Humanitarian Groups Warn Against Direct Aid to Syrian Rebels

The Obama administration is weighing proposals to channel humanitarian aid directly to the Syrian opposition. This “Plan B” for Syria already has supporters in US Congress and was given a boost last week by Marc Lynch in a Center for a New American Security policy brief.  The Washington Post reported yesterday that the administration is strongly considering the merits of providing direct humanitarian assistance to rebel groups in order to prop up those groups it favors.

Humanitarian aid organizations, however, are expressing deep reservations about this strategy.

“This is the wrong approach,” says one aid expert for a humanitarian relief organization working in Syria that receives funding from USAID. “The ability of US-backed humanitarian actors to get aid into Syria depends on us being an impartial actor and responding to real needs.”

The concerns are manifold. If the Assad government considers humanitarian relief to be a front for an American military agenda, humanitarian organizations will be barred from the country; or worse: targeted as part of a military campaign. Also, channeling food, medicine, and blankets directly to rebel groups in Syria for the expressed goal of boosting the legitimacy of one group over another could mean that aid becomes something over which various rebel factions will fight.

“Who gets credit for aid is heavily politicized and people get killed for it,” says the aid worker. He argues that determining aid recipients by their political affiliation is an impractical way to deliver aid. Should aid groups act as the tip of the spear of an American-led charge to pick favorites, they may become targets in inter-nicene battles and cease operations.

“It is very tempting in the course of a war that aid be used for political ends, especially when diplomacy is not working and external military intervention is off the table,” says Sam Worthington CEO of the NGO umbrella group InterAction. “Our concern is that the broader UN and NGO humanitarian effort already in place will also become politicized. A limited yet very important humanitarian assistance operation happening in the country could be jeopardized if there is a perception that aid is another instrament of conflict.”

The principle of neutrality is sacrosanct in the humanitarian community not only for the basic moral reason that a hungry child suffering in Assad controlled territory is as much deserving of PlumpyNut as a child suffering in rebel territory. Rather, neutrality in word and deed is a pragmatic solution to operating in challenging war zones. If humanitarian relief workers are seen as serving ends beyond feeding starving people, they will be barred from accessing populations in need.  That is what makes proposals to harness aid for extraneous purposes so dangerous.

“When we have seen aid extensively politicized, the humanitarian window does begin to close,” says Sam Worthington. “Our fear is that this will impact peoples’ lives.”