U.N.’s Fear of Angering Assad Leaves Gap in Syria Aid Effort

U.N. effort to supply hundreds of thousands of Syrians in rebel-held areas with food, water, and medicine falling dangerously short.


Six months ago, the United Nations assured the world it could deliver humanitarian aid to as many as 2 million imperiled civilians living in rebel-controlled communities along Syria’s borders with Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. Today, the U.N.’s chief relief agencies are reaching only a fraction of those numbers — meaning that hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrians are still at risk of starvation, dehydration, and disease.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently acknowledged that food has been delivered across Syria’s borders to rebel-held communities to only 208,000 people, medical supplies to just 250,000, and water and sanitation equipment to as few as 86,000. At the same time, the ranks of Syria’s displaced have continued to swell throughout the country: A stunning 12.2 million Syrians are now in need of humanitarian aid, 2.9 million more than just 10 months ago, according to U.N. estimates.

The shortfall has been caused by a range of factors, from the territorial gains of extremist groups like the Islamic State that have cut off supply routes through Iraq and targeted humanitarian aid workers to the Syrian government’s ongoing bombardment of rebel-held towns. A thicket of Syrian government red tape, meanwhile, has thwarted efforts to deliver assistance in rebel-controlled territory throughout the country’s nearly four-year-long civil war.

But the sluggish response has also been compounded by the U.N.’s own shortcomings, according to senior U.N.-based diplomats and private charities. The world body’s main relief agencies — including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Food Program (WFP) — have resisted calls from private charities and key powers like the United States to ramp up their delivery of aid into rebel-held territory near Syria’s borders. Some U.N. relief officials have privately cited concerns that doing so could undermine their ability to maintain Syrian government cooperation in reaching millions of needy civilians in areas held by the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

U.N. relief officials acknowledge that they haven’t moved as much aid into rebel areas as they’d expected, but insist that they are working to expand the distribution of food and other basic supplies in the coming weeks and months.

For the time being, private relief agencies are trying to fill the gap. The American relief agency Mercy Corps has sent 688 trucks carrying more than 17,000 metric tons of food, shelter, and hygiene and winter supplies into Syria since July. That’s more than the total aid sent by all of the U.N.’s own relief agencies combined, which together sent only 422 trucks carrying more than 10,000 metric tons worth of supplies, according to Nigel Pont, a spokesman for Mercy Corps. The Turkish Red Crescent, meanwhile, sent more humanitarian aid trucks (297) into Syria in two weeks than U.N. agencies sent into Syria in four months (207 trucks), according to the Syrian American Medical Society, a U.S.-based relief agency established by Syrian-American physicians.

“The unmet needs remain huge — between the U.N. and NGO efforts, tens of thousands of civilians inside Syria are still not being reached,” Pont said, though he credited the U.N. with working to address the shortcomings.

The WHO in particular has come under intense criticism for directing its assistance to communities loyal to the Syrian government. Such favoritism, according to many critics, fueled a sudden spike in cases of long-defeated diseases, including polio, in rebel-held communities.

The Syrian American Medical Society, for its part, maintains that the WHO has also largely declined to ship lifesaving medical supplies into opposition territory from Turkey and Jordan.

“Although Syria’s health care system has collapsed and medical supplies are urgently needed in much of northern Syria, the WHO has barely participated in the cross-border aid program and has no plans to increase its participation in 2015,” according to a white paper written by the Syrian American Medical Society aimed at influencing the U.N. Security Council debate. “Medical sector goods such as trauma kits — which only the WHO can supply among the U.N. agencies — are in desperate need.”

It is unfair to measure the WHO’s success by “how many pills and bandages you can deliver” across Syria’s borders, said Elizabeth Hoff, the director of the relief agency’s office in Damascus. The WHO’s primary role, she said, is coordinating the response by private aid agencies that have longstanding relations with Syrian border communities. “There are NGOs delivering more efficiently operating from within the areas,” she said.

