In Syria, Put Humanitarian Aid Ahead of a Political Solution

December 17, 2020
mccurdy thepaut

In congratulatory calls with foreign leaders, President-elect Joe Biden recently told his soon-to-be counterparts, “America is back. We’re going to be back in the game.” This message builds on his rhetoric throughout the campaign that he will “rebuild confidence in U.S. leadership … and once more have America lead the world.” Yet what that looks like in practice when dealing with intractable conflicts like Syria is unclear. Some have argued that leadership means taking a more forceful position against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Others have suggested it means charting a responsible course toward normalization. And while everyone agrees Washington should improve the flawed humanitarian assistance paradigm, efforts to do so inevitably flounder amid disagreements over America’s broader goals in Syria. The challenge, then, is how to depoliticize humanitarian aid in a highly fraught political context while also elevating it to the highest political levels.

If the United States fails to coordinate an effective effort to reduce the regime’s obstructions to and diversion of humanitarian deliveries, the humanitarian tragedy in Syria risks further destabilizing the region and complicating U.S. efforts to salvage its global reputation. Alternatively, a successful U.S.-led response — measured even by a clear vision to quickly improve U.N. agencies’ compliance with humanitarian principles on the ground — would save lives while rebuilding trust in America’s moral authority. After nearly a decade of conflict, 6.7 million people have been internally displaced, and 5.6 million people have fled. The collapse of the Syrian pound earlier this year has left the population — 90 percent of whom live in poverty — at risk of famine. And while the devastation of COVID-19 has been felt across the world, the situation in Syria, where close to half of the country’s health care facilities were destroyed in the war, has reached emergency levels.



The challenges are significant, and the window for action is narrow. Less than six months after Biden’s inauguration, Russia and China are likely to veto the renewal of the cross-border authorization for providing humanitarian aid into opposition-held areas in northwest Syria at the U.N. Security Council. Russia and the Syrian regime will also seek to capitalize on Assad’s almost inevitable victory in rigged presidential elections next spring to tout his legitimacy and the restoration of Syrian sovereignty. As such, Biden should come in ready to make swift and assertive moves in concert with European allies if he is to have any hope of improving Syria’s desperate conditions. Doing so will require elevating humanitarian assistance to a political priority, not just a moral one as it is today. The administration should articulate clear expectations that the first step is to improve humanitarian access, a precondition for any prospect of political resolution.

To be sure, Washington policy circles increasingly argue that an overstretched United States should extricate itself from the “endless wars” of the Middle East. But as much as some policymakers on both sides of the aisle might hope to wash their hands of Syria, for both moral and strategic reasons, they cannot afford to disengage entirely. The vacuum left after years of conflict has not only provided fertile ground for jihadi groups to flourish but has also allowed for Russia and Iran to expand their geopolitical influence.

Prioritize Humanitarian Aid

The challenge, then, is figuring out to how to bring about even a modicum of positive change by better marrying means and ends. Up to this point, America’s ambitious pursuit of stabilization in Syria has been hampered by limited resources and unclear end states beyond the vague wording of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, which sets various steps toward a political “transition.” This disconnect has become starker over time as Russia and Turkey have both invested significantly more militarily to advance their interests and ultimately use the U.N. framework to their advantage more than supporting the political process. Consequently, the two nations have effectively assumed control of the diplomatic framework, the center of gravity of which has shifted from the United Nations in Geneva to ad hoc political deals between Moscow and Ankara, and at times Tehran, driven by their latest military engagements.

Given the limited bandwidth for Syria in Washington and Western reluctance to invest military leverage to shift a stalled political process, the United States along with its European partners should prioritize improving the humanitarian situation in Syria, where it holds significantly more influence. The United States and the European Union and its member states are the largest donors of humanitarian assistance to Syria and provide 90 percent of U.N. humanitarian assistance. Meanwhile, Russia is a minor contributor to U.N. assistance (providing only 1.1 percent of funding in 2020) and yet has had undue control over the humanitarian assistance framework by backing the Assad regime’s weaponization of aid.

