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.
2. Humanitarian Aid: Restrictions and Ramifications
Through a long registration process and extensive negotiations over the required memoranda of understanding, the government has been able to play an active role in overseeing the work of IHOs in Syria. This section presents the various mechanisms and practices the Syrian regime uses to decide where and when aid is delivered as well as to and by whom.
The ethical dilemma in perspective
The Syrian government has been using UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182, which gives the affected state the primary role in managing humanitarian assistance within its territory, as a tool to assert its control over the work of IHOs in Syria. By positioning itself at the centre of aid operations, the government has been able to establish various permission processes for all aspects of humanitarian work (such as field visits, needs assessment, operations, and monitoring and evaluation) that has given it veto power over all stages of operations.
While some IHOs operating in Damascus are still trying to defend their independence and impartiality, others have accepted the imposed restrictions in exchange for access. None of the options that the latter were presented with were easy. From their point of view, by pushing back they might lose access to government-controlled areas, which is not a risk they were willing to take, no matter how small. But, while some level of coordination with the government might be a pragmatic necessity to ensure the safety of operations in areas it controls, such pragmatism should be part of a conflict-sensitive approach. Assessing the impact of aid work in Syria cannot simply be measured by the number of people that have been reached but should also be evaluated based on the harm or unintended consequences caused by the method of delivery. The sole focus on delivering aid through such trade-offs, without clear strategies to mitigate the consequences, has triggered a cascading set of problems for the IHOs operating in Syria and unintentionally allowed the government to turn aid into a weapon for military gains.
Restricting the operational environment
The government has blocked IHOs from carrying out needs assessment directly. Consequently, organizations have been forced to depend largely on data provided by the government, which allowed the latter to determine humanitarian needs in areas under its control without proper verification. An evaluation of OCHA’s work in Syria in 2016 concluded that ‘one area where the system (and OCHA) did not deliver was in assessing needs. Over five years into the conflict there is still not an accurate picture of needs, meaning much of the aid operation remains guesswork.’ The focus of IHOs on delivering aid to those in need, despite the risks of having inaccurate data, has unintentionally allowed the government to exaggerate needs and to influence the priorities, programming and budgets of organizations.
The fact that UN convoys drove on several occasions through areas deemed insecure by the government in order to deliver aid elsewhere clearly shows that security risks were used, at least in part, as a pretext to manipulate aid distribution.
Likewise, the government has used complex administrative procedures to control where humanitarian aid is distributed. It has systematically denied permission for IHOs to conduct cross-frontline operations delivering aid to territories controlled by non-state actors. For safety reasons, among others, the IHOs operating in government-controlled areas need a permit from the latter to conduct cross-frontline aid delivery. Consequently, the government has portrayed such operations as dangerous in order to stop aid supplies to rebel-held areas. In other cases, it has hampered access to areas outside its control by simply ignoring the approval requests. For example, nearly 75 per cent of all UN aid delivery requests in 2015 were ignored, while only half of the rest resulted in delivery. The fact that UN convoys drove on several occasions through areas deemed insecure by the government in order to deliver aid elsewhere clearly shows that security risks were used, at least in part, as a pretext to manipulate aid distribution.
Imposing local partners
Through a small number of gatekeepers and designated local partners for IHOs, the government has been able to enforce central control over aid operations inside the country. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the Syria Trust for Development (headed by first lady Asma al-Assad) have become the main mandatory focal points for the vast majority of foreign humanitarians registered with the authorities. They are required to apply through these gatekeepers for permissions from the government for their field visits, operations and programming. INGOs that fail to reach an agreement with one of those mandatory partners will typically not be allowed to operate in government-held territories. The government’s control over those gatekeepers leaves no room for doubt about the instrumental role Syrian organizations play in allowing the government to manipulate aid.
