How to Aid Syria Without Aiding Assad

U.N. agencies have submitted themselves to government control and approval. Donors must demand higher humanitarian standards or send their money through other channels.

Syrians displaced by pro-regime strikes, join a convoy driving toward the Deir al-Ballut checkpoint in Syria on April 11, 2020.
Syrians displaced by pro-regime strikes, join a convoy driving toward the Deir al-Ballut checkpoint in Syria on April 11, 2020. RAMI AL SAYED/AFP via Getty Images

The Syrian regime has been violating humanitarian neutrality for the past nine years, and the humanitarian community is paralyzed about what to do. This is skewing assistance to more than 16 million Syrians in need, two-thirds of whom remain in areas outside government control or in neighboring countries. While donors plan to renew their humanitarian financial pledges in Brussels on June 29, another Russian veto could in the coming weeks dismantle what remains of the vital U.N. cross-border assistance mechanism, simultaneously increasing the Syrian regime’s leverage over nongovernmental organizations and U.N. agencies.

The United States and Europe account for 90 percent of funding of humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people. By dispatching their funding differently inside and outside the U.N. framework, they have leverage—and they must use that leverage to restore humanitarian neutrality and ensure aid helps people in need rather than the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The humanitarian response in Syria is both a logistical masterpiece and an ethical conundrum. The United Nations has set up a very robust coordination mechanism, supporting NGOs inside Syria and in neighboring countries. U.N. programs have received considerable funding (more than $3 billion in 2019), and reached millions of people while developing the world’s most closely scrutinized system for cross-border deliveries, especially to prevent jihadi groups from diverting resources.

At the same time, the Syrian regime has committed systematic violations of the humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence. There are countless examples of the weaponization of humanitarian resources to the regime’s benefit. Aid is not neutral when delivered mostly to loyalists through regime organizations such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent or the Syria Trust for Development led by Assad’s wife. U.N. agencies have hence been accused of collusion with and submission to Damascus. The regime has also constantly militarily targeted health facilities, schools, and humanitarian actors—a seemingly deliberate violation of international humanitarian law.

A certain degree of pragmatic coordination with local authorities is, of course, necessary in most war zones. However, while a few NGOs operating from Damascus manage to operate independently, most of them have submitted themselves to the Assad regime’s conditions. Faced with blackmail over visas and numerous bureaucratic impediments, U.N. agencies and most NGOs have accepted extensive control from the regime, including submitting each project to its approval. As a result, they have delivered aid disproportionately to regime areas.

U.N. agencies also failed to fully take advantage of options to move cross-border aid into non-regime areas. The U.N. Security Council created a dedicated mechanism in 2014 which authorizes humanitarian actors to use border crossings to deliver assistance to Syria from Turkey, Iraq, or Jordan without the Assad regime’s approval. This lack of impartiality from certain U.N. agencies in Damascus recently impacted the COVID-19 response. The World Health Organization (WHO) assisted Damascus in February, but did not use cross-border corridors in northwest Syria until late March and delivered equipment in northeast Syria in May only to regime emissaries.

While a few NGOs operating from Damascus manage to operate independently, most of them have submitted themselves to the Assad regime’s conditions.

The paradox is that U.N. assistance to Syrians is mostly funded by countries opposed to Assad. With a total contribution of $19 billion and $11 billion respectively since 2011, Europe and the United States provide around 90 percent of U.N. funding. However, key donors such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the European Commission have been reluctant to push back against diversions of U.N. support to regime cronies and loyalists. They have likely feared being accused by humanitarian actors of politicizing assistance and did not want to weaken U.N. agencies further. They may have also feared the regime could react by further blocking assistance to non-loyalists. As a result, deliveries in regime areas never received the same level of scrutiny as cross-border delivery to opposition areas.

Such shortcomings left NGOs that refused to disclose activities to Assad regime officials with little choice but to work under the radar, with limited access to U.N. coordination and money. Since the defeat of the Islamic State, cities such as Raqqa have largely missed out on U.N. aid because of regime pressure on U.N. agencies, and assistance has largely been provided separately from Iraq by the U.S. and European donors, through NGOs not registered in Damascus.

Moscow is a minor contributor to U.N. assistance (0.3 percent in 2019) but has wielded disproportionate influence over humanitarian operations by systematically backing Assad’s weaponization of aid. Russia shielded Damascus from any consequences after it bombed humanitarian groups. Russia also gradually worked to undermine the cross-border mechanism. In January it vetoed the renewal of the Yarubiyah crossing, located on the Iraqi-Syrian border, while it would now support the delivery of medical equipment from Iraq to northeast Syria as part of the COVID-19 response.

