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Opinion

Making US humanitarian aid to Syria a political tool is ineffective – and dangerous

Calls are growing to route US humanitarian aid to Syria through opposition groups, using aid as a political tool to earn the US credit with the population. This would be ineffective and dangerous. Instead more must be done to ensure the safety and access of aid groups working in Syria.

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It is also a myth that humanitarian aid in Syria is ineffective. Humanitarian assistance supported by the US government and other donors has ramped up substantially since last fall and is now making a difference for many hundreds of thousands of Syrians. My organization – since beginning work in Aleppo governorate last summer – has provided critical support to more than 400,000 people, and we are just one of several major aid agencies active in opposition-held areas.

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But, yes, we are not yet reaching all the people who need our help. The war poses a constant challenge, as the fighting limits access to many areas and frequently interrupts aid delivery. One of the most critical challenges, however, has been the peculiar situation in which the United Nations finds itself. Though active within Assad regime-controlled territories, the UN has been forced to the sidelines in opposition-held areas due to objections by the Syrian government and inaction by the UN Security Council. This has prevented the UN from playing its usual role in large aid efforts, leaving humanitarian agencies such as ours to coordinate those efforts independently.

While more aid is needed, it cannot serve as a substitute for a viable political solution to the Syrian crisis. I was reminded of this recently while talking to a group of displaced women living in an elementary school classroom in northeastern Syria. They told me that while they are grateful for the aid, it is not going to stop the bombs from dropping. What they desire is a return to normalcy and a return to their homes. They are perplexed and jaded by the failure of international efforts to resolve the crisis, and putting a US brand on aid deliveries will not make up for that.

The biggest step forward would be a resolution to the conflict; but short of that, could more be done to help Syrians? Absolutely, yes.

The currently established humanitarian pipeline is limited by security issues, rendering it insufficient to meet the massive needs in the country. It is imperative that the region’s political players provide better, safer access for humanitarian groups. More aid needs to get into Syria and we must be able to move it around the country safely. Allowing the UN to operate at full capacity is vital to reaching more Syrians. The UN’s current push for a resolution from the Security Council to pressure the Assad government into providing humanitarian access across conflict lines is both admirable and essential.

Finally, greater effort is needed to improve coordination of relief priorities between traditional Western donors and emerging major donors such as the Gulf States.

Policymakers should focus on concrete steps like these, rather than playing politics with US humanitarian funding just as this work is beginning to hit its stride.

The author works with an international aid organization in northern Syria. For security purposes, the author and her organization affiliation remain anonymous.

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