Issue 59 - Article 1

Humanitarianism besieged

November 26, 2013
Ben Parker
Bullet hole in a Syrian Arab Red Crescent ambulance outside of Homs, Syria in June 2012

A political or military solution to stop the carnage in Syria seems as remote as ever. The war seems only to bring even worse depths of human suffering and diplomatic impotence. Syrian civilians are in a state, not just of terror, but of horror – hostages in a geopolitical, ideological and sectarian catastrophe. On the face of it, getting humanitarian assistance to the millions affected should be easier to deal with than the political and military mess. In the space of two years, a major relief operation within Syria has indeed come to life despite the extreme circumstances. But these persistent, sincere and often brave efforts are compromised and deeply problematic. Although they have grown in breadth and scale, the response is still a disappointment to all sides: the government and opposition groups, donors, Syrian civil society, humanitarian workers in Syria themselves and the global public. Syria has tested conventional humanitarian practice up to and beyond its limits, and exposed some uncomfortable truths about helping civilians in conflict. This article examines the humanitarian response in Syria and humanitarian space there in general, mainly from the perspective of operations run from government-held areas.

International bodies routinely call for ‘unimpeded humanitarian access’, but in reality there are few places in the world where aid workers are less free to move around, assess needs and deliver services independently. Humanitarian action in Syria is plagued by insecurity, bureaucracy, manipulation, intimidation and limited operational capacity. External political and organisational agendas only make matters worse. To work on humanitarian issues in Syria is to walk an ethical tightrope. The humanitarian principles which underpin the Western aid system are under extraordinary pressure. Independence, neutrality, impartiality and humanity are under continual strain due to murky – if necessary – compromises and accommodations. Conventional humanitarianism is besieged.

Operational access

The attitude of the state is central to the humanitarian response in Syria. The government is used to having rigid control over most aspects of society, and keeping a very close eye on foreigners. Even before the conflict, international involvement in humanitarian operations in Syria was tightly controlled and viewed with suspicion both on grounds of national security and because it was seen as in tension with a general policy of national self-reliance. For example, the handful of international NGOs working for Iraqi refugees before the civil war were forbidden to meet together independently, and had to furtively arrange their encounters in restaurants and cafes.

With memories of the UN mandate which authorised military action in Libya fresh in the mind, which used civilian protection as a justification, the Syrian government sees humanitarian operations as a Trojan horse to delegitimise the state, develop contacts with the opposition and win international support for military intervention.

In government-controlled parts of Syria, what, where and to whom to distribute aid, and even staff recruitment, have to be negotiated and are sometimes dictated. The handful of operational agencies that have been allowed in have a state-imposed limitation on the number of international staff they can bring in, often achieved by arbitrary denials or delays in issuing visas. Nationals of countries perceived as hostile to the Syrian state are particularly unlikely to get visas. The list of acceptable nationalities shrank fast.

According to the Syrian government’s official position, humanitarian agencies and supplies are allowed to go anywhere, even across any frontline. But every action requires time-consuming permissions, which effectively provide multiple veto opportunities. To send staff to the field, an agency must put in a request, days in advance, listing the names of the travellers, their nationalities, passport numbers and titles, and the licence plate number of every vehicle. This goes first to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). If endorsed, SARC then sends the request to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If the Ministry approves it – and it is widely assumed that the Ministry also seeks the nod from the security apparatus – SARC then signs a facilitation letter that will allow the vehicles to get through checkpoints.

Further paperwork requirements change often and are unpredictable. Medical supplies come under particular scrutiny, with aid agencies virtually prohibited from sending surgical material to opposition-held areas, the assumption being that they could be used to patch up wounded rebel fighters. Missions or deliveries are liable to be cancelled at the last minute because of ‘security concerns’, which frequently correlate with areas of particular strategic significance. Once on the road, supplies and staff still face arbitrary searches, delays and theft as local commanders may simply disregard paperwork issued in Damascus. Opposition fighters at checkpoints also have harassed and detained humanitarian staff and looted humanitarian supplies.

Crossing the frontline between government and rebelcontrolled territory presents another range of potentially deadly risks and difficulties. There are hundreds of rebel groups whose control over different territories is constantly changing. Meanwhile, many of the evergrowing array of Islamist groups have little interest or regard for international humanitarian law. Humanitarian agencies struggle to find a suitable interface with insurgent groups; painstaking negotiations for access are typically done through a third party and circuitous communication channels.

Conditional access

Despite these heavy operational restrictions, humanitarian supplies continue to move around the country and across some front lines. Navigating what one observer has called the ‘leopard skin’ map of Syria’s religious and sectarian divisions, as well as its patchwork of military and rebel control, is both extremely difficult and dangerous. Worse still, some areas have been deliberately besieged or blockaded by both government and opposition forces. Civilians in these areas may voluntarily stay for family or political reasons, or stay out of fear of being killed or detained by the other side if they leave. Depending on the viewpoint, they could be regarded as human shields or victims of collective punishment, or both.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said that one of its toughest challenges in Syria is reaching tens of thousands of civilians surviving in harsh conditions in sealed-off areas. Some of these areas have gone months – some over a year – without any formal assistance. In this context, the government has at times engaged in a ‘tit-fortat’ approach – allowing aid agencies access to opposition areas under siege in exchange for their influence in getting aid to government sympathisers that the government cannot access. Aid agencies are also under pressure from other sources: Western donors closely interrogate them about what percentage of their aid reaches opposition areas, and high-profile cross-line convoys are sometimes mounted to prove the point that access is not one-sided, even when routine deliveries are getting through.

Relieving besieged areas is notoriously risky. Last autumn, after weeks of painstaking negotiations, the ICRC prepared a convoy to enter Homs’ rebel-controlled Old City, which had been under tight siege by government forces for months. The ICRC had assurances of safety from the government and its security agencies, and from a significant proportion of over 20 various armed groups and units in the area, garnered through weeks of negotiations. But the lead vehicle came under fire as it was crossing the frontline – it is not clear from whom. When the SARC tried to reach the pro-government town of Harem, under siege by rebels, it too was attacked.

Partner access

In the limited humanitarian space that remains, the SARC is at the centre. Not only does it see its role as defending and acting on the humanitarian principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, it also occupies a powerful but fraught position of simultaneously being coordinator and gatekeeper for other relief agencies, both international and domestic. SARC approval is required for the registration of humanitarian INGOs and their programmes. The SARC is the conduit for the majority of UN-supplied food aid and a significant proportion of international non-food aid. Its agreement is required for field offices, visits and needs assessments. It is the primary agency for registering and assessing populations in need, which itself is a politicallycharged process. The government expected the SARC to both manage the humanitarian crisis and the blowback of the crisis in terms of bad publicity and international ‘interference’.

At its worst, SARC is a monopolistic bottleneck, deeply compromised by pressure from the government. At its best, especially in the field, it is an inspiring beacon of decency and service. Without its field network and volunteers, there would be scant capacity to manage supplies and organise distributions and emergency services. Without it, and its thousands of volunteers, the suffering in Syria would be much deeper. Its volunteers come from the communities they serve and many are staunchly anti-government. They take heroic risks under huge pressure. Caught in the middle, SARC staff and volunteers are regularly accused by the government of facilitating assistance to rebels, and in some cases detained and allegedly abused. Splits have emerged between the highly-controlling Damascus HQ and the regional offices of the SARC, especially those in areas under long-term opposition control.

After many months of negotiation and pressure, UN agencies and international NGOs have been able to expand their partner base. The government has allowed them to work directly through several dozen pre-approved local NGOs. But many of these NGOs and charities have limited or no experience of humanitarian work and do not have a nationwide presence. These national NGOs have little capacity in programming at the scale required and some have a fractious relationship with the SARC at the local level. The other channel available for implementation is through the government line ministries, which are of varying effectiveness and unpalatable to some donors.