Moscow’s argument is that international law requires humanitarian actors to coordinate with a country’s authorities. However, the Geneva Convention does not stipulate that this grants a country’s authorities the right to violate other provisions of international law. On the contrary, the convention forbids denying access to aid for “arbitrary or capricious” reasons. Sovereignty is not superior to humanitarian protection.

In reality, Moscow ignores the regime’s violations. Its narrative only aims to justify the regime’s domination over U.N. agencies and neglects the humanitarian rights of the Syrian population, such as the right to food or medical support. In the Kremlin’s view, U.N. agencies’ submission to the regime is simply the result of the balance of power. 

The solution is neither to make the U.N. a scapegoat nor to cut off funding to Syria, where more assistance is needed. Organizations who do recognize Syrians’ humanitarian rights cannot be expected to solve structural problems alone. Donors have the capacity to fix the humanitarian framework in Syria by allocating their funding differently.

The priority should be to protect what remains of the cross-border mechanism. Its scope was already reduced in January under Resolution 2504, from four crossings to two, Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa, at the Syrian-Turkish border, after Russia and China vetoed the renewal of the Yarubiyah crossing from Iraq and the Ramtha crossing from Jordan; this reduced mechanism will expire on July 10. The number of trucks bringing in assistance from Turkey using the two remaining border crossings has increased by more than 130 percent since 2019, but these evident humanitarian needs may not prevent Russia from using its veto again to end the mechanism.

The European Union’s June 29 pledging conference on Syria provides a timely opportunity for big donors—such as the United States, Europe, and Canada—to announce, first, that cross-border funding managed from Turkey will not be relocated to Damascus if Resolution 2504 is not renewed, and second, that stricter operation guidelines and independent project monitoring are required to operate in regime areas.

A key challenge for the United States and its allies—inside and outside the U.N. Security Council—is to use all the tools they can muster, from bilateral talks with Russia and Turkey to personal diplomacy at the ministerial level and outreach to the U.N. secretary-general, to find a compromise with Moscow to preserve the two border crossings from Turkey and to improve access to northeast Syria.

If the cross-border mechanism is not renewed, donors should pool the funds that would have gone to it and direct those contributions outside the U.N. framework. And even if it is renewed, key donors should still condition their funding of U.N. operations based in Damascus and disburse funds differently, depending on the respect of humanitarian standards. If agencies such as the WHO in Damascus do not clarify their relations with the regime, donor governments should shift funding to other agencies or fund NGOs outside of the U.N. framework. Local Syrian NGOs have built up extensive skills and could be supported directly.

Pooling funding outside the U.N. system could increase direct assistance to northeast Syria from Erbil in Iraq, in the same way that the humanitarian hub in Gaziantep, Turkey, supports northwest Syria. These measures might create costs for donors, but would be a worthy investment to prevent diversion to the Assad regime. Shifting partners based on stricter guidelines would create a sense of competition the U.N. secretary-general could use to strengthen internal accountability and help NGOs negotiate higher humanitarian standards with Damascus.

Russia, China, Iran, and others argue that, since Assad has effectively won the war, sanctions should be lifted to allow development aid from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United States, and Europe to flow. While sanctions should be targeted and their impact on the population regularly assessed, it’s hard to see how lifting them now would not lead to even bigger diversion of aid to the regime than in the past.

More assistance to Syrians is needed, but calls to centralize operations in Damascus ignore how fragmented the humanitarian situation in Syria still is. While 6.4 million out of the 16.6 million Syrians in need of assistance live in regime areas, Damascus keeps blocking access to former rebel areas it now controls, such as Eastern Ghouta near the Syrian capital, and barely controls other areas, such as Daraa.

Another 5.6 million Syrians are refugees in neighboring countries and risk arrest if they come back. At least 2.8 million people in humanitarian need live in the northwest under the control of jihadists or pro-Turkish Islamist groups, and 1.8 million are in the northeast under the control of the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces. Each situation requires specific solutions in the absence of a political settlement.

Allowing Damascus to have full control over international assistance will neither help alleviate civilian suffering nor stabilize the country. Using existing funding in ways that address current violations of humanitarian principles is essential. The United States and Europe could also explore new options, such as working with the Syrian diaspora and their NGOs to increase remittances and financial assistance sent to Syria, which is probably the most direct and effective support average Syrians can receive. Syrians who fled the regime know best who needs help and how to avoid extortions and diversions.

Humanitarian organizations are rightly wary of donors’ pressures because they fear being instrumentalized, yet the level of regime interference in their work should have triggered a collective reaction long ago. The destruction of humanitarian principles in Syria will have a terrible, lasting effect on how the U.N. operates elsewhere in the world if donors, agencies, and NGOs do not fix the system. The Syrian conflict has shown that the devil—and what remains of donors’ leverage—lies in the details.

Charles Thépaut is a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. A French career diplomat, he has worked for European institutions in Syria, Iraq and Algeria. Twitter: @diplocharlie