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.

Manu Brabo/AP/File
A Syrian woman cries near Dar El Shifa hospital while the body of her brother, killed by the Syrian Army, lies on the street in Aleppo, Syria, last September. Syria's upwardly spiraling violence has resulted in the confirmed killings of almost 93,000 people, the United Nations human rights office said Thursday, but acknowledged the real number is likely to be far higher.

The United Nations now says that nearly 93,000 people have been confirmed killed in the Syrian conflict, but the organization acknowledges that the actual number is likely higher. As conditions in Syria deteriorate into the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Darfur conflict, the aid response has been increasingly put under the microscope. Syrian citizens and opposition leaders have rightly argued that not enough is being done to meet humanitarian needs. And reporting from areas unreached by aid has left the impression of an absent aid effort altogether. Meanwhile major aid agencies – which would normally be highly visible on the ground and vocal in the media – have been uncharacteristically quiet.

It is time to set the record straight. Aid workers are, in fact, working extensively across Syria, and have established significant humanitarian aid pipelines into the opposition held territories in the North. I know, because I have worked since last fall as a part of this effort.

While security concerns and a country with divided leadership and loyalties have forced us, and virtually all of the groups providing relief in northern Syria, to maintain an extremely low profile, I am speaking out now because the flawed narrative of “absent aid” threatens to hurt the people of Syria and endanger the aid groups working to help them.

Here’s why. Prominent policymakers and commentators have argued that in light of perceived aid failures, the United States should use its humanitarian aid toward explicitly political aims. Over the past few months, calls have been growing for routing US humanitarian aid through groups that are themselves party to the conflict. The intent is to use this relief as a political tool to support the main opposition alliance and to win the US political credit with the population at large.

Beyond being ineffectual, proposed moves to use aid as a political tool would be dangerous. Humanitarian access to civilians in need relies on adherence to the core principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and operational independence. These are not abstract ideals; they are pragmatic tools central to the credibility and safety of Syrians we serve and humanitarian workers. Politicizing the aid effort would demolish these principles and put the Syrians we work with – not to mention my colleagues and me – at much greater risk.

In each Syrian town where my aid agency works, we have invested months building the relationships with local militias, governing councils, and community groups that enable our staff to safely deliver aid. If any party to the conflict sees us as partial to one side or another, those relationships could quickly unravel, and our work would be severely threatened.

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.

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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