MESOP INSIDERS : In the Line of Fire — the War Against the UN in Syria

For Syria Comment, July 4, 2016 – By Cyrus Mahboubian, an NGO worker in Damascus (Pseudonym)

Since the war in Syria began, aid delivery has been politicized. The anti-regime camp rejected the very notion of delivering aid through government held areas. Western countries who backed the insurgency and supported regime change pushed for most aid to be delivered “cross border,” from Turkey or Jordan. Diplomats and aid workers based in Turkey or Jordan often went native and viewed aid agencies based in Damascus as the enemy. Even the UN faced divisions and rivalries.

At the center of this was Yacoub El Hillo, the United Nations Resident Coordinator, Humanitarian Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Syria since August 2013. El Hillo’s very existence was an affront to those who prioritized regime change above all else and because he was based in Damascus and accredited by the Syrian government he was required to acknowledge the Syrian government as it continued to represent the sovereignty of Syria at the United Nations. This cooperation with Syrian state institutions was anathema to those who hoped El Hillo could be some kind of humanitarian dictator, operating as if there was no Syrian state. But since most Syrians still live in government held parts of Syria and there is still a government with institutions and security forces, the UN must work especially with institutions that provide services to people such as health, education, water, electricity and vaccination.

The UN in Syria reaches one million people in opposition areas by crossing the border every month and they work everywhere in Syria either directly or through partners both national and international, while roughly 70% of people in need in Syria are reached from inside (Damascus but also the UN Hubs in Homs, Aleppo, Tartous and Qamishli).

In mid June an advocacy group called The Syria Campaign accused the UN of collaborating with and supporting the government’s policies. When it was announced in late June that El Hillo had been appointed to a new job in Liberia the Syria Campaign was quick to take credit. This is false however. El Hillo applied for the position in Liberia in early April, over two months before the Syria Campaign report came out and he was approved for the position of Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General with the United Nations Mission in Liberia ON 13 JUNE, before the report came out. It is laughable to think that the UN can ever respond so quickly to anything, let alone a report by an advocacy group criticizing the necessary compromises THE UN must make when dealing with a sovereign government. Yacoub El Hillo’s new position in Liberia is not punitive and it is in fact a promotion- and it was overdue. When he first came to Syria in early August 2013 he had committed to serve for two years. He chose to extend for a third which concludes in early August 2016.

In the the post-2003 Canal Hotel bombing culture of the UN, which was so traumatized by the al Qaeda attack on its staff in Iraq that in much of the Middle East it simply cowered in Green Zones and hid from the population, El Hillo pioneered a courageous return to UN principles, boldly leading missions into war zones under fire, challenging all actors from Jabhat al Nusra to the Syrian security forces, thus restoring the UN’s reputation.

The allegations made by the Syria Campaign and others were written by people who know nothing about the UN and how it must work. In 2015 cross-line deliveries were very restricted but the UN was also working cross-border. Beginning in 2015 the UN implemented its Whole of Syria Approach which means there is a coordinated effort. In 2016 the UN has reached almost one million people in need in besieged and hard to reach areas. One can reasonably disagree about the difficult and imperfect choices the UN made when dealing with the Syrian government but those who criticize the UN country team based inside Syria offer no better alternatives. What would they have the UN team in Syria do? Should they withdraw in protest and serve nobody? The decision to withdraw from the country is made by the Secretary General. Or would they have the UN drive through checkpoints that have turned them away? The UN cannot move around without the approval of parties to the conflict in any country. The UN must notify parties in Syria, and if they say no and they have tanks and weapons what does it do? And the UN needs operational capacity, it cannot scream and yell and then lose access, it has to be able to move around and deliver and save lives. If UNICEF gets thrown out of Syria who does it help? The UN in Syria is not the problem. If one has a criticism to make it should be made by taking it to the Security Council and to the various countries involved in the conflict, not be falsely trying to defame a UN official who is concluding a mission  after three exhausting years in Syria.