Why Has the U.N. Given Assad a Free Pass on Mass Murder?
Humanitarian workers chronicle Syria's suffering -- but withhold key details on who is at fault.
During the past year, the United Nations’ chief relief agency has routinely withheld from the public vital details of the Bashar al-Assad regime’s systematic campaign to block humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians. This silence has infuriated human rights advocates, who believe that greater public exposure of Assad’s actions would increase political pressure on the Syrian government to allow the international community to help hundreds of thousands of ordinary Syrians who are trapped in the line of fire.
Instead, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) — which oversees international relief efforts in Syria — has relied on low-key, behind-the-scenes diplomacy to quietly persuade the Syrian regime to open the aid floodgates. So far, critics say, the strategy has been ineffective. Worse, it provides a measure of political cover to the Assad regime as it carries out mass starvation and slaughter, these critics contend.
The U.N. "should be much more willing to point the finger at the Syrian government when they are responsible for vast blockages of aid. They haven’t said enough about who is responsible for violations and the character of those violations," said Peggy Hicks, the head of advocacy for Human Rights Watch. "There is always a balancing act, but we have been concerned that the U.N. has been reluctant to recognize the limits of working behind the scenes."
In the latest effort to avoid a diplomatic confrontation, the agency’s chief, Valerie Amos, privately urged U.N. Security Council members to hold off on plans to promote a resolution aimed at pressuring Syria to meet its humanitarian obligations. Instead, she has proposed establishing a high-level group — including representatives of Australia, the United States, Iran, Luxembourg, Russia, and Saudi Arabia — to quietly pressure Syria’s combatants to "lift bureaucratic and other obstacles hindering humanitarian work," according to a confidential copy of the plan. Both Iran and the U.S. have tentatively agreed to participate, Foreign Policy reported on Friday.
During the past month, Amos has engaged in a rare bout of public scolding, criticizing the Syrian government’s imposition of bureaucratic delays and its laying siege to civilian towns. While Hicks and other critics say they welcome the change, they say she has not gone far enough.
Amos defended her response, telling Foreign Policy in prepared remarks that her agency has been speaking out in private and public about Syrian government obstructions and that it "publishes regular bulletins on the humanitarian situation inside Syria including constraints on access." But she stated, "We are not just an advocacy organization."
"Our job requires an operational response on the ground, information management, sensitive negotiations and advocacy," said Amos, who on Nov. 13 toured the storm-ravaged town of Tacloban, Philippines, where she is overseeing the troubled humanitarian response to Typhoon Haiyan. "We have a responsibility to help those most in need. We have achieved that through a mix of public pressure and quiet diplomacy with the parties active in the conflict in Syria."
The distribution of humanitarian aid has emerged as a central front of the Syrian government’s military campaign to starve out pockets of potential support for the armed resistance. By restricting deliveries to pro-government areas, the Syrian government has gained a political advantage by ensuring that food and assistance is channeled disproportionately to those who support it.
"Both sides want to be the food-giver, but Assad has made it very clear he’s not going to let anybody else but him feed Syrians," said Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria at the University of Oklahoma. Assad’s hope: that "people will crawl back to him" for bread, salaries, and other subsidies. "And that’s what’s happening.
While the United States and European powers have publicly denounced the Syrian government’s curtailing of assistance to opposition territory, one of their chief objectives in Syria — saving lives and stopping the wholesale flight of refugees — has perversely aligned with Assad’s aims, according to Landis.
"If you want to stop refugee flow and cauterize Syria, which is [the West’s] major objective, the way to do it is to pump more calories into Syria, and the best way to pump calories into Syria is to work through Assad," Landis said. "He owns the Syrians, and he will facilitate that food distribution if it relegitimizes him.
The United Nations estimates that more than 9.5 million Syrians are in need of assistance, including 2.5 million people residing in areas beyond the reach of international relief workers. Many have not received help for more than a year. "Syria has become the great tragedy of this century — a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history," Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said in September.
The Assad government and Syria’s armed opposition — a fractious coalition of fighters that has become increasingly dominated by extremist jihadists — have both committed widespread abuses of civilians. The al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, for example, has warned that aid workers are at risk of kidnapping or death in Syria. The International Committee of the Red Cross claims that at least 22 Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have been killed since the conflict started.
