Assad Regime Continues Stonewalling U.S. Aid to Syria
Syrian government is using aid deliveries as a weapon, State Department reports.
The Biden administration says that the Bashar al-Assad regime is continuing to hamper humanitarian organizations from delivering aid to millions of Syrians who face a growing crisis after a decade of civil war.
In areas held by the Syrian government, the regime is providing insufficient access through visa restrictions and other administrative obstacles, according to a February report provided by the State Department to Congress and seen by Foreign Policy. The findings come as the Biden administration has pledged nearly $600 million in an effort to reconstruct Syria, part of a United Nations-led push to raise nearly $10 billion to help Syrians and Syrian refugees in neighboring countries.
Rights groups increasingly see the obstacles as part of a concerted strategy by the regime to use aid to benefit itself and punish opponents in opposition-held areas as it seeks to consolidate its gains in the decadelong civil war. Citing Human Rights Watch and media reports in its annual human rights survey released last month, the State Department said that the Syrian government required humanitarian organizations to partner with vetted local actors “to ensure that the humanitarian response was siphoned centrally through and for the benefit of the state apparatus, at the cost of preventing aid from reaching the population unimpeded,” particularly in areas retaken by the regime, and continually violating cease-fire agreements.
According to U.N. estimates, 11.1 million people in Syria—just about two-thirds of the population—needed humanitarian aid in 2020, with more than half in state-controlled areas. “Many of these communities face a high severity of need because of previous, prolonged periods under siege; the destruction of homes and infrastructure; limited livelihood opportunities; and a lack of basic services, such as health care and safe drinking water,” the State Department wrote in the February report to Congress.
Top Biden administration officials have said that the closure of U.N.-controlled border checkpoints, forcing aid agencies to negotiate with opposition groups and cross multiple lines of control, is causing greater heartache for the Syrian people in need of assistance. “The current approach is unjustified, ineffective, indefensible,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in March. “It is directly resulting in the increased suffering of the Syrian people.”
In order to access state-controlled areas, humanitarian agencies must first receive state authorization—and approval is often inconsistently and unpredictably given. Not only does the Syrian government often limit or delay issuing visas to the humanitarian staff of the U.N. and other nongovernmental organizations, inhibiting their ability to effectively deliver aid, but it also restricts some operations, such as the transport of certain medical supplies.
“You have to get registration; you have to be there physically; you have to ask for approval; so you work under their mercy, basically,” said an NGO source working on the Syria conflict, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Aid agencies, including American-funded groups, have faced major blockages in areas recaptured by pro-regime forces in 2018, including the southwestern areas of Quneitra and Daraa, the State Department reported. While the United Nations and some other groups have been able to restore a modicum of access, it tends to vary from agency to agency, with the Assad regime limiting U.N. agencies “from establishing sub-offices” to send aid and supplies further south, according to the new State Department report. But a consortium of NGOs funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development was only able to fix the impediments “following months of negotiations with authorities,” the State Department said, while other groups secured memorandums of understanding.
There have been cases of “medical equipment coming to the northeast being confiscated in Damascus and not sent over to the northeast,” said the NGO source.
Even in areas liberated from the Islamic State, near where some 900 U.S. troops remain in the country, the Assad regime managed to block the World Food Program from distributing assistance last year for around two months, halting the aid to 200,000 people. And access has gotten even harder since last year, when the U.N. Security Council failed to secure access for humanitarian aid through the Yaroubia crossing with Iraq. Unexploded ordnance in Deir Ezzor and parts of Hama have also made it difficult to deliver aid, the State Department reported.
The blockages have led to frustration on Capitol Hill and within the Biden administration. “For years, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Assad have conspired to stonewall desperately needed humanitarian aid from reaching Syrians in need. When former Secretary [Mike] Pompeo refused to personally engage on the United Nations resolution renewal last year, Russia seized the opening to eliminate two border crossing points used for humanitarian access into the country,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the foreign affairs panel. “I’m glad Secretary Blinken has made clear this will be a top priority at the council, and that the U.S. delegation will work with our allies to restore those border crossings. Humanitarian aid should not be a political issue, and the people of Syria deserve better.”
But U.S. financial support has actually slipped since the $720 million committed last year, while the United Kingdom slashed its own aid funding by one-third, a move that drew criticism from aid agencies.
“Of course this contribution makes a difference, [but] the needs are just much higher and way more than what the countries are contributing and pledging,” said the NGO source, who noted that the pandemic had exacerbated existing challenges.
A turning point may come in July, when the U.N. Security Council will decide whether to renew a resolution authorizing the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid into northwest Syria. But its renewal faces substantial political barriers, namely from Russia, which has long supported the Assad regime. “They want all humanitarian assistance to go through Damascus,” said the NGO source.
The possible end of that aid avenue and continuing U.S. sanctions against the Assad regime have experts and aid organizations concerned that the situation could deteriorate even further, leaving few ways for the United States to respond.
The sanctions are helping drive economic deterioration along with “dire humanitarian impacts because essential products like bread and gas basically do not exist anymore,” said the NGO source. “People are lining up for hours to get bread and waiting in gas stations for hours.”
Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch
Christina Lu is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei