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Report: U.N. Officials Say Turtle Bay Is Kowtowing to Assad

Outside observers have long accused the U.N. agencies operating in Syria of being hopelessly beholden to the Syrian government, failing to deliver aid to opposition-held areas, and even rewriting official reports at the behest of Syrian officials. But it’s not just outsiders who are up in arms: A new report quotes current and former U.N. ...

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Outside observers have long accused the U.N. agencies operating in Syria of being hopelessly beholden to the Syrian government, failing to deliver aid to opposition-held areas, and even rewriting official reports at the behest of Syrian officials. But it’s not just outsiders who are up in arms: A new report quotes current and former U.N. officials, as well as an official U.N. report, echoing the same concerns about the organization’s efforts in Syria.

U.N. agencies were “simply not willing to jeopardise their operations in Syria by taking a tougher stance with the government,” an internal evaluation from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reads, according to the report. “The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this evaluation, but will surely be scrutinized unfavourably at a later point.”

The report, titled “Taking Sides: The United Nations’ loss of impartiality, independence and neutrality in Syria,” was published by the Syria Campaign, a pro-opposition advocacy group. The group calls on the United Nations to define the criteria under which it will work with the Syrian government while still delivering aid free from political pressure – and to withdraw from Damascus if those conditions are not met by Damascus. The U.N. officials are quoting anonymously, the group says, “to protect their careers and security.”

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the majority of U.N. aid has gone to government-held areas. In April 2016, for instance, 71.5 percent of food aid delivered by the World Food Programme went to areas held by the government. But it is rebel-held areas that are often in greatest need of support – and many have remained off-limits to U.N. aid workers. In May, for example, a U.N. convoy was denied entry to the besieged town of Daraya, near Damascus, and the area where civilians were gathering to receive aid was shelled, with residents blaming government forces. Last week, the United Nations succeeded in delivering food aid to Daraya – but the town was bombed by the Syrian air force soon after the delivery, making it difficult to distribute.

U.N. aid chief Stephen O’Brien told the Security Council in January that the Syrian government simply ignored 75 percent of requests for aid delivery in 2015. The U.N. was able to successfully deliver aid in only 10 percent of the requests that it made that year, he said.

“It is a profoundly flawed and one-sided operation,” a former U.N. official was quoted as saying in the Syria Campaign’s report.

Some U.N. officials quoted in the report argue that U.N. agencies lost their leverage in 2011 and 2012 by not presenting a united front to the Syrian government to demand impartial access across Syria.

“The U.N. missed the boat in 2012 and showed the government that it was willing to be a partner and then its leverage was gone,” one serving U.N. official was quoted as saying. “The discussion should have taken place in 2012 and we should have all stood as one. We should have said if you keep us quiet we will all leave. The U.N. was so eager to sell itself that it gave up the power it had at the time.”

The United Nations appears no closer to gaining regular access to rebel-held areas today than it was in the early years of the conflict. Despite three Security Council resolutions authorizing aid organizations to conduct operations without Syrian government approval, U.N. agencies have never done so, for fear of being expelled from Damascus. And while 20 countries, including Russia and the United States, have declared their support for humanitarian air drops to besieged areas, the U.N. is seeking permission from the Syrian government for air drops to rebel-held areas – permission that is unlikely to be given, as it is pro-government forces that are besieging the areas in the first place.

Of course, aid agencies would run a real risk of being expelled from Damascus if they defied the Syrian government. If that occurred, they would lose access to government-held areas, as well as to the millions of internally displaced Syrians fleeing violence across the country. But the kowtowing to the Syrian government, some U.N. officials say, has gone too far.

“There are always limits, and there are always compromises — I’m not naive about the purity of aid,” Roger Hearn, who served as the Syria director for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency during the first year of the conflict, said in an interview after the report’s release. “But when you don’t even know where your aid is going, when you can actually have sieges literally a couple of kilometers from the Four Seasons Hotel [where U.N. officials are based], and when your aid is being used in a sense as part of the arsenal of the Syrian government, it’s fair to question: What do we actually risk if we are thrown out of the country?”

ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images

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