Despite UN peacekeeper capture, Syrian aid groups say dangers are overblown

Syrian rebels' detention of 21 UN peacekeepers has set off alarm bells for international aid groups, but local organizations say that such incidents are rare and short-lived.

Ariel Schalit/AP
A UN peacekeeper from the UNDOF force stands guard on a watch tower at the Quneitra Crossing between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Friday.

For Syrians in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, the detainment of 21 United Nations peacekeepers in the Golan Heights comes as particularly
bad news. 

Though a handful of aid agencies now conduct low-profile work inside Syria, the vast majority remain reluctant to establish a strong footprint inside the country given the unpredictable nature of violence inside the country.

But local Syrian aid groups say they are unconcerned. Such incidents have occurred elsewhere in Syria when local convoys are moving throughout the country, but are rare.

“We’ve never had a problem or an issue with the aid so far,” says Yakzan Shishakly, director of the Maram Foundation, which manages aid in the Atmay refugee camp in the north of Syria. Speaking about the detention of the UN workers, he says, “After only one incident it does not concern me. It would concern me if it happened more than one time.”

Mr. Shishakly adds that the detention of the UN peacekeepers is also unique as it happened in the Golan Heights, a disputed territory between Israel and Syria. The rebels holding the UN staffers say they are not hostages, but “guests” and are now calling for the Syrian government to remove artillery from a nearby town to facilitate the safe release UN personnel. 

Still, lawlessness and instability make distributing aid throughout Syria difficult. A little over a month ago, the Free Syrian Army seized a convoy of medical supplies Gassan Yassin was helping deliver. After three days of negotiations, the unit agreed to release the supplies.

“From that time to now, we’ve been in contact with the FSA to ask for protection,” says Mr. Yassin, a member of Najda Now, an aid organization that provides food and medicals supplies to Syrians. “With this coordination between the FSA and all the organizations we won’t have these incidents repeated.”

Among those in the northwest of Syria, where the opposition controls large areas throughout Aleppo, as well as parts of Idlib, Syrians involved in aid distribution say that incidents of aid convoys getting hijacked occur no more than once a month. And in most incidents recounted by Syrian aid workers, the captured supplies were returned after negotiations.

“It rarely happens. I’ve only heard about two incidents,” says Abu Basal Hafar, a member of the Central Committee to Support Aleppo, which collects
money to assist those in need. “When it does happen, it happens because of the severe shortages of aid and it makes people revert to criminal behavior.”

As with many incidents of criminality inside opposition-controlled Syria, residents blame the behavior on convicts the Assad regime reportedly released from prison to destabilize rebel-held areas.

“The regime claimed at the beginning of the revolution that when the opposition controlled an area it would not be safe. They did this to prove a point,” says Noor al Houry, who runs a grassroots humanitarian aid organization in Aleppo. “It’s not a big problem because of the size of the problem or how frequently it happens or even how much aid is taken, it’s the idea that people are stealing from those in need.”

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