EXCLUSIVE: While United Nations inspectors are struggling to reach areas of Syria where the Assad regime allegedly has used chemical weapons, U.N. humanitarian officials are renewing calls for aid to be donated to their domestic Syrian operations, which are run under the close control of the same brutal regime.
So far, the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says it has received some $603 million toward a $1.41 billion appeal to aid an estimated 4 million Syrians displaced and impoverished domestically by the escalating spiral of violence unleashed by the regime of President Bashir Assad nearly two years ago.
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That total is up sharply from a previous OCHA appeal for the first six months of the year, which asked for $519.6 million to support “the Government of Syria’s efforts in providing humanitarian assistance to the affected populations,” on everything from food, shelter and medical aid to logistics and emergency communications.
According to the U.N., the funds are used for aid supplies and assistance, which is handed out -- as best the U.N. can -- on a non-partisan basis.
According to other humanitarian officials who work in the region, however, the U.N. and non-governmental organizations working with it within Syria are sharply restricted by the regime in terms of their access to those suffering in rebel-held areas. Their communications are coordinated under regime auspices, and a regime-sanctioned agency, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), is the main agency for implementing U.N. relief programs.
So far as SARC is concerned, one independent aid official said, “they are forced to have very close ties with the regime. They are quasi-governmental rather than truly independent.” The official added, however, that SARC was “not monolithic. Some of its local branches are more independent than others.”
That, however, may also expose the independent branches to greater danger from Assad’s forces. According to the same officials, the regime targets independent aid workers as well as hospitals and other public health facilities in rebel areas, making the country the most dangerous place in the world for aid workers right now.
One of the non-U.N. affiliated aid officials also ventured that the number of civilians truly affected within Syria is likely much higher than the U.N. estimates, with the discrepancy due to the lack of access to rebel-held areas to verify the number of people driven out of their homes, injured, deprived of their livelihoods and otherwise driven into desperation in the ferocious conflict.
“The United Nations clearly have real problems with access,” one highly experienced humanitarian aid official told Fox News. “They are pretty restricted. They have very little leverage with the Damascus authorities to press for more humanitarian access. They have little ability to protect non-government organizations in the country. I cannot see the dynamics changing.”
Moreover, the aid official said, the Syrian government is increasingly pressuring aid organizations that operate from Damascus to pledge that they will not also take part in cross-border aid operations from neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey that bypass the government in delivering aid to Syrian conflict zones.
For its part, the U.N.’s OCHA argues otherwise, even while acknowledging obliquely that there may be some truth to the concerns. An OCHA spokesperson told Fox News that “we continue to work with the authorities to address serious operational constraints, including administrative hurdles and insufficient capacity, which, as well as major security issues, mean that humanitarian organizations are still not able to get regular, consistent and unimpeded access to millions of affected people.”
The spokesperson also said that the U.N. and its “humanitarian partners” have “organized some 30 relief convoys that crossed combat and control lines to reach 1.9 million people in hard-to-reach government-controlled, opposition-controlled and contested areas.” Over the next “few months,” the spokesperson continued, “we aim to reach some 2.9 million people across conflict lines with mixed aid convoys.”
Whether those operations would be organized from the U.N.’s operational headquarters in Damascus, at the nerve center of the Assad regime, was not clear from the spokesperson’s response.
Moreover, the spokesperson sidestepped part of a Fox News question that asked specifically “how you safeguard and supervise the effort to make sure that populations the government may disfavor get relief and attention?” The spokesperson said only that “We will continue to manage our operations flexibly, given the unpredictable situation with security and access.”
The matter of the Syrian government’s refusal to allow humanitarian aid to reach all parties to the conflict on its territory has been a longstanding issue in the effort to bring Syria’s mushrooming violence under control. In June 2012, a high-level group of foreign ministers led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan declared as part of their peace efforts in Syria that the Assad Government “must allow immediate and full humanitarian access to humanitarian organizations to all areas affected by the fighting.”
That effort ended in failure little more than a month later, when Annan resigned as the U.N.’s special envoy for the issue. His successor, a senior U.N. functionary, Lakhdar Brahimi, fared little better.
But the problem of depending on a government like the Assad regime to lead and coordinate humanitarian aid to all its citizens in what increasingly appears to be a war of extermination against its opponents is also baked into the U.N.’s approach of respecting the sovereign authority of existing governments, no matter how heinous, and cooperating with them on their own territory.
“Virtually all U.N. assistance is provided directly to government ministries or programs,” observes former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, who is a Fox News contributor. “That is what recipient governments want, and donors have rarely challenged this approach. But while in that respect, Syria is typical of the U.N. at work, it also shows why this basic model is badly flawed.”
Indeed, as the U.N.’s newly revised relief plan for Syria once again underlines, the official “focal point in charge of the coordination of the overall humanitarian response” is Syria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates.
The main “coordination structure” of the relief effort is a steering committee chaired by that ministry’s top deputy. The same government-to-U.N. structure is maintained throughout the plan.
In addition, at the “technical and operational level,” a government-appointed National Coordinator for the relief effort will maintain “regular communication” with government departments as well as with the U.N. and other humanitarian organizations. All humanitarian agencies will submit “periodic progress reports on achievements and constraints” to Syrian authorities, the plan says.
On the other hand, the U.N.’s revised plan says that the relief coalition has made greater efforts at outreach than before: “over the past year, expansion of partnerships with other local agencies and outreach rural areas networks has been undertaken.” And “some agencies have established strong presence in their areas of operation, which allows deeper engagement with the local partners and local community.”
Whether these local partners are on both sides of the conflict is not indicated.
When it comes to the sensitive issue of emergency telecommunications for the relief effort, the paradox of reliance on the regime gets even more stark, as yet another Syrian ministry gets involved: the Ministry of the Interior, which is also responsible for the activity of security forces.
When it comes to providing Internet, voice communications and other services, the U.N. plan underlines, all will be “subject to the authorization of U.N. security and the Government of Syria.” Likewise, the “cooperation of Syrian authorities” is “urgently required” for the import and licensing of humanitarian IT and telecommunications equipment.
In the age of Big Data, the Syrian government’s ability to exploit information and telecommunications technology to its own advantage -- including the technology of relief organizations operating under its authority -- is growing by leaps and bounds, a point underlined in a 2011 paper on the implication of rapidly decreasing costs of data storage for authoritarian regimes, published by the liberal Brookings Institution.
The paper’s author, UCLA electrical engineering Prof. John Villasenor, points out that “for a country like Syria, which has a population of 15 million people over the age of 14, the current cost to purchase storage sufficient to hold one year’s worth of phone calls for the entire country would be about $2.5 million – a high number but certainly not beyond governmental reach.”
Moreover, the GPS capability of modern mobile phones can mean that regimes like the Assad government can cheaply locate virtually any number of individual users of such equipment within 15 feet. The cost of doing so for 1 million people at five-minute intervals for a full year, Villasenor estimates, has fallen to about $50.
In an interview with Fox News, Villasenor stressed that he “hadn’t seen any specific evidence” that Syria was engaged in massive telephone and other forms of surveillance, and that there are programs available that can foil some of the surveillance activity.
Nonetheless, says Villasenor, “control over when and where humanitarian aid is dispensed, coupled with technology advances, raises issues that we didn’t have 20 years ago. It’s a potent mix.”
Cooperation with the Assad regime is not an issue for independent aid agencies like the International Rescue Committee, a U.S.-based humanitarian agency that was expelled from Syria nearly three years ago. “We never got a good explanation why,” says Mike Young, who oversees IRC programs in the Mideast and South Asia.
Instead, IRC runs aid programs into Syria from neighboring countries using Syrian volunteer partners, and specifically aims to enter areas where the violence is highest. “We don’t get involved in the same kinds of issues about negotiating access with the government,” Young says, noting that his agency nonetheless enjoys strong financial support from the U.S. government.
The work involves huge risks. “Aid workers are targeted,” Young says. “Many of our Syrian medical partners have lost doctors and nurses, who are killed simply because they are providing care impartially.”
Despite the obstacles it faces, IRC is funneling about $75 million into aid programs both inside and outside Syria, and he adds, “we know we could at least double that without appreciable management strain.”
Young is preparing for things to get substantially worse. “Looking 12 to 18 months out,” he says, “we continue to see a very protracted, acute crisis.
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell