EXCLUSIVE: United Nations relief agencies have claimed “major breakthroughs” in reaching besieged areas of devastated Syria, while they say a fragile cessation of hostilities that began three weeks ago continues, by and large, to hold.
According to a spokesman for the U.N.’s World Food Program, U.N. agencies and Syrian Red Cross convoys reached 12 of 18 besieged areas and provided “life-saving support, including food and nutrition products, to over 150,000 people” out of nearly 500,000 in the most desperate areas. A spokesperson for UNICEF, the U.N.’s child relief agency, makes roughly similar claims.
But other organizations, with closer ties to groups battling the Russian-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad say the U.N. relief effort is little more than a trickle, reaching at best 15 percent of those facing malnourishment, starvation and often-fatal lack of medical supplies due to the “surrender or starve” policies of Assad. They continue to call the situation “extremely grave.”
Among the differences: figures compiled by the non-U.N. organizations list 46 clearly besieged areas, all but two of them squeezed by the Assad regime, rather than the U.N.’s 18, and containing at least 1.1 million people, and probably many more.
Non-U.N. relief workers also observe that despite a highly publicized drawdown of Russian warplanes last week, there continue to be ongoing airstrikes and shelling by regime forces around the “most strategic” areas of conflict, as there have been since after the “cessation of hostilities” began.
“Nothing much has changed,” says Christy Delafield, a spokesperson for Mercy Corps, a Washington-based aid organization that says it reaches some 500,000 people monthly across Syria without cooperating with the Assad regime.
So who’s right?
Almost certainly, it seems, not the U.N. If anything, the U.N.’s documents show that the world organization has often been flying more or less blind in the Syria relief operations, riven by internal disputes, slow to act for fear of the reaction of the Assad regime -- and often not acting at all.
In the same documents that the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, is using to illustrate its current achievements in besieged areas, the organization notes that this year, the U.N. has made 59 requests to reach 47 besieged and “hard-to-reach” areas -- a dilution of the totals used by non-U.N. groups -- and gotten approval for only 13 of them -- a 22 percent success ratio.
Meantime, according to an independent evaluation of the U.N.’s relief coordination -- commissioned by the world body itself -- the U.N.’s actual knowledge of the situation on the ground in what is now the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II appears to be abysmal.
According to the evaluation, dated March 2016 though it only covers events through August 2015, “there is still no systematic and scientific data-gathering on needs within government territory, nor of the impact of the work done to date, or even, arguably, where the majority of assistance has gone.”
The fact that “there is only a limited understanding of real need in Syria,” as the document politely puts it, is a problem that has existed virtually from the outset of the crisis due to the Assad regime’s veto of investigation by U.N. agencies inside the country and refusal for years to allow U.N. relief independently to cross its borders -- a refusal that the report calls Assad’s “red line.”
“Since 2012,” the study asserts, “the Syrian government has effectively blocked attempts to do proper needs assessments, and access and security constraints have been huge.”
The evaluation calls the U.N.’s lack of knowledge “worrying,” not to mention “unacceptable. . . four years into the emergency.” (The Syria crisis officially had its 5th anniversary on March 15.)
The document notes that last year, the U.N.’s Syrian Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan, or SHARP, asked for $2.9 billion for aid inside the country, based on an estimate that 70 percent of the remaining population needed humanitarian assistance -- about 12.2 million people.
(This year, for assistance inside Syria alone, the U.N. is asking for $3.8 billion.)
Yet the U.N.’s basic aid assessment survey had an accuracy variance of plus- or minus- 20 percent, and estimates at a more local level “do not even attempt to guess how accurate their figures might be.”
“If this figure alone is translated into the numbers in need,” the evaluation study concluded, “there are plus-or-minus 2.5 million people.”
The same uncertainty, the study says, applies to the amounts of assistance the U.N. says is being delivered inside Syria, “with very light independent monitoring based on incomplete or non-existent assessment analysis.”
“There is no doubt there is great need,” the study says, noting that “war and displacement will surely have led to this.”
But it adds that “there are seemingly no proxy indicators [rough yardsticks] in use to determine whether need is increasing or what the impact of the aid operations might be.”
Moreover, despite the fact that Syria was the first country ever to be declared by the U.N. to be a “Level 3” emergency -- the worst -- that designation was apparently more intended to shake up the lethargy of the U.N. leadership in Syria, and “did not result in a step change in the volume of assistance being delivered.”
Even in terms of empowering U.N. leadership, the study notes, the Level 3 designation didn’t seem to do much: “It is unclear to the evaluation exactly what aspects of the empowered leadership model were activated.” It recommends that the system be “scrapped and replaced with a system that works.”
Both the evaluation and the U.N.’s own tally of successful convoy requests also agree with accusations from U.N. critics over years, that U.N. agencies with offices in Damascus “were simply not willing to jeopardize their operations in Syria by taking a tougher stance with the government,” as the evaluation puts it.
The reasons for what the study calls the agencies’ “far more cautious line,” it says, “are beyond the scope of this evaluation, but they will surely be scrutinized unfavorably at a later point.”
Along with the clashes over how to proceed inside Syria, the evaluation notes that there have also been sharp internal U.N. turf disputes between the U.N.’s ostensible system-wide coordinator, OCHA, and the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, over who gets to coordinate relief when refugees are involved -- and there are an estimated 4.6 million Syrians now living outside the country.
Many of the U.N.’s problems, the evaluation acknowledges, have come from “trying to walk the line between the interests of powerful member states.” Among other things, an official Security Council resolution demanding that the Assad regime accede to substantial cross-border convoys of U.N. aid supplies did not pass until July 2014.
The fact that the Syrian dictatorship is still only barely responding is also a sign that, as the report often states, it is a formidable force that “has sought to impose itself on all aspects of the response,” and has refused “to acknowledge OCHA’s role as coordinator of humanitarian assistance.”
It also emphasizes the hard work, dedication and ideals of many of most U.N. humanitarian workers.
Nonetheless, the study also notes that the U.N. was taking a “somewhat legalistic approach to securing humanitarian access (taking advice from the U.N. Office for Legal Affairs, waiting for a resolution)” and that, as non-U.N. aid organizations feel, “more direct routes to delivering aid were neglected.”
Even then, the evaluation notes, “Damascus-based U.N. humanitarian agencies have been slow to take advantage of the cross-border routes opened up by [the Security Council resolution], and throughout they have been protective of their relationship with the government of Syria.”
Bottom line: “it has not resulted in a step change in the volume of assistance being delivered.”
All of which, the study says, means “there are tough questions to be asked about whether they could have, and should have, done more.”
So far as critics of the U.N.’s Syria operations are concerned, those questions are by no means all in the past.