The regime has co-opted humanitarian assistance as a weapon of war to punish opponents and reward supporters. In opposition areas, it has blocked humanitarian convoys as part of its siege-and-starve strategy on the ground, while bombing health facilities and humanitarian workers from the skies. At the same time, in regime-held areas, which now constitute close to 60 percent of the country, it has micromanaged all humanitarian operations, as well as those delivered cross-line via Damascus to areas outside of government control. By blocking organizations’ ability to assess needs, controlling where and what type of aid is delivered, and preventing the direct monitoring and evaluation of programming, the government determines who benefits from assistance. It further controls aid organizations by forcing them to hire loyalists and working through local groups that are effectively government auxiliaries like the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad’s Syria Trust for Development. While international aid organizations have found ways to engage productively with lower-level government officials and line ministries, their ability to uphold humanitarian principles of independence, impartiality, and neutrality due to regime interference is often close to nonexistent, and U.N. agencies have repeatedly failed to course correct.

The only option outside this broken system is a cross-border mechanism designed in 2014 as a response to the regime’s continuous obstruction. Using border crossings from Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, the U.N. Security Council authorized the delivery of humanitarian assistance without the permission of the government. This cross-border mandate was renewed on an annual basis until the end of 2019, when Russian and Chinese vetoes at the Security Council resulted in the removal of the permission at the Iraqi and Jordanian border crossings as well as the reduction of the authorization from one year to six months. In July, Russian and Chinese opposition forced the Security Council to further reduce the number of border crossings in Turkey from two to one for one year. The reason for this reduction is that, even though Syria is highly dependent on international humanitarian assistance, the regime increasingly insists that aid be funneled through its auspices via cross-line assistance as it seeks to reassert itself as the legitimate authority across the country.

The COVID-19 response is emblematic of how the United Nations, in particular, has struggled to resist regime interference even within this framework. The United Nations has only made limited use of the cross-border mechanism to reach northwest Syria because of regime pressure and has been further constrained in the northeast because the border crossing from Iraq was closed in January 2019 in the aforementioned Security Council vote. As a result, the World Health Organization began assisting Damascus in February but waited until late March to deliver aid to northwest Syria, where most people live in overcrowded camps for the internally displaced, making them especially vulnerable, and only provided equipment to northeast Syria in May through government channels.

Shifting the Paradigm

For over nine years, the United States and Europe have been reluctant to use all policy levers at their disposal to improve the aid paradigm. One reason is that, as the main donors, they’ve feared being accused by their own partners of politicizing humanitarian assistance. This caution has, however, only emboldened the Russians and regime to politicize the system themselves. In return, fears of politicizing aid have prevented non-governmental organizations and donors from designing a smart strategy to preserve humanitarian principles while pushing back against regime diversion of Western assistance. While negotiations on the cross-border resolutions have required diplomatic involvement at the U.N. Security Council, the broader humanitarian framework has not. The West’s ability to extract concessions with respect to humanitarian principles has also been diluted because its leverage, which is primarily financial, has been used to shape a political process that is actually driven by military means. As such, the West should on the one hand elevate the design of a better framework for humanitarian assistance to the highest political levels while on the other separating it from discussions about a political transition. While both supporting a political transition and improving humanitarian access are part of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, the primary goal of Western engagement in Syria in the short term should be to push back against the unique level of control the regime has acquired over humanitarian operations. After all, the political process means little to the Syrian people if they do not have bread to eat. The United States should be clear that the first step is to stabilize the situation, and only then can it pursue a more long-term resolution to conflict.

First, the focus needs to shift from just pledging money to meet financial targets set by the United Nations (which tends to be the bureaucratic response of donor countries) to improving the aid environment (which requires diplomatic pressure from donors). To be sure, given the dire needs in Syria, more assistance is always needed. The United Nations estimates that Syria requires $3.82 billion in aid for 2020, around 40 percent of which is unmet. But pouring more money into a broken system will be meaningless if the regime keeps diverting funding and if aid organizations cannot choose their beneficiaries freely. The West can signal its commitment to Syria not by flashing big dollar signs but by ensuring aid gets to those who need it most. A paradigm shift is needed. Metrics to measure the effectiveness of aid programs should focus not only on how much aid was delivered but also on whether it actually reached the beneficiaries most in need. Donor conferences should focus not just on listing financial contributions but on highlighting the key challenges in the aid environment that need to be improved.

Second, as part of this paradigm shift, donors should apply more coordinated and sustained pressure on the United Nations and international non-governmental organizations to push back against aid diversions. Up to this point, U.S.-European engagement has been ad hoc and disjointed, in part due to ideological differences but also because each country relies on a different geographic office to lead on the issue. For some, this advocacy takes place in field offices in Beirut or Amman, while for others, their U.N. missions in New York or Geneva are the leads. In order for the West to assume a forceful, unified position, it needs a centralized locus of power from which to coordinate and senior-level diplomats to focus regularly on this issue, not only at critical junctures or when there is a high-profile aid convoy. Western donors also need to develop a shared assessment of the situation on the ground before setting requirements for U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations. One mechanism to do so would be to set up a clearinghouse, as has been suggested by Human Rights Watch and others, that would allow donors to conduct routine due diligence of humanitarian operations together. Another would be a referral mechanism that triages concerns at a regional level before escalating them to a working group at U.N. headquarters in New York that focuses on the principles and parameters set out by the United Nations itself. Only through a harmonized approach will the West be able to undermine Russia’s increasingly successful efforts at convincing both U.N. member states and the U.N. Secretariat of the regime’s narrative claiming all humanitarian operations should be centralized in Assad’s hands.

Third, the West should not be afraid of escalating pressure if sustained focus on this issue does not yield results. Donors have to be both more engaged and more demanding with regard to the details of humanitarian operations in regime areas. Currently, there is a vocal minority of voices in various Western capitals pushing for all humanitarian assistance to be cut off in regime-held areas, but this is an unnecessarily draconian step. Denying lifesaving assistance altogether would punish a population that is not to blame for the regime’s abuses. Moreover, the West has not applied enough consistent and sustained pressure to know whether concessions in this space are possible before taking such drastic steps. Instead, donor countries should disperse funding differently, depending on which organizations respect humanitarian standards, recognizing that the United Nations and international organizations are not a monolith. If agencies such as the World Health Organization in Damascus do not clarify their relations with the regime, donor governments should shift funding to other U.N. agencies or fund non-governmental organizations outside of the U.N. framework. The pressure from donors should work both ways — stricter on humanitarian actors colluding with the regime to make sure the principles and parameters set by the United Nations itself are respected, but also more supportive of small non-governmental organizations, which have different operating standards and can in some circumstances navigate regime obstacles better than U.N. agencies. These actors may, for instance, need additional support from donors to register in Damascus.

In addition to withholding some assistance, donors could also use the possibility of more assistance as a carrot. There is an open discussion within the humanitarian community as to whether funding should not only focus on emergency relief but also include early recovery and stabilization in some areas. Donors could raise the possibility of additional funding specifically for early recovery activities like repairing basic infrastructure if the regime finally grants unrestricted access for non-governmental organizations, an incentive that may be attractive at a time when even the regime’s loyal constituency is suffering significantly from the economic and health crisis.

Fourth, in addition to coordinating better among themselves, Western donors should also coordinate better within their own bureaucracies to align their political and technical offices. Departments in charge of humanitarian funding and their non-governmental organization partners need to recognize that aid has been politicized and requires political negotiation and diplomatic engagement to improve it. While humanitarian operations should be impartial and need-based, the issue of humanitarian access is a political one. The issue of access, granted either by the regime from Damascus or by the international community through cross-border openings, is highly political. Donor countries should make access the center of their political strategy to ensure humanitarian actors can then decide which channels are the most impartial and need-based. Meanwhile, departments in charge of political affairs need to better understand the technical considerations of aid. For example, many donors oppose early recovery work because it blurs the line between humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts that are inherently political and longer-term. But for aid practitioners, such activities are both necessary to begin the process toward long-term recovery and more cost-effective than emergency aid provision. Repairing water pipes or electrical lines, for example, is much less expensive than short-term fixes like trucking water or installing generators.

Fifth, the United States and Europe need to think beyond the U.N. cross-border mechanism. Russia is unlikely to approve another Security Council authorization in July 2021 given its repeated emphasis that the mechanism was temporary and that Syrian government authority over the entire country should be restored. While Western donors need to put in a full-throttled diplomatic effort to keep it open, they also need to begin preparing contingency plans for the likely event that it will close. This would require international non-governmental organizations to operate from Turkey without the protection and coordination of the United Nations, which would greatly hamper operations but should still be possible given that a similar, but admittedly problematic, setup exists in northeastern Syria. Donors also need to focus on changing the aid framework in Damascus. Up to this point, donors have not challenged regime practices with the humanitarian community because they have not had direct contact with Damascus and because it was possible to work through cross-border deliveries to areas under opposition or Syrian Democratic Forces control. But if the cross-border authorization is ended, there will be pressure to centralize all operations via Damascus. This will only be possible if the regime takes measures to reduce bureaucratic obstacles, stops blocking needs assessment by non-governmental organizations, and no longer forces U.N. agencies to recruit regime loyalists. But Western pressure for these improvements through direct contact with the Syrian government would only serve to reward the regime without giving it any incentive to change. Instead, donor countries can use their relations with the United Nations and non-governmental organizations to set stricter operating guidelines.

Finally, the United States should leverage a continued troop presence in northeast Syria, which is likely under a Biden administration, to expand the humanitarian conditions there. While the mandate of these troops is to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIL, their presence provides other strategic benefits including a stable environment for humanitarian actors. While U.S. troops have not and should not interfere with humanitarian deliveries, their withdrawal would disrupt humanitarian activities, similar to what happened in October 2019 when Turkish-backed forces intervened in northern Syria. The departure of U.S. troops is also a Russian goal that would help Moscow tighten its grip on the Syrian Democratic Forces and push for the brutal return of the regime in northeastern areas where IDPs have found shelter. A limited scale-up of a few hundred more U.S. troops in the area in order to maintain a demarcation line between Russian and U.S. forces would provide important leverage to protect the humanitarian framework in northeastern Syria. In return, the European Union should be ready to increase significantly its contribution to humanitarian and stabilization projects in northeastern Syria.

Lower Sights and Leverage Pressure

The humanitarian crisis in Syria is a symptom rather than cause of the country’s war. And without a political solution that holds the Assad regime accountable for its brutality, the Syrian people will likely continue to suffer. The political parameters set in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 are still important, but, currently, the West is prioritizing unrealistically ambitious long-term goals at the expense of shorter-term gains. Lack of coordination and of joint political strategy among donors is self-defeating, and the end result is that the United States and Europe are not making progress on either the political or humanitarian front. As Biden assumes office, his administration should realize that the best the United States can hope for in Syria in the short term is to get critical aid to the people who need it most. This should not mean changing U.S. and European support to a political solution but prioritizing humanitarian negotiations. By lowering its sights and leveraging its pressure points strategically, the United States may actually succeed in extracting some concessions from the regime and Russians. This result will undoubtedly be unsatisfying, but in Syria, where actors are now tragically dealing with least worst outcomes, a small improvement in humanitarian conditions requires a tremendous amount of diplomatic work and is still better than what donors have been able to achieve so far. Moreover, by achieving small wins, such an approach might lay the foundation for future confidence-building measures geared toward a political solution.



Daphne McCurdy is a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Charles Thépaut is a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. They worked together as part of the Anti-ISIS Coalition’s humanitarian and stabilization assistance efforts in Syria, while serving in the governments of the United States and France, respectively. 

Daphne has also worked on conflict and governance issues across the Middle East and Africa for USAID, the U.S. Department of State, the United Nations, and the Project on Middle East Democracy. She tweets at @daphnemccurdy.

Charles also worked on political issues across the Middle East and North Africa at the French Foreign Ministry, the German Foreign Ministry, and the European Commission. He tweets at @diplocharlie.

Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

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