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.
4. Encouraging Principled Humanitarian Engagement
These operational guidelines can only be implemented if IHOs are able to build an alliance to increase their coordination and to collectively pressure the government of Syria. The support of the donors funding aid work in the country is equally essential for assisting the efforts of IHOs to develop such a framework.
The leverage of humanitarians
The circumstances under which most IHOs work with the Syrian government makes them reluctant to take a tougher stance. They fear retaliation in the form of reduced access, the revocation of visas or the closing of operations. While such fears are understandable, IHOs should not allow the government to have the power to veto their work or to manipulate it. IHOs, particularly UN agencies, have enough leverage to increase their negotiating power without fearing reprisals from the government. An estimated 11.7 million people are in need across the country, 7.2 million of which live in government-held areas. The government is trying to stabilize the areas under its control, but it does not have the resources to do this alone.
An estimated 11.7 million people are in need across Syria, 7.2 million of which live in government-held areas.
Humanitarian aid is reducing the government’s expenditure on basic goods and helping it to mitigate the discontent caused by the lack of basic services and goods. Similarly, aid work has maintained a massive flow of money into the crippled economy, keeping it afloat. An unpublished report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research estimated that in 2017 the international community’s total UN and non-UN humanitarian expenditure in Syria was equivalent to 35 per cent of the country’s GDP. If humanitarians push back against restrictions and interference, the government is unlikely to risk terminating all aid work, which could starve people and trigger popular unrest. While starvation has been systematically used as a weapon by the government, the tactic was used as part of a military strategy to capture targeted territories and not as a strategy to maintain control. By contrast, terminating aid would come with high risks for the regime and without much reward, if any. Additionally, the government cares significantly about the legitimacy it gains from dealing with IHOs. Aid workers even argue that this legitimacy might have more weight as leverage than the actual humanitarian assistance.
A carrot or a stick?
IHOs can, theoretically, use their leverage either as a threat or as an incentive to sway the government to abide by international humanitarian law and principles. By offering to move their aid operations from neighbouring countries to Syria, IHOs could incentivize the government to respect humanitarian principles. The latter has strongly opposed cross-border operations as these provide aid to areas outside the regime’s control and challenge the government’s power and authority (as consent is not needed). Thus, while continuing to pressure IHOs operating in areas it controls to refrain from cross-border activity, the government started allowing more humanitarian access to limit the need for cross-border operations.
Several IHOs have argued that they should push the government to improve the conditions for aid work in Syria in exchange for the relocation of all aid operations targeted at Syrians to the country rather than its neighbours. While this argument might be appealing to some, critics contend that the government knows that there is a high possibility that the UN Security Council Resolution 2139 might not be renewed, which would force humanitarian operations to move to Damascus anyway. As a result, the government has little incentive to compromise. There is also little evidence that it responds better to incentives than to threats. The fact that the government only allowed humanitarian organizations more access when they informed the government that cross-border operations were to begin proves that threats have been effective to some extent.
Alternatively, IHOs can make the ultimate threat to suspend or cancel activities if they are not allowed to implement them independently and impartially. For the most part, they are reluctant to use this threat in negotiations with the government, as it might result in the government deciding to expel them or terminate their operations. That said, the sizable budgets of UN agencies gives them more leverage to make less risky threats such as the partial or temporary suspension of activities. The aim of such tactics would not be to antagonize the government but rather to show it that IHOs do not tolerate interference in their work.
Using positive experiences
Much can be learned from the IHOs that have successfully negotiated with the government. While discussions were time-consuming, these humanitarian organizations have largely achieved their goals through patience, persistence and by taking a tough stance. These INGOs were clear from the beginning as to their non-negotiable principles and standards and refused to compromise. During negotiations they voiced their preference to cancel or postpone projects if they were not permitted to implement them on their own terms.
In many cases, the government or its affiliates withdrew the restrictions or conditions they imposed and allowed the IHOs to implement their project as planned. On other occasions, the government refused to budge, which led to the termination or cancellation of some projects. But, even in those cases, both the credibility of the humanitarian organizations and their negotiating power increased. Having flexible funds allowed humanitarian organizations to sustain negotiations with the government over a long time without having to worry about using funds before a specific donor deadline.
