Alarming abuse of Syrian aid leaves civilians vulnerable
When you see refugee tents in Syria and Lebanon covered in icicles, it is hard to imagine these subhuman conditions. Meanwhile, more than 25,000 tents were either destroyed or damaged during recent floods, affecting 142,000 internally displaced people across 407 sites in northwest Syria. Many Syrians are so desperate they have taken to putting their organs, including kidneys, up for sale.
So what can the outside world do? Aid to Syria is one of the most politicized humanitarian programs anywhere in the world, but where is the honest debate about what is going on? Whether aid organizations, including UN agencies, are operating in regime or non-regime-controlled areas, all the typical safeguards deployed to ensure the aid reaches those most in need are upended. The core principles of aid are just forgotten or dismissed as inconvenient nuisances. At this stage, we are barely even talking about reconstruction; instead it is just about keeping people alive, feeding them, and helping them during the pandemic.
To operate in Syrian regime areas, any agency has to submit to a coterie of conditions and impediments to their independence. For starters, no nongovernmental organization (NGO) is allowed in regime areas if they are also operating elsewhere. Access into these areas is restricted through the visa application process. The Syrian regime, by all accounts, prefers to grant visas to aid workers from specific countries, which certainly do not include the major donor states from Europe, North America and the like. If any international workers start developing any unhelpful signs of independence, the regime can quickly rescind their visas. This is just the first obstacle in the process.
The result is that very few international NGOs operate in Syria. Those that do typically work on vital projects the regime cannot carry out on its own, such as the rehabilitation of schools. They operate on the full understanding that the NGO will not get involved in any political or human rights issues and will turn a blind eye to any signs of corruption or cronyism. This is some dilemma: Syrian children need schools and an education, but who feels comfortable about enriching this corrupt mafia elite? Similarly, Syrian NGOs can receive funds from international organizations, but only after obtaining permission from the regime.
NGOs also have to work through the so-called Syria Trust for Development. This is no NGO but rather a part of the regime’s apparatus, headed by Asma Assad, the president’s wife. The regime sees the trust as being its more acceptable, softer face. It has nearly monopolized control of the civil society space, a trend intensified after it swallowed up the Al-Bustan Charity network of Bashar Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, who was until recently the regime’s top businessman. Take legal support as an example. In 2018, a ministerial decree ruled that all NGO efforts in the field of legal support had to go through the Syria Trust for Development. Imagine if you are a displaced family trying to procure legal documentation and establish your property rights. You now have to share all your details with an arm of the regime.
The regime, its cronies and corrupt echelons can siphon off these vital resources with little to no fear of it being reported.
The other option for international NGOs is the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), another body that is no more than a regime front. About 60 percent of all international aid to Syria is channeled via SARC, and UN agencies have decided to accept this arrangement uncritically. Syrians all know this so, if aid is distributed via SARC or the Syria Trust for Development, guess who gets the credit.
The EU does not have a program in these areas, but it does help fund the UN agencies. Consequently, the EU has no visibility in Syria and, despite its contributions, no Syrians are aware that various aid programs going through the UN are paid for with EU taxpayers’ money. In other words, the EU pays but ultimately the regime ensures that it takes as much of the credit as possible — a great deal for Damascus.
Another obstacle, also rarely commented on, is the sheer lack of proper monitoring and evaluation. Remember that most donor countries closed their embassies in the first year of the Syrian uprising. Even international journalists, who also require visas from the regime, are turning up less and less. The result is that the regime, its cronies and corrupt echelons can siphon off the aid and divert these vital resources with little to no fear of it being reported. Of course, this is exactly what has happened.
In non-regime-controlled areas, the situation is hardly any better. Fighting has broken out again in the northwest. This means that NGOs may be operational in one area one week, but the regime takes control of it the next. This makes it tough for NGOs to plan their operations. You can add to that the challenges of operating in areas under the control of an extremist group like Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, which is effectively the Al-Qaeda arm in Syria.
All efforts in non-regime areas are also hampered by cross-border aid restrictions. UN aid to these areas can only be delivered via Bab Al-Hawa, with the Bab Al-Salam crossing near Jarablus now closed. The impact is major and many in need now lie in hard-to-reach areas.
Easy answers are in short supply. Syrians need urgent aid; more than is getting in. The lack of funding, the massive Syrian economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic have hit hard, but also the operating environment, whereby the regime and non-state armed actors abuse aid for their own purposes, is alarming. Aid must not be politicized, either by donors or actors on the ground. It is time for all parties to start putting Syrian civilians first, not last.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech