I have recently returned from a journey to the Syrian border in an effort to assess the humanitarian situation and requirements of Syrian refugees in Turkey as well as arrange and manage cross-border distribution of aid into Syria. In the following report and interview with the Arab News Network (ANN) I reflect on my journey and impressions:
The Syrian civil war is entering its fifth year, the humanitarian situation is atrocious and it seems there is little hope for the imminent resolution of this conflict – which has seen levels of truly extraordinary violence. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) over ten million people are in need of assistance with 7.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Syria and at least 3.2 million who have already fled the country. These figures are inevitably arbitrary and underestimated, but provide an indication of the scale of the humanitarian crisis we are dealing with. According to the latest UN figures for registered refugees Turkey hosts 1.6 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon 1.1 million, Jordan 600,000, Iraq 200,000. The pressure placed on these host countries’ economies has left them at breaking point. The civilian population bears the brunt of the burden.
Humanitarian actors, whose efforts should – at least – be guided by the four principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence, face an array of challenges when attempting to alleviate the suffering of civilians in the midst of ongoing conflict and violence. Along the Syrian-Turkish border, there are 100 IDP camps housing 160,000 people and since the beginning of the conflict both international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and local organisations have been involved in managing the provision of aid through cross-border operations from Turkey.
Those affected by the conflict in Syria face the burden of border closures by some of Syria’s neighbour countries, who are struggling to absorb the immense flow of people into their often already fragile economic, social and political systems as well as restrictions of people’s movement in besieged areas of Syria. It is estimated that currently around 220,000 people are affected by restriction of movement policies, and there is growing evidence that these have become a military tactic of belligerents in the conflict and militia groups who use the social pressure of the growing humanitarian crisis for personal gain.
For humanitarian organisations operating in and around Syria, one of the most pervasive challenges is lack of access. Strict visa regulations and the high-risk of travel in Syria make it extremely difficult for INGOs to operate, demonstrated by extensive media coverage of the active targeting and kidnapping of humanitarian workers. According to UN OCHA, 298 security incidents involving aid workers were recorded between January 2013 and August 2014 across the wider MENA region. However and perhaps contrary to the perception fostered by media sources, it is local staff that face the highest risk. Given the security threat, INGOs are required to work through local implementing partners, which pose obstacles to both needs assessments prior to, as well as monitoring activities during and after, the provision of aid.
A further and perhaps more striking constraint to humanitarian efforts are the advances of ISIS and the group’s control of huge swaths of land in both Syria and Iraq as large governmental and non-governmental donors impose undue restrictions on these areas. In accordance with the global anti-terror campaign, no aid flows into governorates controlled by the group amid the looming suspicion of funding ‘anti-Western’ militias. Despite growing donor reluctance and fatigue, ISIS expansion has brought humanitarian actors into direct conflict with armed opposition groups as in Deir-ez-Zor. Not only has fighting blocked access to the governorate, but it has prompted both sides to block humanitarian access (ISIS halts humanitarian access to opposition-controlled regions, whilst these opposition groups block humanitarian assistance to those in areas governed by ISIS).
The Turkish government is another actor that places further restrictions on aid flows from its territory into areas in Syria that are controlled by the Syrian Government – Assad is a longstanding political rival of Erdoğan – and the Kurds. Turkish-Kurdish relations have remained tense because the Kurdish party, the PKK, continues to struggle to build a Kurdish nation, partly on Turkish soil. Given these numerous political obstacles, the number of governorates in which humanitarian agencies can operate and distribute equipment has now shrunk considerably. It is remarkable that part of the area considered accessible and ‘easy’ to operate in is currently under the jurisdiction of al-Nusra Front, which remains on top of the US list of terror organisations. Doing business with al-Nusra would have been a lot less acceptable before ISIS came to prominence and seemingly altered the scale of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
The Syrian conflict is a prime example that demonstrates the changing nature of conflict from interstate to intrastate war, which has led to increased challenges for humanitarian actors not to act in breach of humanitarian protection principles. In the case of Syria, non-governmental organisations face multiple restrictions both through donor countries and other territories that function as operations bases. In the context of nation states and national sovereignty, the capacity of humanitarianism is often reduced to a minimum and the space in which INGOs can operate whilst sticking by their principles is marginal. As lines between civilians and combatants increasingly blur, it becomes difficult to legitimise aid allocations and guarantee that equipment and currency does not merely end up in the pockets of militants, but aids those in need of protection.