under siege, and according to more recent figures, 4.7 million are in difficult to access locales , and 10.8 million need aid. The UN and NGOs are conducting lifesaving operations to reach civilians in need. Yet despite a UN Security Council Resolutionadopted unanimously in February 2014, which demanded unhindered access for the UN and its partners, both government and nongovernmental forces are reportedly inhibiting the UN from reaching some desperate people.

The result has been not only that many civilians are deprived of life-saving aid, but also that there are huge disparities in access to life-saving assistance across conflict lines. In the first quarter of 2014, at least 85 per cent of food aid and at least 70 per cent of medicines went to areas controlled by Assad’s forces. This is up from an almost even distribution of aid between opposition and government territory approximately one year ago.

As a result, UN agencies and NGOs involved in relief efforts face an unenviable choice. Either they can comply with Assad’s demands, and thereby unwittingly support what Foreign Policy’s John Hudson calls “a campaign to bring rebels to heel by cutting off food supplies in opposition-controlled areas.” Or, alternatively, aid groups can defy Assad and risk the consequences, which may include being barred from accessing government-held areas. Already, the Syrian government has forced one large aid group, Mercy Corps, to close operations in Damascus as a consequence of their provision of aid to individuals in opposition controlled areas. In other parts of the country, aid agencies have also had to confront the rapid rise of the jihadist group, ISIS, which controls swathes of Syria and Iraq, implying an equal and opposite dilemma. If aid agencies provide relief to civilians under ISIS’s control, the group (like similar ones) is given a free hand to funnel its resources towards its war aims, rather than funding services like providing food, water, and basic healthcare.

It is not an ethical quandary alone which has stymied action. The UN also cited legal obstacles to reaching civilians in rebel-held areas, especially when doing so involves mounting cross-border humanitarian operations, which a number of NGOs have been undertaking. Concerns arise from the principle that humanitarian aid is provided only with the consent of a host country government. A representative of President Assad has gone so far as to claim that undertaking humanitarian operations across international borders (where civilians in rebel-held areas are easiest to reach) would be tantamount to “an attack on the Syrian state and on its territorial integrity and political independence.”

A draft resolution currently before the Security Council suggests that Assad’s protestations are receiving less traction. The resolution provides an opportunity for the Council to demand genuine action to reach civilians across Syria, including by means of cross-border operations. The legal case against this strategy has become increasingly untenable in light of Assad’s arbitrary denial of access. Arguing as much, a group of high profile international lawyers co-signed an open letter stating “there is no legal barrier to the UN directly undertaking cross-border humanitarian operations and supporting NGOs to undertake them as well.” A resolution endorsing cross-border operations would constitute progress, not least in uncharacteristically unifying the Security Council. Nevertheless, aid agencies are right to caution that the Council must take care not to set a counter-productive precedent by suggesting that the legality of cross-border operations, already being undertaken by some NGOs, isdependent on UN Security Council authorization.

Independent of the Security Council, donors could funnel more resources to NGOs that can reach some of the areas Assad is prohibiting the UN from reaching, as John Kerry mentioned the US may do. The UN could provide aid in areas under Assad’s control and willing NGOs could (continue to) work in areas controlled by opposition groups, including with funding channeled through UN agencies, a simpler proposition if the UN stops eschewing support for cross-border missions.

This would not wholly solve the dilemma because given the horrific record of humanitarian access, presumably some restrictions will endure, especially in areas being contested by government and rebel forces. Some might object that this division of labor violates the principle of neutrality of aid organizations. It does not, however, because the strategy aims to reach the greatest number of civilians in need– in both government and opposition controlled areas – in a highly politicized situation. Given the tragedy in Syria, this strategy may be the best among bad choices.

Thanks to Scott Wisor for helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this blog.

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