A United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) convoy delivers aid packages in the rebel-held town of Nashabiyah in eastern Ghouta for the first time in five years on 30 July 2017.
The Syrian government’s military gains since December 2016 have fundamentally changed the dynamics of the domestic conflict. One aspect that has been increasingly affected is aid work – humanitarian and non-humanitarian – in government-controlled areas. Consequently, this has intensified the ethical dilemma that international humanitarian organizations (IHOs), including international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and UN agencies, have faced throughout the conflict: how to provide aid in these areas without undermining their principles of humanity, independence, impartiality and neutrality.
Through the assertion of state sovereignty, the government has restricted the ability of IHOs to operate independently by imposing multiple administrative processes on them to ensure that nothing can happen without its approval. This includes requiring permissions for field visits, needs assessment, operations, monitoring and evaluation. Ben Parker, the Syria country chief for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) highlighted the extent of the government’s influence over aid work as early as February 2013: ‘In government-controlled parts of Syria, what, where and to whom to distribute aid, and even staff recruitment, have to be negotiated and are sometimes dictated.’
IHOs, to varying degrees, have tried to address this dilemma. But doing so individually and discreetly has limited their ability to have a collective policy. Some have agreed to the government’s restrictions but tried to push back whenever possible. Some INGOs decided, or had no choice but, to work in non-regime areas only, either through cross-border relief operations or via local partners not regulated by the government.
But since the majority of Syria’s territory is now under government control, these measures are no longer sufficient to reach a large percentage of Syrians in need of humanitarian aid. Recent reports state that hundreds of thousands in areas recaptured by government forces in 2018 remain starved of basic aid. Likewise, the IHOs operating in government-held areas face increased pressure from Damascus as it attempts to expand or reinforce its role in shaping aid operations.
The ongoing discussion of this dilemma is equally crucial to INGOs exclusively working in areas outside the control of the government. The debate within and among IHOs and their donors is often framed as a binary question of accepting the government’s conditions or continuing to operate solely in areas outside its control. Neither option helps civilians trapped in retaken former rebel areas who will likely end up without sufficient access to aid. Likewise, adopting a pragmatic approach by moving operations to Damascus is unlikely to result in a decrease in the government’s restrictions on aid work or in its ability to use this as a tool to punish or reward various parts of the population.
Some level of coordination with the government, despite it being a controversial party to the conflict, might be a pragmatic necessity to ensure the safety of operations in areas it controls. However, this should not enable an environment where the government is able to starve hundreds of thousands of civilians for military and political purposes. Instead, IHOs should build on their knowledge and successes to develop a collective framework for their operations in government-controlled territory. These operational guidelines should be used to argue for the rights of humanitarian actors to engage principally wherever needed, regardless of any political considerations.
[Some level of coordination with the government] should not enable an environment where the government is able to starve hundreds of thousands of civilians for military and political purposes.
Towards that end, this paper provides first-hand information on the various mechanisms and practices used by the government to control where and how aid is distributed in Syria. It suggests recommendations on how to provide assistance in government-controlled areas without undermining the principles of humanitarian aid. Finally, it highlights the various responsibilities and roles that concerned IHOs, and their respective donors, can play in supporting the negotiation, adoption and implementation of these recommendations. In doing so, the paper highlights some of the success stories of IHOs operating in Damascus and draws on them to provide practical policies.
The paper uses primary data collected from 35 semi-structured interviews with employees of UN agencies, INGOs, local humanitarians working or previously working in Syria, donor representatives, diplomats and experts in the field. The interviews were conducted by the author either online – over Skype, WhatsApp or emails – or in person between November 2018 and April 2019. The interviewees remain anonymous to allow them to talk freely and mitigate the risks involved in sharing their experiences.
Additionally, the paper draws on over a dozen confidential internal INGO documents as well as official communications with the government that were shared with the author on the condition of not publishing them. While this paper focuses on humanitarian aid in government-controlled areas, the proposed operational guidelines can be used to guide humanitarian aid elsewhere in the country where various non-state actors are also trying to restrict or dictate aid work in areas they control. Moreover, it can help ensure the independence of the current and future non-humanitarian aid, which is likely to be subject to similar types of restrictions.