Aid convoy heads to Douma, Syria Photo: WFP/Basel Hassan

The White House Turns to the UN to Fight ISIS’ Re-Emergence in Syria. (But Denies it the Funding to Do So)

The White House sought to address some confusion over President Trump’s suggestion yesterday that American troops should quit Syria. The statement released this morning was still somewhat cryptic, but it did unambiguously call on the United Nations to “work towards peace and ensure that ISIS never re-emerges.”

It is worth putting this parenthetical about the UN into the broader context of what the United Nations is doing on the ground in Syria. As it happens, earlier today in Geneva one of the top UN officials on Syria briefed the press on this very topic.

With politics at the Security Council hamstrung over divisions about Syria between the major powers, the UN’s most direct and significant role in Syria has been humanitarian. The UN coordinates the delivery of humanitarian relief in Syria and in neighboring countries to which Syrians have fled. The UN has also helped to broker ad-hoc humanitarian ceasefires on the ground in order for wounded to be evacuated out of battle zones and relief to be sent in.

Still, the international community is not supporting these efforts in ways that are at all commensurate with the needs. At a press briefing in Geneva today, longtime humanitarian official Jan Egeland, who serves as an advisor to the UN in Syria, told reporters that in the first quarter of this year only 7.7% of the required funding for humanitarian operations has been received. This is despite the fact that humanitarian needs have escalated. “Perhaps the number one sign [that things are getting worse] is that more than half a million men women and children have been displaced in the first three months of the year,” he said.

Despite this funding shortfall, the White House announced over the weekend that it was freezing some $200 million in funds meant to support recovery and reconstruction of areas liberated from ISIS.

One of those areas is Raqqa, the former de-factor capitol of the Islamic State. Egeland’s briefing comes just days after twenty five UN humanitarian experts submitted the UN’s first comprehensive needs assessment for the town of Raqqa. Raqqa was liberated last year in a US-backed military campaign and now the international community is looking to the United Nations to help rebuild the city and provide for the basic needs of its residents. Some 100,000 people have returned to Raqqa, despite the fact that it is mostly in ruins. “It is incredible to have a city of nearly 100,000 and nearly no public services,” said Egeland.

There is only one hospital in operation for the entire city, he said.  Unexploded ordinances left over from the military campaign and booby traps left by ISIS continue to kill and maim. Still, according to the needs assessment, Egeland says are another 100,000 people on the outskirts of town waiting to go back to their homes.

The White House statement today calls on the UN to “work towards peace” and ensure that “ISIS never re-emerges.” But even as the UN begins its work to rebuild the former capitol of the Islamic State the UN is still seriously underfunded — in part because of this inexplicable hold on promised American funding.  If funds do not materialize, the UN will be fundamentally hamstrung in their effort. To date, under $400 million of a $3.5 billion humanitarian response plan for Syria has been provided.

If the United States wants the United Nations to play a stepped up role in Syria, including helping to provide basic services and relief to cities and towns liberated from ISIS than the United States and the broader international community are going to need to give the UN the support it needs to get the job done. Demanding that the UN rebuild formerly ISIS held areas while simultaneously freezing promised funds to get that job done is not exactly a recipe for success.