IHOs have also pointed out the importance of developing a deeper understanding of national and local dynamics to increase their ability to maintain principled engagement. Some humanitarians said that the operating environment outside Damascus is less restrictive as local authorities impose fewer stipulations, which allows better access. This has allowed them to explore opportunities at the local level to limit the impact of government restrictions. Similarly, IHOs highlighted the fact that some government affiliates are more restrictive than others. SARC reportedly interferes more in the work of its international partners than the Syria Trust or technical line ministers. However, limited and unreliable windows of opportunity at the local level should not be viewed, despite their important value in the short-term, as alternatives to developing formal and reliable principled engagement at the national level.
The importance of unity
Humanitarian organizations should form a strong alliance to increase their leverage and mitigate the risks involved in taking tougher stances during discussions with the government. This alliance could create a joint team to undertake negotiations on behalf of its members to pool their leverage and make it harder for the government to expel them. The team could also be in charge of developing common operational procedures and standards. This could happen by creating a new platform or simply broadening the role of one of the existing joint coordination structures for IHOs in Damascus, which are used largely for information sharing.
Humanitarian organizations should form a strong alliance to increase their leverage and mitigate the risks involved in taking tougher stances during discussions with the government.
For example, the Damascus-based INGOs forum was in charge of coordinating the advocacy efforts among the organizations affected by SARC’s new proposed restrictions. The INGOs worked together to highlight the risks involved and what their joint response should be. Through online communications and in-person meetings, the INGOs stood their ground and explained why they could not implement the new imposed procedures. Subsequently, SARC sent a new memorandum in January 2019 with the new restrictions removed. However, that pressure group is not recognized formally by the government. As a result, it has not been able to drive combined advocacy in the country. In addition, the forum only represents INGOs working in Damascus and does not include UN agencies or other local humanitarian actors, whose support for the success of the alliance’s described mission is crucial.
Donors can do more to help
Donors also have a responsibility to ensure that humanitarian principles are not compromised. The majority of humanitarian funding for Syria is provided by the US and EU member states and institutions. These donors have the leverage to play a crucial role in supporting the efforts of IHOs by advocating or negotiating lifting the restrictions on their work. To avoid normalizing relations with the government, which many countries are rightly avoiding, such efforts can be conducted either through meetings with SARC or other third parties that are able to visit or operate in Syria. The UN taskforce on humanitarian access in Syria, based in Geneva is also a potential space for such discussions and negotiations. These could also include discussing protection measures for local NGOs, including a new NGO law that allows them to operate in accordance with humanitarian principles. Multiple sources have highlighted the important and positive role some donors played in helping the INGOs based in Damascus push back against restrictions.
Since donor countries are the driving force behind sanctions against the government, they have an obvious interest in ensuring that the humanitarian organizations they fund do not undermine these sanctions.
To hold IHOs accountable and increase their transparency, donors can support establishing an independent mechanism or improve the work of the existing systems to monitor how aid work is conducted inside Syria. The entity should be led by independent experts with active participation from international and national humanitarians operating in Syria and local beneficiaries. Since donor countries are also the driving force behind sanctions against the government, they have an obvious interest in ensuring that the humanitarian organizations they fund do not undermine these sanctions. Therefore, donors should demand that IHOs steer away from dealing with any sanctioned entity or individual, regardless of whether those sanctions are issued by the UN, the US or the EU. This includes taking measures to close the loopholes that allow sanctioned entities to benefit from Western donors without being named publicly. For example, donors should compel IHOs to disclose the names of all their partners and other entities benefiting from funding, including contractors.
Donors need to actively engage with IHOs to help them set detailed and comprehensive operational guidelines that all entities receiving their funds can use. Their involvement can help support the work of the organizations or agencies advocating for this and pressure the more reluctant ones to join. It can help develop mutual accountability mechanisms that would allow IHOs to hold their donors accountable and mitigate their ability to politicize aid work, which has long been a concern. This could happen through the creation of a Syria advisory board, composed of representatives of donors, UN agencies, and local and international NGOs, to provide leadership and operational guidelines; to promote cooperation and to steer them towards clear goals and actions.