Hoff said the WHO’s Syria-based staff, meanwhile, have reached needy civilians in rebel-held areas by negotiating access across battle lines. She said that as much as 32 percent of the aid distributed by the WHO in Syria has gone into opposition-controlled territory. However, the Syrian government has routinely blocked the WHO from delivering lifesaving surgical supplies, and other trauma equipment, to rebel-controlled communities on the grounds that they could be used to heal fighters.

The WHO’s response to the polio outbreak, Hoff said, has ultimately contained the debilitating disease, with more than 2.7 million children receiving vaccinations during the latest polio vaccination campaign in November. “We have no cases of polio since January 2014,” she said. “I think progress is being made.”

Since the earliest stages of the Syrian war, international relief workers have struggled to get food, medicine, and other relief goods to millions of civilians living in rebel-controlled territory. And the Syrian government has struggled just as vigorously to block it, ensuring that only civilians under government protection get food and medicine.

Opposition groups say that Assad is effectively trying to starve civilians living in rebel-held areas to force them to turn against the insurgents. In a letter to the U.N. in October, Najib Ghadbian, the U.N. representative of the Syrian National Coalition, said the world body’s failure to increase cross-border assistance “amounts to preferential treatment for regime-held areas and perpetuates the regime’s starvation tactics and empowers the regime to continue to use food and medicine as a weapon of war. Aid needs to come across the border at scale.”

Reem Salahi, the Syrian National Coalition’s deputy legal and policy advisor in the United States, told Foreign Policy that “the humanitarian needs in Syria are immense and growing.”

The U.N. has been trying to find a way of meeting those needs for more than a year. In October 2013, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement urging Syria’s warring parties to grant U.N. relief agencies and private aid groups “safe and unhindered access” to all Syrians, including the millions in territory controlled by rebels. The statement urged the delivery of aid across conflict lines, and “where appropriate, across borders.”

That cooperation never materialized, so the world body took a tougher tack. In July, the U.N. Security Council passed a legally binding measure, Resolution 2165, that granted U.N. relief workers express authority to ship aid across Syria’s foreign borders without the permission of the Syrian government. Under the terms of the resolution, the U.N. was supposed to be able to freely transfer goods into rebel-controlled areas from four border crossing points: Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa in Turkey, Ar Ramtha in Jordan, and Al Yarubiyah in Iraq. But the U.N. has yet to do more than tiptoe into Syria’s border communities.

“We were told when Resolution 2165 was adopted that potentially [the U.N.] could reach up to 1.9 million people in hard-to-reach areas,” said a senior Western diplomat based at the U.N. “If you look at the numbers of the [U.N.] secretary-general reports, it is many, many fewer than that, 250,000 to 300,000.”

The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the U.N. agencies have resisted trying to push harder into rebel areas for fear of jeopardizing their relationship with Damascus. “We have made clear to WFP and UNHCR and others that we expect them to do that,” the diplomat said. “They can’t rely just on the NGO community to be doing cross-border. They need to do it themselves.”

The U.N. agencies acknowledge that they have struggled to reach their targets, citing a lack of funding for their programs and the rise of extremist groups like the Islamic State. Delivering aid, meanwhile, has grown ever more deadly. Since the start of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, 69 humanitarian aid workers have been killed. On Nov. 7, two volunteers from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent working with UNICEF were killed by mortar fire in Homs while delivering supplies for children traumatized by the conflict. Nine days later, the Islamic State released a video showing the beheading of Peter Kassig, an American aid worker.

“The shifting nature of the conflict has certainly complicated many of our planned cross-border operations, making it difficult to feed people in a sustainable manner in some areas,” said Abeer Etefa, a spokeswoman for the WFP, which was recently forced to temporarily suspend its operations in Syria because of a lack of funding. With aid money flowing back into WFP’s operations, Etefa said that the Rome-based food agency now has plans to deliver 100,000 rations across Syria’s borders to 500,000 needy Syrians by the end of January.

The United Nations has long had an institutional aversion to conducting relief operations in countries that don’t grant their consent and cooperation. Syria has vehemently opposed the delivery of humanitarian aid across borders it doesn’t control, arguing that aid trucks will be abused to smuggle in weapons for the rebels seeking the overthrow of the Assad government.

