Holding Out the Hat for Syria

Four years since the crisis began, aid organizations are struggling to drum up funds for suffering Syrians.


KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait — There was a brief moment last summer when senior U.N. officials thought things might get ever-so-slightly better in Syria. After three years of deadlock, the U.N. Security Council in July 2014 approved a resolution authorizing humanitarian aid to be transferred over several border crossings into Syria — without permission from Damascus. Before, the United Nations had been forced to work with President Bashar al-Assad, who had refused to let aid convoys traverse crossings controlled by the rebels. With the Security Council resolution, Assad’s government couldn’t stop aid from moving into the beleaguered country.

But Syrian officials responded by opening doors for aid, letting relief flow more freely into the country. “The [Syrian] government was very against the resolution and they wanted to demonstrate that it wasn’t necessary,” U.N. Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos told Foreign Policy.

The reprieve didn’t last. Within weeks, the Syrian government reversed course, clamping down on aid groups’ already extremely limited access. U.N. agencies were allowed to use the newly authorized border crossings, but other entryways into government-controlled areas soon closed. As for approval from Damascus, that got tighter too: While before, the United Nations had to alert the Ministry of Social Affairs, now it also had to clear all supplies with the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Today, the United Nations and other international relief agencies can no longer work directly with local governorates to dole out goods. “The administrative procedures of the government are becoming more and more limiting,” Amos said.

Nearly a year after that fleeting victory, the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria has continued to exceed even the most dismal predictions. As donor countries gather in Kuwait on Tuesday to pledge relief funds, the situation in Syria today inspires usually diplomatic officials to use words like “savagery” and “grotesque.” A plethora of players — but most importantly the Syrian government and the Islamic State — are severely restricting humanitarian access.

Even if all the channels were open, the resources wouldn’t be enough. Relief agencies have only 8 percent of the $7.5 billion that the United Nations estimates it needs this year to provide basic relief to the 12.2 million Syrians in need inside the country, and the 4 million refugees who have fled across its borders. Within Syria, the situation is particularly acute: 4.2 million of the needy are in difficult-to-reach areas, and 440,000 are trapped in besieged areas where nothing — not food, not fuel, and rarely people — gets in or out.

This is the “new normal” with which the United Nations and other relief organizations are struggling to cope. They scramble for ways to dance around regulations and rely on the bravery of locals to deliver relief. “Many [Syrians] see that death has become much better than living in such conditions,” Hesham Yusuf, representative of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), said in Kuwait on Monday.

What went wrong with aid for Syria is similar to what went wrong with the conflict itself: politics. With the parties on the ground deadlocked, statements of concern and commitment abroad did little to help. The July 2014 cross-border Security Council resolution, for example, was meant to improve aid access — but thanks to Damascus’s intransigence and the rise of the Islamic State, relief groups have seen the opposite effect.

“We have been in discussion with several non-permanent U.N. Security Council members, and they asked us what other resolutions we need,” said Andy Baker, regional program manager for the Syria crisis response at Oxfam. “We told them: We don’t need any. We need you to implement the ones we have.”

Meanwhile, the daily drumbeat of atrocities has had a numbing effect, particularly for Western publics. Syria may be the costliest humanitarian crisis in U.N. history — but it has raised pennies in the United States. The international NGO World Vision, which works with the U.N.-coordinated aid operation, is just one of the organizations that has struggled to sell the crisis to donors: It has raised $2.7 million dollars in private donations for the Syria crisis over the course of four years — less than half of the $5.9 million it raised in the first week after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

If there is one silver lining, it is that regional countries in the Gulf have increasingly stepped up to fill that gap. Kuwait last year pledged $500 million and the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia each pitched in $60 million. By early Tuesday, Kuwait had again pledged $500 million, the United Arab Emirates $100 million, and Saudi Arabia $60 million. The United States also pledged $508 million, bringing its total contribution since the beginning of the conflict to $3.7 billion.

Kuwait is particularly important because it doesn’t just pledge — it writes checks. Then, it makes sure everyone else who promised does the same, says regional U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokesman Iyad Al Hassan. He says 90 percent of the pledges from last year’s Kuwait-hosted conference have materialized — and the remaining 10 percent probably have too, and simply haven’t been reported. That’s an “unprecedented development,” he says.

Yet as delegations gather in Kuwait, Syria finds itself in the familiar position of being perceived as the second-most-urgent regional crisis. In the time the United Nations has been coordinating relief for Syria, its funds and staff have also been faced with putting down Ebola, mitigating typhoons and earthquakes, and containing conflicts in Libya, Iraq, and now Yemen.

“Yemen is a tragedy for Yemen, but it’s also a tragedy for Syria, because it’s one more thing that is higher on the list of priorities,” says Oxfam’s Baker. “And of course now is the time to jump on the crisis before things spiral out of control, as they did in Syria.”

The Syrian crisis isn’t going anywhere, which is part of the problem. In just four years, the conflict has spawned a new generation of jihadist fighters, and a new level of atrocities. It has kept 4 million Syrian children out of school, according to Baker, and sent countless more into subsistence work. Syria’s tragedy has sent a flood of migrants into Europe on rickety boats led by human traffickers.

All this is why, aid workers here say, donor governments are likely to keep giving — it is the only way to contain the growing contagion effect. Arguments about human suffering don’t draw donations, but the fear of terrorism and illegal migrants cause pocket books to open up. With ideas for how to end the fighting falling short, aid is all anyone has left.

“The repercussions of Syria are catastrophic, and they will increase if there is not a minimum of assistance to the Syrian people,” said the OIC’s Yusuf. “The repercussions will be dire for all of us.”


Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based member of the journalism collective Deca.