MESOP URGENT : “The evolving humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis”

Marika Sosnowski – For Syria Comment, May 2015 – In 2015, the UN has requested a staggering US$8.4 billion to help 18 million people within Syria and the immediate region. This is a huge sum and the largest humanitarian appeal in UN history. Five years in to the brutal civil war, the humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis has predominantly focused on providing immediate relief in the form of food, health and sanitation. However, the complex and extended nature of the Syrian conflict now means that humanitarian actors are grappling with the medium to long-term issues the conflict has caused for Syria and its neighbours. These challenges include civil society development and increasing the rule of law within liberated Syrian communities, providing children with access to education as a normalising measure and an increased focus on livelihoods and creating economic opportunities in refugee populations. At a meeting of donor countries in Berlin in December 2014, the UN announced the Strategic Response Plan for Syria that ‘incorporates, for the first time, significant development aspects’ in addition to addressing essential humanitarian needs (my italics).

The Strategic Response Plan shows that the situation in Syria is no longer all about immediate disaster relief but has shifted to also include resilience and development aspects. As the term suggests, rather than addressing immediate needs, the aim of resilience and development programs is to act as a crucial bulwark against future instability and violence spawned by the Syrian conflict regionally and globally.

The medium to long-term advantages of resilience and development programming not only include regional stability but domestic benefits for national security and counter-terrorism. However, in order to be fully effective, donor requirements in the allocation of aid funding, particularly towards small Syrian NGOs, need to be rethought as well as supporting greater access for larger donors to hard-to-reach areas within Syria. These initiatives will hopefully provide more effective programming, value for money and ultimately, benefit people searching for some level of stability amongst the chaos.

Aid as a counter terrorism measure

A concern for most donor countries has been the threat posed by foreign fighters returning from the Syrian conflict or homegrown terror attacks inspired by the likes of ISIS. Given that many Western countries are now directly involved in military action against ISIS, an increasing number of foreign fighters may be likely to view their circumstances through the prism of a global war. This places countries in the military coalition at greater risk of blowback. Additionally, the dominant counter-terrorism response in many countries such as Australia, the US and France has so far been punitive and involved blanket prohibition and imprisonment of foreign fighters. For example, France recently jailed two underage boys who had returned voluntarily from Syria and Iraq after becoming disillusioned with IS and Australia has passed wide-ranging counter-terrorism legislation that includes imprisonment for entering areas of Iraq and Syria.

A recently published policy paper by the Brookings Institute suggests that instead of over-relying on punitive measures to combat terrorism, increasing funding and involvement in humanitarian programs that aim to help people affected by the conflict in Syria has the potential to deradicalise a significant portion of foreign fighters who were originally motivated, not by violence, but by a genuine desire to defend the Syrian people against the brutality of the Assad regime. Older research by AidData also suggests that foreign aid has the ability to decrease incidents of terrorism especially when the funding is targeted towards resilience and development sectors such as education, health, civil society and conflict prevention.

Agile and targeted aid

Syrian NGOs and local community organisations such as local councils are well placed to play a larger role in the delivery of these resilience and development programs given that they have direct access to many hard-to-reach areas and communities within Syria, local knowledge, language skills and are well connected with the ability to negotiate between different groups and areas. Unfortunately, the international community has so far been somewhat suspicious of supporting Syrian humanitarian organisations because many are considered unknown entities that cannot fulfil various funding and reporting requirements. These requirements include being in existence for more than five years (many were only created as a result of the uprising that began in 2011), being registered in Syria (there were various restrictions placed on the registration of civil society organisations under the al-Assad regime) or having undertaken a number of audits. While there are genuine donor concerns with monitoring and evaluating aid delivery – ISIS’ distribution of World Food Program marked packages early this year remains a very public example of failure – restrictions on funding Syrian organisations need to be rethought in light of the benefits they can offer.

Additionally, Security Council resolution 2191, and its two predecessors 2139 and 2165, succeeded in securing authorisation for UN agencies to use the most direct routes available for delivering relief inside Syria without the prior approval of the Assad regime. This includes through border crossings and across conflict lines. Thomas H. Staal, acting assistant administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance said in a recent statement that, ‘this resolution [2191] has allowed us to access people in need in an average of 66 hard-to-reach areas each month.’ In practice, many issues remain. A recent multi-author report assessing the impact of the resolutions suggests that in order to be effective, influential countries must continue to press for the streamlining of administrative processes for aid agencies and maintain timely access through border crossings. However, the fact that they were passed by the Security Council at all does potentially mark an important shift in international humanitarian law with repercussions for humanitarian access going beyond the Syrian crisis.

Rethinking aid to Syria

Jordan and Lebanon have recognised the need for longer-term development and stabilisation initiatives to address the structural deficiencies and challenges to social, economic and environmental sustainability associated with the influx of large Syrian refugee numbers. However, the international community has generally been slow to recognise the ongoing and complex nature of the Syrian conflict and see that shifts in humanitarian response cannot be linear, from humanitarian to resilience to development, but rather need to consider and address all these elements in tandem. While some donor countries, such as the USA, UK, Denmark and Canada have begun to adopt this approach, other countries like Australia lag in this area.

Large and reputable humanitarian agencies like the UN, Oxfam, World Vision and Save the Children continue to play a significant role in the delivery of the humanitarian response to the Syrian quagmire. However, new thinking is also necessary in diversifying the allocation of aid money as well as supporting the implementation of SC resolution 2191 as ways to effectively access areas within Syria given the vast scale and rapidly changing nature of the conflict.

In uncertain times citizens crave even basic levels of stability. Sadly, there remains a very real need to continue life-saving essential support to millions within Syria and regionally. The additional focus of the international community and the UN on development and resilience initiatives inside Syria and for refugees can also hopefully contribute to increasing levels of stability and normalcy for the all too many people affected by this conflict.