On paper, SARC is portrayed as an independent non-governmental organization. However, the extensive formal and informal ties between the government and its leadership allow the former to control SARC’s decisions and activities, and thus manipulate aid. This view is expressed by many local humanitarian organizations and IHOs, and is supported by an evaluation commissioned by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) that labelled SARC as a government auxiliary. Nonetheless, around 60 per cent of all UN aid operations in Syria are reportedly channelled through SARC. The government’s close ties with the Syria Trust are even clearer, which explains why it was sanctioned by the US and the EU. However, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Syria has partnered with the trust for several years. It has been reported that UNHCR spent $7.7 million through the trust, between 2012 and 2016, and that the OCHA allocated over $751,000 to it in 2016. Several ministries (including health, education and defence) have received substantial support from UN agencies, among others, despite being sanctioned by the EU.
Moreover, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs restricts IHOs that rely on local partners to a list of designated entities. The personal, financial and political relations between the regime and senior management members of the approved Syrian organizations cast doubt over their independence and impartiality. One of the most controversial organizations is the Bustan Association, which is sanctioned due to its activities and those of its founder Rami Makhlouf (the cousin of President Bashar al-Assad) in supporting pro-government militias that are alleged to have committed war crimes. Nonetheless, prior to 2016, UNICEF transferred $267,933 to Bustan for sanitation, hygiene, education and winter clothes.
Undermining organizational independence
The government has on occasion directly intervened in selecting staff for IHOs. All international humanitarian employees operating through Damascus need visas from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to work in Syria. While this is a common global practice, the government is using this process as leverage to handpick or punish individuals. Multiple sources stated that the government selects preferred humanitarian staff by giving instructions, either directly or indirectly, about who is welcome and who is not. Thus the government eliminates the staff who might challenge its influence over aid work, and it also uses the visa process as a stick to ensure that remaining aid workers keep in line. While this tactic has been successful in increasing the influence of the government, some IHOs have refused to cooperate despite the consequences.
The government-approved staff that are forced on humanitarian organizations fall into two broad categories: those that are there to receive personal benefits such as good salaries and positions of status, and those tasked with infiltrating organizations, to provide inside information or influence internal decisions. Likewise, other figures linked to the government are hired by international agencies to win favour with the authorities. For example, in 2016, the office of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Damascus hired Shukria Mekdad, the wife of Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, despite her lacking relevant experience for the position she occupied. While it is not clear why the WHO hired her, having her present in UN meetings reportedly created ‘a climate of fear and self-censorship’. In addition, her recruitment had negative implications for the perception of the organization’s independence and impartiality.
On occasion the government has actually edited the UN-drafted annual humanitarian response plan in order to influence UN funds and operations inside the country.
Moreover, on occasion the government has actually edited the UN-drafted annual humanitarian response plan, in order to influence UN funds and operations inside the country. The OCHA, which oversees this process, has repeatedly allowed the government to change the wording of reports to water down the tone and disguise the Syrian regime’s culpability. For example, in an early draft of the 2016 plan 10 references to ‘sieges’ and ‘besieged areas’ were removed under pressure from the government, which was the party responsible for the majority of such sieges. Similarly, the government was able to replace the draft’s use of the word ‘conflict’ with ‘events’ in order to hide that its legitimacy is contested. The government has also been able to edit needs-assessment documents to amplify and/or underreport the scope and severity of needs in accordance with its political goals.
Preventing direct monitoring and evaluation
Restricting the ability of IHOs to monitor and evaluate the impact of their projects increases the influence of the government on aid work. According to the regulations in Syria, IHOs can only conduct monitoring visits if approved by the respective authorities. As such, IHOs cannot carry out unannounced visits to verify that aid has been distributed, reached the targeted beneficiary group, or provided in accordance with humanitarian principles. For example, the WFP can only monitor aid distributions through its main partner SARC after receiving permission from the government for each visit. Therefore, the latter selects when and where the WFP monitors and how its funds are spent.
