Scaling up aid in Syria: the role of diaspora networks

July 10, 2013
Fabrice Weissman, MSF
Homs, Syria

Syria is certainly the most deadly conflict in the world today and the most underserved in terms of international humanitarian assistance. Exposed to violence and lack of essential services, millions of Syrians, living under the authority of opposition groups, have almost no access to international humanitarian relief. Since the beginning of the year, fewer than twenty UN and ICRC convoys have managed to cross the frontlines. Only a large-scale cross-border supply operation can meet the needs resulting from the fighting, widespread destruction, population displacement, the collapse of public services, and ever-worsening shortages of essential goods in the opposition territories.

Yet, the scaling up of aid operations across Syrian borders is unlikely to happen. UN agencies and the ICRC believe that their diplomatic status (and the balance of power in the international arena) prevents them from operating in opposition-held territories without the consent of the Syrian government or a binding Security Council resolution. Only a limited number of international NGO are operating cross-border, including MSF which runs six hospitals. The deployment of more NGOs is as much hampered by the lack of funding and the semi-clandestine nature of their operations as by insecurity. The bombings are particularly intense and violent, and the risk of kidnapping is a deterrent for most of NGO personnel. The growing influence of radical groups within the opposition of radical groups and the complexitiesy of relationsdealing with the constellation of armed groups and networks that make up the opposition, Syrian revolutionaries do not encourage NGOs to take risks.

In the short term, the scaling up of aid can only come from Syrian networks of doctors, businessmen, local coordination committees, justice courts, and armed groups amongst others, all of which are engaging to varying degrees in the provision of basic public services (health posts and hospitals, garbage collection, maintenance of water and sanitation, industrial bakeries distributing bread at subsidized prices, financial and material assistance to the families of “martyrs” or displaced etc.). We must recognize that Syrian diaspora groups , like the Union of Syrian Doctors (UOSSM) have certainly contributed much more to increasing access to medical services than all of the MSF sections combined.

The only realistic way to increase aid in the rebel zones today is to support Syrian Diaspora networks, even if this results in some cases in aid diversion and the strengthening of political networks. France, the United States, and Turkey have all adopted this strategy not only to help the population, but to contain the crisis within Syrian borders and to foster the emergence of a “friendly” rebel administration.

Many within the humanitarian community have criticized this strategy because it “politicizes” humanitarian assistance. This position is highly questionable: first, it assumes that assistance to populations should be the monopoly of humanitarian organizations; second, it opposes the only policy which is likely to increase desperately needed medical aid, food, energy and material assistance to victims of the conflict in the rebel zones. While the deployment of international humanitarian workers is urgently needed to help Syrians to cope with the magnitude of the crisis, assistance delivered through political and solidarity channels remains the main lifeline for millions of Syrians in opposition held areas.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent the institution.


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