Top U.N. officials are warning that designated terrorist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are preventing aid from reaching Syria’s most vulnerable areas.
An estimated 10.8 million people, roughly half of Syria’s population, remains in “urgent” need of humanitarian assistance, according to aid groups. Last month, the U.N. Security Council body unanimously adopted resolution 2165, authorizing cross-border access for the U.N. and its partners in delivering humanitarian aid in Syria without the consent of the Assad government. It was a diplomatic breakthrough that helped ease aid deliveries into rebel-held areas.
“Access across borders has resulted in broader coverage in hard-to-reach areas in Syria such as Aleppo, Dara, Rural Damascus, Idleb, Quineitra and Lattakia governorates, U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon said in his latest report.
But there are still obstacles they face, among them the rising influence of jihadi groups controlling swaths of Syrian territory. Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK Campaigns Manager, explains what’s needed to secure and scale aid operations into Syria.
Syria Deeply: How do we scale-up access to Syrians who need aid? What are the best points of access?
Benedict: There are four crossings that the U.N. has access to that offer the most opportunities: Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa, al-Yarubiyah and al-Ramtha. For obvious reasons, the crossing with Iraq is out of action.
The U.N. has sent a number of convoys through these crossings, but just a couple weeks ago, the secretary-general said that the resolution is a breakthrough but it isn’t enough. There needs to be a change in access and implementation.
Part of that change means less bureaucracy, which is less of a problem through the four crossings, but the big issue is armed security: how to ensure that international aid workers and their implementation partners – whether Syrian or international – are protected.
People automatically assume we are speaking about armed accompaniment when it comes to increasing security, but this is not necessarily the case.
Other forms of security can come from confidence building, from reaching out to key influential Syrian contacts who have the trust of Syrian community leaders, Syrian civil society groups, political and opposition armed groups.
It is important to engage, coordinate and notify them about what the U.N. is doing, so that everyone is on the same page. Furthermore, the parties involved – the U.N., international NGOs and Syrian actors – need to be working off the same indicators of success.
Initially it may make sense to initially limit such mapping, engagement and coordination work to a small, defined area where the U.N. is already entering Syria without the Syrian government’s permission. The areas leading out from Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam crossing points in the north of the country would seem a practical choice, given that the U.N. already has access there and that the Syrian government doesn’t control these crossings.
Syria Deeply: How do you harmonize operations between the U.N., international NGOs and local Syrian actors?
Benedict: The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is already coordinating with a range of partners and trying to harmonize their operations with international actors and NGOs.
We need to broaden the concept of what an implementation partner means, in an informal or formal way. There needs to be regular coordination meetings and mechanisms in place, most likely in Gaziantep so you are near to the crossing points, that involve key influential Syrians who are not usually part of these coordination meetings.
At the moment, there are a lot of resources going into negotiating access from the north that could be more streamlined, if you had a more formalized, coordinated approach with Syrian opposition groups.
It’s important to get grassroots involved, people in civil society movements, people who have influence with the armed groups. It’s an area that the Syrian government will be uncomfortable with, but when the U.N. talks about localized cease-fires and evacuating people, they are doing this type of engagement (with locals) anyways.
Such an aid operation would be separate from the aid operations that emanate from Damascus under the oversight of the Syrian government. The Syrian authorities may object to such a proposal that does not include them, they may say this is “politicization” of aid, but this would be an attempt to help better implement UNSC resolutions 2139 and 2165.
Syria Deeply: Is there consensus about who these local actors are? Are they in agreement about how to take this approach forward?
Benedict: There isn’t a consensus about who these local actors are. There are two things that require consensus. One is a mutual agreement that the focus of the narrative will be on International Humanitarian Principles and Law, which not all opposition groups agree with from an idealogical point of view.
From a logistics point of view, there are people who are not part of the moderate Syrian Coalition who aren’t part of the conversation but should be. The moderates are on board with Resolution 2165, and want to assist and help, but they don’t have the reach needed on the ground.
For example, the reality is the Islamic Front is influential in parts of Syria. They have political, social and civil society arms. This is not to say their narrative and ways of working should be deferred to, but they should be coordinating with an international operation regardless of their ideology.
There are many misconceptions among some Syrians who sometimes view the U.N. and international NGOs with a skeptical and even conspiratorial eye. Some of the groups believe that these initiatives should be Syrian-led. However, no Syrian groups have the capacity or skills yet to lead a truly coordinated aid response.
OCHA is much better placed to lead on such coordination, whether it is ad hoc or not. At the current rate, it could take years before everyone is reached, so we need groups working together in harmony.
Syria Deeply: What are the main risks and obstacles?
Benedict: The risks are multiple. The biggest risk will be security and the possibility of attacks. We are talking about ISIS, possibly Jabhat al-Nusra, and maybe some groups that still operate in the north.
Just a few months ago, many were saying there were credible reasons to believe the U.N. would not get international agreement to enter Syria without government permission. These risks are the same risks that were spoken about before the resolution passed. If you can get more Syrians on the ground on board with 2165, you’ll reduce the risks. You’ll never eliminate them.
We’ve got to realize the humanitarian situation is getting worse, not better. In the end, it’s only civilians who suffer from lack of coordination.