The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recently received a letter from 73 Syrian Aid Agencies, announcing that they are ending their cooperation with the organisation due to concerns over how much influence the government of Bashar al-Assad has over the aid delivery process.
The letter, which was received days before the announcement of a US and Russian backed ceasefire in Syria, leaves many questions over the future of aid in the embattled country. This follows rising concerns over the legitimacy of the UN operation in Syria, as details have emerged over the past months of financial aid being received by ministries of the Syrian government on US and EU sanctions lists. The letter stated that ‘the Syrian government in Damascus has a significant and substantial influence on the performance of UN aid agencies based in Damascus’.
The World Health Organisation has spent over $5 million on blood bags and kits which are now directly under the control of the Syrian military, as the Syrian Department for Defence is responsible for the nation’s blood banks. There have also been numerous reports that blood supplies have been removed from convoys bound for rebel-held areas of the country, along with other vital medical supplies. Rumours of some clinics requesting blood supplies to come under the scrutiny of Syrian security forces have also circulated, leading to the arrest of some dissidents.
Aid meant for civilians across the country is frequently ending up in the hands of the Syrian Army. Agencies who have signed the letter claim that they would add points to the information sharing scheme, and OCHA Damascus would then immediately remove them – thereby negating the point of the scheme. Any aid that is dispatched for rebel-held areas lacks nutritional food and useful medicine. Additionally, the Syrian government has been accused of disregarding the value of assessing the need for aid, and the post distributive monitoring that agencies routinely carry out. At best this is neglect, at worst it amounts to the regime covering up the fact that millions are still without the aid they so desperately need.
The practical implications of these organisations withdrawing from the information sharing scheme means the UN agencies operating in Syria will lose most sources of information on what is going on in the north of Syria, and in the majority of rebel held areas, where these NGOs work. Ultimately this will have the worst effect on the OCHA, as they lose their nationwide network of informants with experience of realities on the ground in rebel held areas.
These developments came days before the announcement of a Russian and US backed ceasefire that commenced on 12 September, with hopes that if it holds out the US and Russia will begin an air campaign against extremist groups including ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, and slowly de-escalate conflict between rebels and the regime to focus on the common enemy. The regime is required to halt all airstrikes, and ground forces will ease the siege on Aleppo to allow aid to reach the east of the city, which has been under brutal siege for months. The regime is in apparent violation of the ceasefire, as two aid convoys, totalling 60 UN trucks have been blocked from accessing stricken civilians in Aleppo and elsewhere. Russia has struck back at these allegations, claiming Syrian opposition forces have also failed to honour conditions of the ceasefire as they are still holding the Castello Road into Aleppo.
Bashar al-Assad has been using aid as a weapon – bolstering his supporters and the forces fighting on his behalf, meanwhile weakening the opposition and denying essential aid to millions of vulnerable civilians. The UN, through their lack of a response, has been complicit in this abuse of aid, and it must end.
The withdrawal of 73 agencies seems unlikely to change the way UN operations are run in Syria, which are acknowledged to be far from ideal. The fact of the matter is they operate within the highly unstable country with permission from the regime, and to push back against him is to risk their entire operation – the International Mercy Corps withdrew from Syria after threats from the government. However, without action, Assad is likely to continue making the UN OCHA a weapon of war. The UN must ask whether it is time it freed itself of al-Assad’s influence.