By preventing direct evaluation, the government is able to cover up the extent to which it has been able to manipulate the distribution of aid. According to a WFP evaluation, the security situation meant that only one-quarter of the agency’s planned visits took place, between July 2013 and March 2014. The report also stated that access to aid beneficiaries for third-party monitoring was also limited. As a result, the majority of IHOs operating in Syria are largely dependent in their monitoring and evaluation on reports provided by their implementing partners, without independent verification mechanisms. A 2016 OCHA report highlighted that the majority of aid work inside Syria was delivered ‘with very light independent monitoring based on incomplete or non-existent assessment analysis’, and that there was little data on the impact of aid operations. In 2016, a former UN official similarly stated that his agency contracted SARC to deliver hygiene kits worth thousands of dollars on the condition of being present during the distribution – but that SARC reportedly did so alone and in a different area to the intended target location.
Influencing procurement procedures
The government uses its leverage to influence procurement procedures and to pressure IHOs to award contracts to businesses connected to the regime and even to sanctioned individuals. In some cases, the government, through its various entities and designated organizations, is reportedly providing its chosen businesses with essential inside information about the tender procurement process to put them at an advantage. On other occasions, more direct pressure is used to influence the procurement process. Such tactics include threats to file corruption charges, intimidating competing businesses or using approvals and permissions as a punishment tool. Revoking or facilitating work visas for international humanitarian workers is also a tactic that the government frequently uses for this purpose.
Revoking or facilitating work visas for international humanitarian workers is also a tactic that the government frequently uses.
Business owners who benefit from UN spending in Syria include individuals sanctioned by the US, the EU and the UK due to their direct role in supporting the government and its gross human rights violations. Until 2016, the UN paid around $700,000 to the Syriatel mobile phone network owned by Rami Makhlouf. The UN paid over $12 million in 2014 and 2015 for accommodation in the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, which is one-third owned by the Ministry of Tourism. Furthermore, prior to 2016, UNICEF paid the company Transorient, which is owned by an individual sanctioned by the US and the EU, $386,711 for warehousing. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East also awarded a contract of $88,671.72 to provide generators to the Altoun Group, owned by Salim Altoun who has been sanctioned by the EU since 2012 due to his affiliation with the government.
Although government restrictions have been implemented throughout the conflict, the increased number of humanitarian agencies now considering operating in regime-held areas makes addressing this dilemma and its implications now extremely pressing. Towards that end, a new collective operational framework should be developed to regulate and ensure principled aid work in government-controlled areas.
New unprincipled restrictions on aid
As the fighting in Syria winds down, some of the IHOs operating from Damascus argue, or hope, that their ability to limit the government’s influence on their work will increase. This assumption is inspired by the relatively improved security situation in areas under the control of the government and the latter’s expected desire to provide more aid to stabilize the areas it has recaptured. But instead of easing its restrictions, it seems that the government is attempting to formalize its influence over humanitarian operations.
In June 2018, SARC tried to introduce new procedures for its INGO partners, which were more intrusive than previous arrangements. This was an attempt by SARC to increase its direct interference at various stages of its partners’ internal processes as well as to formalize its practices, which was previously achieved through individual agreements and/or compromises. According to these new procedures, INGOs would have to submit an official letter in advance seeking SARC’s approval for hiring a new person, and allow SARC to participate in the selection process. INGOs would also have to inform SARC ahead of starting a new project and allow it to examine the project plan and to approve it based on its own assessment (regardless of the INGO assessment). INGOs would be required to submit an official letter requesting SARC approval for announcing the tender and allow it to take part in selecting the winners. The Syria Trust also relayed to its partners the intention to introduce similar new procedures, but these were never communicated officially.
While none of the proposed procedures were implemented due to pushback from the INGOs and their donors (see below), such attempts show that the government is trying to further its control of aid work in the country. The government is still systematically restricting aid deliveries to former rebel-held areas, especially in southern Syria, despite the change in control of those territories. The unregulated relief agencies that worked for years through cross-border operations are no longer able to reach these, while the requests of actors operating from Damascus to step in have been largely denied.