"The deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel and transportation by all parties to the conflict remains a daily reality," according to a confidential paper produced by OCHA. "Kidnappings and abductions of humanitarian workers are growing, as is hijacking and seizure of trucks."
But the government’s use of aid blockades has been far more sweeping, according to experts on the region. "Both sides are employing siege tactics that seek to gain a military advantage by denying supplies to the civilian population," said Noah Bonsey, the Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group. "But it is a much more of systematic policy on the regime side," one aimed at starving out populations in hard-to-reach rebel strongholds. That includes Ghouta, where the government used chemical weapons in August to try to dislodge the resistance.
For much of the past year, OCHA has studiously avoided opportunities to cast direct blame on the Syrian government for paralyzing the U.N. relief effort in rebel-controlled territory. Instead, the organization preferred to nudge Assad behind the scenes in the hope of widening access for relief workers. Until recently, a typical public statement will raise concern about the brutality of life for civilians under siege but will not identify who is responsible for imposing it. Many basic facts — for instance, the existence of a Syrian government policy of denying medical syringes into opposition areas — have been limited to distribution to the Security Council and have been marked strictly confidential.
A review of confidential internal documents provides a far clearer picture of Syrian obstructionism. For instance, one document contained a list of eight villages and neighborhoods in Damascus and Homs that had come under siege by Syrian security forces — including Moadamiyeh, where thousands of Syrian residents were forced to eat leaves in order to fend off starvation. For anyone paying close attention to Syria’s civil war, the government’s siege of Syrian villages was hardly a secret.
Syria has failed to act on U.N. requests to establish humanitarian aid offices in numerous cities, including Aleppo, Daraa, and Quamishli. That has complicated U.N. efforts to deliver assistance in the country, according to another internal document OCHA presented to the Security Council this month.
Syria routinely delays the issuance of visas, and when it does grant them, it will not allow relief workers into the country, according to one of the documents. Procedures for delivering aid, as well as importing communications equipment, are particularly cumbersome. For instance, U.N. relief workers must submit a travel request to the Foreign Ministry 72 hours in advance of sending a convoy into the field. Approval must be granted by the Syrian Foreign Ministry, the Syrian Arab Red Cross, and the Ministry of Social Affairs. In the case of medicine deliveries, the U.N. must also obtain a clearance letter from the Ministry of Health.
The Assad government has long prohibited the United Nations from delivering aid across Syria’s borders with countries viewed as sympathetic to the armed opposition, including Turkey and Jordan. Instead, aid is shipped through Damascus and often blocked from crossing conflict lines. "Restrictions imposed by Syrian authorities on delivery of medical supplies over past six months include: medical supplies which could be used for surgical interventions (e.g. scissors, infusions, anaesthesia) not allowed into opposition-controlled areas," according to a confidential document provided by Amos’s office to the Security Council this month. (The document, however, did note that some medical supplies were delivered to Idlib and the town of Termallah in Homs between August and October).
The United States and its Western allies have denounced Syrian obstructions and have accused the Syian government of stepping up efforts to starve out civilians in towns suspected of sympathizing with the opposition. "The regime has shown that it can facilitate access to chemical weapons inspectors when it wishes, and it could do so for humanitarian relief if it showed a shred of humanity and wished to do so," British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently told British Parliament.
But in the face of such behavior, the U.N. has tread carefully and generally from behind closed doors. This month — according to confidential documents shared with the U.N. Security Council — Amos’s office backtracked on a plan to set specific timelines for reopening shuttered hospitals and schools in conflict zones. Even a U.N. proposal to deliver polio vaccines to 700,000 Syrian children by January was dropped before it was officially presented to the Security Council on Nov. 4.
In recent weeks, and in the face of intense pressure from human rights groups and aid agencies, the U.N.’s humanitarian agency has stepped up its public complaints about the Assad regime’s hostility to relief workers.
"Lack of access is the biggest problem we face in Syria. Both the Government and the opposition are blocking aid deliveries, as I have pointed out in public and in private fora," Amos told Foreign Policy in her statement. "We face serious bureaucratic constraints in getting permission from the Government for convoys and obtaining visas, setting up humanitarian hubs and getting essential equipment through customs. Opposition groups have blocked our convoys and refused to allow us passage through checkpoints."