Throughout most of the Syrian conflict, the U.N. has abided by Damascus’s wishes, maintaining that it lacked the legal basis to smuggle essential lifesaving food, medicines, and other goods without the consent of the Syrian government. The U.N. has also feared that defying the Syrian regime’s wishes risked damaging its working partnership with Damascus, jeopardizing its ability to save lives in government-controlled areas.

A senior U.S. relief official said Washington and other major donors have pressed the U.N.’s relief agencies to at least make some meaningful contribution to the cross-border aid deliveries. “We said, if they can’t do it themselves, they should at least provide technical support to those private aid agencies that are willing.”

The U.S. official voiced sympathy with the U.N.’s predicament, noting that “the U.N. agencies are in a pretty delicate position trying to do this from both sides” of the conflict. The private relief agencies that deliver aid across the border don’t have a “foothold in Damascus, and therefore don’t face the same balancing act.”

The official said that the initial U.N. estimates about the number of civilians that could be reached by cross-border aid deliveries into rebel areas were unrealistically optimistic.

“Those of us close to the existing cross-border effort had an eye cocked when we heard the U.N. numbers,” the official said. Even before the rise of the Islamic State heightened the risk of delivering aid, aid groups endured a painstakingly difficult challenge to negotiate access. “You had to talk your way through every roadblock,” the official said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary who leads the International Rescue Committee, said the Syrian regime has hampered the U.N. agencies’ ability to deliver cross-border delivery aid into rebel-held areas, including through threats to the U.N.’s role in helping civilians in government-controlled areas of Syria. “My argument is the Assad regime can’t afford to kick the U.N. out of Damascus. The U.N. is feeding so many of [Assad’s] own people.”

Miliband, along with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, has called for the creation of a senior humanitarian envoy representing the five permanent members of the Security Council and key regional powers, with a mandate to help apply pressure on foreign supporters of Syria’s combatants to let aid through to civilians in conflict areas.

“We have been making the case that there needs to be more political muscle behind the efforts of U.N. officials,” Miliband said. The U.N. needs to “crunch through the local blockages” of assistance by government and opposition forces.

U.N. relief officials say that many of their sharpest critics, including Syrian opposition leaders and some Western and Arab governments that back the rebels, have oversimplified the country’s aid needs, portraying cross-border delivery of aid as the “end-all be-all solution” to Syria’s humanitarian crisis. In reality, they add, the vast majority of humanitarian needs are best served from inside Syria. In order to meet those needs, they argue, it is prudent to maintain a civil relationship with the Syrian government while allowing private charities to serve civilians in rebel-held territory along the border. “We are very grateful to those NGOs serving rebel-held areas. Good for them that they are able to do it and we’re not,” said one U.N. relief official. “Those complaining loudest, including governments like Britain, have no operations on the ground. The big powers are obsessed with reaching a smaller number of people at the expense of antagonizing the government.”

The situation has posed a stark moral dilemma for the United Nations and international donors in Syria, where aid continues to flow disproportionately to needy civilians in government-controlled areas, leaving civilians in rebel territory struggling to obtain the basics for survival.

“While Resolution 2165 established a comprehensive mandate to enhance the delivery of cross border aid and reach 3.5 million Syrians, they were not reached,” said Syrian National Coalition advisor Salahi. “U.N. agencies were slow in making use of the resolution and fell far short from fully implementing the resolution.”

But other observers say the U.N. has little choice but to maintain a close working relationship with the Assad government, which rules over the largest numbers of civilians in need. “The dilemma for the U.N. is this: Do you want to piss off the Syrian government, which rules 65 percent of the Syrian people, in order to deliver aid to 5 percent of those ruled by militias not at war with America and the United Nations?” said Joshua Landis, a scholar and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. U.N. relief agencies feel they “have to go along with Assad because [their] duty is just to feed people,” he said.

Baraa Al-Halabi/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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