With some creativity and guile, aid operations were able to find cracks in these rules – offering arm’s-length or mutually deniable support to small or well-placed local NGOs operating under the radar. The formal aid system made little progress in linking with civilian volunteer networks and coordination committees.

Cross-border and cross-line access

A number of Syrian aid groups, international NGOs and Red Crescent national societies are working in oppositioncontrolled Syrian territory without the permission of Damascus. The Syrian government regards them as illegal, and has made it clear to Damascus-based agencies that, if they undertake any cross-border operations, their operations would be shut down. Any cross-border operations have been kept discreet by most agencies and their donors, so details are limited on their scale and effectiveness. Certainly, cross-border operations face their own constraints: insecurity and risk has kept them largely confined to areas near the Turkish border; Turkey is increasingly restricting the ease with which they can cross the border and operate; and they face challenges – like the agencies working with Damascus – in maintaining a healthy distance from militarised political forces.

Assessment, monitoring and evaluation on all sides is very weak. The numbers and nature of people in need, wherever they found themselves, are often highly abstract and politicised, but partly due to a political culture of record-keeping and statistics, there were in fact sources of information that could be tapped on all sides. There has been little direct contact or coordination between international NGOs operating cross-border in rebel-held parts of Syria and those working with the permission of Damascus. In one case, an aid agency took major risks to cross a frontline only to find upon arrival that assistance had already been delivered to the area from across the Turkish border. Opposition disunity held back the potential establishment of an opposition relief wing with which international efforts could liaise, a commonplace practice in other conflicts. With Western backing, the opposition finally set up the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU) in December 2012 to coordinate assistance in Syria’s rebel-held north, but the ACU has had limited impact on the ground.


The international humanitarian system brought its whole toolkit to Syria – in theory at least. From ‘Level 3’ special procedures designed to unlock the best people and the best decision-making to sophisticated assessment, mapping, international lobbying, advocacy and fundraising, the international humanitarian community should have been in a position to respond in the best possible way to the crisis in Syria. Some of these systems did work, but many did not – a textbook approach was never going to be appropriate to the situation, which rather demands creativity, pragmatism and some cold, calculating realism.

The diplomatic deadlock led to misdirected pressure on the humanitarian system to deliver a substitute for what politics could not. The ability to deliver good-quality, principled programmes was not only constrained by restrictions inside Syria, but also by a clamour of pressures from outside. These ranged from organisational hubris and rivalry, to an illdisguised preference for the opposition from some donors, which leaked into humanitarian decision-making, to an inability by aid agencies to say ‘no’, or ‘we don’t know’ when faced with unrealistic expectations and demands for data. The international aid system became warped under this onslaught, leading to turf battles and sharp practice, fundraising contradictions, donor interference, double-speak and poor risk management, all the while under intense pressure and micro-management from headquarters and capitals. Any divisions between aid agencies were exploited by government and security agencies.

Despite all this, many victories large and small were celebrated too: bold, creative and crafty solutions and alliances were found, and a sheer doggedness to not give up became a source of pride and motivation. Looking ahead, there can only be more players, more complexity, more expectations and more risks of every kind in a humanitarian crisis as severe as the one still deepening in Syria. A balance will have to be found between ‘state of the art’ humanitarian practice and what works and is ‘good enough’. Humanitarian action in Syria has to work within a fluid and complex network of actors and through innovative and changing practices, not a rigid ‘architecture’.

Syria’s implosion will have profound implications for the region and beyond. It is a live and terrible test of the international status quo: in terms of promoting peace and security, implementing a humanitarian response and preventing mass atrocities against civilians. Tested and found wanting, the established humanitarian system ignores the lessons of Syria at its peril.

Ben Parker was head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Syria from March 2012 to February 2013. He writes here in a personal capacity.


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