But she added: "[W]e do not release detailed operational information publicly for reasons including the security of our staff and those in partner organizations, and the integrity of our negotiations."
The U.N.’s caution reflects a long-standing dilemma for U.N. humanitarian relief workers: Is it better to use the bully pulpit to increase pressure on a government to treat its people humanely, or is it better to nudge the government quietly behind the scenes?
For decades, U.N. relief workers have preferred to keep their concerns off the headlines and reveal little about the perpetrators of violence against civilians, thereby preserving their role as neutral healers and helpers.
But a spate of internal reviews of U.N. responses to mass killings from Bosnia to Rwanda and Sri Lanka have challenged that view, arguing that the U.N. cannot remain impartial and silent in the face of massive abuses against civilians.
Last year, Charles Petrie — a retired U.N. official who served in trouble spots from Rwanda to Myanmar — conducted a major internal review of the U.N.’s response during the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war, when more than 70,000 civilians were killed, mostly by government shelling. The review faulted the U.N. for failing to confront the government more directly.
"There was a continued reluctance [by the U.N.] to stand up for the rights of the people they were mandated to assist," he wrote. While top U.N. officials frequently decried the death of thousands of civilians "the U.N. greatly weakened the impact of its statements by not identifying the government as the perpetrator of individual attacks associated with these casualties."
But others say it is not so simple. It’s true that the U.N. "has a tendency to err on the side of quiet diplomacy longer than they should," said Steven Ratner, a professor of international law at the University of Michigan Law School, who oversaw a second review of the mass killing of civilians in Sri Lanka. "But I think it would be too simplistic to say there is always one right way of handling a situation like Syria. In some situations, quiet diplomacy works; and in others condemnation works; and in others maybe a combination of both" will work.
Security Council diplomats say that Amos, a British national who was put forward for the U.N.’s top humanitarian job by her government, is concerned that the pursuit of a more confrontational approach toward Syria will backfire. She worries that it will feed a perception in Damascus that the U.N. aid effort is linked to the Western powers’ attempts to bring about the fall of the regime. She has tried to encourage the combatants’ allies — including Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia — to use their influence on the fighters to permit the delivery of relief. "The U.N. doesn’t want to be perceived as being politicized," said one Security Council diplomat. The U.N. relief agency, the diplomat said, is concerned that it could be accused of "playing politics with the West."
A second Security Council diplomat defended Amos’s handling of the response, saying that has been necessary to proceed discretely in order to avoid antagonizing Russia, Syria’s closest ally on the council, or provoking Syria to impose even tighter restriction. Taking an even-handed approach to the crisis has served to induce Russia to accept Security Council pressure on the parties. "She has been outspoken," the diplomat said. They say she has quietly worked behind the scenes to persuade Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, help the U.N. gain access.
"I would think the criticism against OCHA seems unfair; OCHA has been trying to draw attention to these problems and trying to say there is clearly problems in access due to bureaucratic hurdles, which points to the government," said another Council diplomat. "OCHA has responsibility to balance between public awareness and trying to gain concrete steps on the ground, which can sometimes be more
efficient not to make too much noise."
The U.N. Security Council has long been paralyzed by a big power standoff, with Russia and China on one side, the United States and its European and Arab allies on the other. But on Oct. 2, the U.N. Security Council finally adopted its first formal statement calling on Syria and the armed opposition to permit unfettered access to relief workers. Human rights and relief organizations said the U.N. has been slow to pressure the government to meet the council’s demands. The U.N. only presented the council with a plan of action on Monday, a month after the council issued its plea for access.
Human Rights Watch’s Hicks welcomed the U.N. relief coordinators’ increasing willingness to speak out in recent weeks, but says the United Nations has too often withheld precise details about who is responsible for blocking assistance to needy civilians. For instance, Hicks noted, Amos has said it was a "scandal" the U.N. can’t reach 330,000 people in besieged areas. But she didn’t note that the vast majority — some 280,000 — are being held captive, part of a systematic campaign to cut off civilians. "The lesson of Sri Lanka shows that when access to people in need is completely blocked and stymied, as has been the case in Syria, the U.N. needs to speak out loudly in a very forceful way in support of all those in need of assistance."
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch