While the U.N. tries to raise billions for Syrian relief, it is under growing fire for helping the Assad dictatorship carry out a brutal “surrender or starve” strategy against its opponents, who are also beset by the scourge of ISIS.
Frustrated aid workers, academics and beleaguered Syrians are pointing to the U.N.’s long-standing, cooperative ties with the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad in dispensing humanitarian aid inside the country as empowering the dictator to funnel relief supplies to his supporters, keep food and supplies away from desperate civilians who do not support him and use the relief to free up money for military campaigns against moderate and extreme opponents alike.
As one group of besieged anti-Assad Syrian aid workers put it in an open letter to the head of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Stephen O’Brien: “For many of us in Syria, the U.N. has turned from a symbol of hope into a symbol of complicity.”
The rising frustration comes as a major donor meeting is getting under way in London, aimed at getting wealthy nations to contribute $9 billion this year for relief efforts in Syria and surrounding countries, where millions of refugees have fled. The U.S. has given some $4.5 billion to the effort since the Syrian crisis began in 2011, and Secretary of State John Kerry announced an additional $925 million contribution at the London meeting.
For its part, the U.N. pushes back vehemently against any idea that its relief efforts help Assad. “Civilians bear the brunt of the inhumane actions by all parties to the conflict, the government and armed groups, which the international community has failed to stop for nearly five years,” declared an OCHA spokesperson in response to a question from Fox News.
“We and our partners continue to call for an end to the brutal violence, for those committing war crimes to be held accountable, and for the international community to take action. The voice of the United Nations humanitarian agencies has been loud, clear and unequivocal on this.”
Meanwhile, Assad’s forces, supported by Russian attack bombers, are instead drawing the noose of desperation even tighter.
This week, they continued to blast away at relief corridors that provide intermittent aid to hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrians in the northern city of Aleppo, and sparked a sudden “pause” in U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva that had nominally flickered into existence at the end of January.
The Syria Institute, a Washington-based think tank, contends that no fewer than 46 Syrian communities with a collective estimated population of about 1.1 million are now under siege in Syria, with all but two sieges involving the Assad regime, though some communities also are besieged by ISIS.
The Syria Institute population figures, produced in collaboration with a Dutch organization called PAX, do not include some 40,000 people estimated to be clinging weakly to life in the town of Madaya, where only one U.N. relief convoy has recently been allowed to enter, and where, according to a January 16 story in Foreign Policy magazine, U.N. officials had known about the town’s desperate plight for months but downplayed it.
Meantime, as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power noted last month, “Out of a total of 113” relief convoy requests the U.N. sent to the Syrian regime, “this U.N. member state approved and completed only 13.” In 80 cases, she added, Syria “did not even bother to respond to the United Nations within three months.”
Power called that “part of a deliberate, systematic strategy aimed at killing and displacing civilians.”
The continuing offensive and the diplomatic pause put a shadow over a British-backed preliminary to the donor conference where Syrian and international non-government organizations issued a strong appeal to wealthy donor nations to “demand an immediate end to siege tactics and demand unhindered access to humanitarian aid.”
Along with additional pleas to the donors to “strongly and unconditionally condemn all attacks on civilian life and infrastructure, the non-government attendees also called on rich countries to “provide long-term funding directly to Syrian civil society organizations,” a pointed departure from the U.N.-coordinated global funding process that has dominated the relief effort so far.
“Civilians bear the brunt of the inhumane actions by all parties to the conflict, the government and armed groups, which the international community has failed to stop for nearly five years.”
“It sounds like the major donor partners increasingly understand the need for changes in the way things are done,” said Simon O’Connell, executive director for Europe of the major U.S. humanitarian organization Mercy Corps, which is deeply involved in getting aid to Syria without the involvement of the Assad regime. “There is recognition that at least some of the assistance is not able to make it to some of those most in need.”
O’Connell diplomatically pointed no fingers of blame in discussing the non-governmental appeal with Fox News, which he saw as a coming sea-change in the way that international aid is organized and delivered around the world.
But other humanitarian workers have had no such qualms.
In a toughly-worded article that appeared Monday on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored magazine, Foreign Affairs, Dr. Annie Sparrow, a veteran international medical aid worker and assistant professor at Mount Sinai Global Health Center, declared that “long-festering concerns over OCHA’s lack of neutrality are growing.”
OCHA is the U.N. department that draws together global and international appeals for response at events like the donor mega-conference underway in London, and then helps redistribute the money to the sprawling U.N. array of agencies, funds and programs, as well as other aid groups. It also coordinates relief efforts on a regional and national basis, including in Damascus, where it meets in a committee with members of Syrian government departments, and all non-U.N. aid agencies working in tandem must be approved by the Assad regime.
“Characteristic of many agencies of the United Nations, OCHA places a premium on maintaining good relations with the Syrian government, a position fueled by its desire to stay in Damascus,” Sparrow declared. She added that “it is worth asking whether OCHA’s bottom line is harming the agency’s efforts to alleviate the catastrophic consequences of Damascus’ anti-civilian strategy.”
Among other things, Sparrow charged that some $1.7 billion of the U.N.’s appeal for Syria “is allocated for U.N. and national agencies operating from Damascus, all controlled by the government and providing aid almost exclusively to government territory. In non-government territory, the U.N. in Damascus must work through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent” –whose local branches are often non-partisan and perform countless heroics, but whose leadership has close ties to the Assad regime.
Despite a 2014 U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing cross-border relief convoys into the northern half of Syria, she declared, citing a 2016 U.N. Humanitarian Needs Overview, “U.N. agencies reached an average of 4 per cent of the civilians in besieged areas (about 16,500 people) each month with health assistance, 0.6 percent (roughly 2,500 people) with food, and less than 0.1 percent (fewer than 500 people) with nonfood items such as tents, blankets and soap.”
(The same U.N. overview notes vaguely that “OCHA is “aware of” more than 185 Syrian NGOs working in humanitarian and development aid, including 75 that “continue to deliver substantive quantities of assistance to Syria from neighboring countries”—but also says they work “alongside” U.N. cross-border operations—in other words, there is no U.N. connection.)
More dramatically, Sparrow charges that OCHA’s 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria, which asks international donors for $3.2 billion to provide aid to some 13.5 million people, is a “watered down document” in which the Syrian government “revised the narrative, the budget and the programming,” including any reference to the removal of land mines, a constant hazard to foraging civilians.
“According to the final Humanitarian Response Plan,” Sparrow declared, “there is no war in Syria, only a crisis and insecurity, which, incidentally, is not the government’s fault.” She also offered up samples from a draft version with tracking changes that removed touchy references.
Asked by Fox News to respond to the article, an OCHA spokesperson emailed that “the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and its staff are impartial, neutral and independent. Suggesting otherwise is not only untrue but also irresponsible, and could be detrimental to the safety of the unarmed aid workers risking their lives every day to bring vital aid and protection to people in dire need.”
“The United Nations provides humanitarian aid on the basis only of an objective assessment of need -- in this and all crises,” she added. “Our focus is and will always be on the quickest, fairest and most efficient way of safely bringing people aid and protection, and telling the world what is happening on the ground.”
Many Syrians, however, disagree. In their open letter last month to the head of OCHA, Stephen O’Brien, members of anti-Assad non-government Syrian aid organizations -- “medical workers, teachers, rescue workers and civil society activists”-- declared that they were among those living under siege, and described their nightmare of “being starved, deprived of medical supplies and in almost all cases bombed daily by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.”
What made the grim suffering more painful, they said “is knowing that in many besieged areas, such as those around Damascus, U.N. warehouses full of lifesaving aid are often just minutes away.” They accused O’Brien of “choosing not to deliver that aid to us . . . because the Assad regime is not giving you permission. This is hardly surprising since it is the regime imposing the sieges in the first place.”
“By allowing the regime to veto aid to civilians in areas outside its control, you have allowed the U.N. to become a political tool of the war,” they declared and urged him simply to defy the government.
In reply, O’Brien said he was “deeply saddened and concerned,” and called the siege conditions “unacceptable, unconscionable and unlawful.” Saying that he had personally accompanied cross border relief convoys, and stressing the personal risks U.N. aid workers had taken, he offered assurances that “the U.N. is neither too close to any party nor acting in such a way to encourage the use of siege tactics.”
Repeating the mantra that only a political solution will solve the problem, he reiterated that “it is our duty to act impartially, neutrally and independently.”
The fact, however, is that all U.N. agencies, and not just OCHA, are careful to show deference to “national partners” in the planning processes for their activities in acknowledgement of the primacy of national sovereignty -- and Syria is no different, except in the bloodthirsty and violent way that it treats much of its population.
In its own country plan for Syria, for example, the United Nations Development Program declares that its country office, “with full cooperation with national partners, will identify target areas and beneficiaries …using available assessments of needs and priorities”—which are unlikely to come from rebel enclaves. UNDP also says that some 933,000 people in Syria are already benefiting directly from cash-for-work schemes.
The child aid agency UNICEF, in a Syrian country program that it considered at its most recent Executive Board meeting this week, declared that over the next two years, its programing will focus on “interventions that enhance the resilience of families, communities and systems,” and states that while “working closely with all national partners, UNICEF will build positive coping mechanisms in communities.”
Overall, the UNICEF document said, “The country program priorities and strategies have been aligned with the future priorities of the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic.” The agency is appealing for $389 million to carry out its Syrian work.
In response to questions from Fox News, a UNICEF spokesman said that its country program, “including its humanitarian response, is informed by discussions and consultations with a range of partners, including national partners. This is normal practice, for operational and technical reasons. UNICEF delivers assistance based on the core humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality.”
After conducting more than 100 interviews with aid workers, volunteers and Syrian “stakeholders” over two years, a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge University have come to the opposite conclusion about U.N. aid efforts. Despite their “pretensions to neutrality,” the two concluded, in an article published in the prestigious British journal International Affairs, that U.N. aid deliveries have “consistently benefited the Assad regime.”
One reason, they argue, is that the Assad regime’s authoritarian socialist development model had always involved “various welfare policies aimed at ensuring food security and political compliance,” such as subsidized bread supplies.
In other words, by “channeling most assistance” through Assad-approved local partners, “external donors have helped the regime fulfill some of its welfare responsibilities.” The regime also “shares credit for welfare provision without diverting resources from its military efforts.”
In some cases, the authors cite witness testimony that food aid is simply expropriated by the Assad military.
On the other hand, the regime’s refusal to allow aid convoys to reach dissident communities is the traditional harsh side of the same policy.
As the two authors put it: “While emergency aid can appear apolitical on the surface,” the “undeniable importance of food during wartime makes a position of neutrality untenable.”
“By bringing external resources into life-or-death situations,” they conclude, “aid agencies inevitably become implicated in war’s inner workings.”
The need to get aid to suffering populations regardless of the protocols of neutrality is one reason why Mercy Corps’ O’Connell feels there is a growing argument for putting more resources in the hands of non-governmental and local Syrian organizations, as the NGO conference he attended strongly endorsed.
Mercy Corps itself, he noted, is managing to get aid supplies --not always regularly -- to some 500,000 people per month in the Aleppo governate that is now under increasing Assad pressure. The current Assad offensive, he subsequently declared, is having a “significant impact” on Mercy Corps’ work, causing temporary suspension of aid operations in some villages; the aid organization is “monitoring the situation closely.”
Before the suspension, O’Connell told Fox News, “We see areas where at times we have to vary our strategies for delivering aid. On certain days we are able to get through, and others, not.”
The current humanitarian system, he observes, “is broken.”
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Facebook.com/GeorgeRussell