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.
5. Conclusion: Lessons Learned for the Future of Non-Humanitarian Aid
Decisions over aid work are usually determined by questions of access, safety and logistics. However, the pragmatism typically needed to ensure these matters are addressed, in government-controlled areas or elsewhere, should be part of a conflict-sensitive approach to ensure that no harm is done. This includes conducting a comprehensive analysis to understand the risk of exacerbating conflicts, reinforcing negative state practices or undermining long-term solutions. Pragmatic trade-offs should not enable an environment where the government or non-state actors are able to manipulate humanitarian aid and use it as a tool to punish their opponents and reward their supporters. Failing to prevent this damages the reputation of humanitarian work and actors in Syria and in other conflicts. Moreover, it encourages other actors to learn from and copy the behaviour of the government to ensure a similar level of control over humanitarian operations in their respective areas.
The importance of abiding by humanitarian principles in Syria is becoming more crucial as humanitarians are shifting away from emergency aid to non-humanitarian work. The EU and the US, among others, repeatedly refuse to support Syria’s reconstruction without a political transition. But this political position has not prevented reconstruction. IHOs have started restoring infrastructure (sewage, water, electricity, roads etc.) under different terms such as early recovery, stabilization and community resistance aid. For example, the UN has included early recovery and livelihood efforts in its 2018 humanitarian response plan and allocated $173.6 million to that cluster. For many Western donors, the current blurred boundaries between these different terms means that their funding of humanitarian aid in Syria could contribute to various small-scale reconstruction activities, which undermines their official policies.
This is particularly problematic for them since the government has systematically used aid work and non-humanitarian funds as tools to punish its opponents and reward its supporters. Thus, the majority of Western donors automatically terminated their funds in areas as soon as the government captured them, which added to the suffering of civilians there. On the other hand, IHOs operating in government-controlled areas acknowledge the validity of the concerns around reconstruction but argue that ‘political strategies and slogans are overshadowing necessary, technical discussions on transitioning from solely emergency responses to dignified, sustainable, cost-effective support for fragile communities.’ In other words, instead of terminating all non-humanitarian aid, donors should fund early recovery and community-level resilience work, which focuses on protecting civilians and restoring their agency and dignity. But despite their strong argument, those IHOs that take this line have not proposed a clear plan to ensure that the government does not dictate where and how that non-humanitarian money is spent. Thus, developing a principled framework for aid and non-humanitarian work can help address the policy concerns of donors and still allow IHOs to fulfil their duty to assist civilians in government areas.
The Syria case shows the importance of reassessing the way that IHOs deal with a sovereign state. The government has been able to dictate the terms of cooperation to IHOs, despite it being a party to the Syrian conflict. It has systematically committed mass human rights violations including using chemical weapons and starvation as a weapon to force hundreds of thousands of civilians to submit. This led to extensive international condemnation of the government but did not change the international humanitarian approach, which has been to deal with it as a sovereign actor rather than as a warring party. Consequently, the government has been able to constrain their work by deciding what they can and cannot do. The government has been able to use cooperation with IHOs to ensure its survival and shore up its legitimacy.
UN agencies and INGOs should use their experience in Syria to develop a new approach to dealing with states in domestic conflicts, especially when the state is party to the conflict. The operational guidelines proposed here can help start the debate on how to make that happen. Doing so would turn the events in Syria from a bad precedent into a learning experience that can be used in other areas of the world.