The UN’s Syria Aid Dilemma

UN humanitarian agencies face a serious dilemma when delivering aid to Syria.

Most food, medicine and humanitarian supplies comes to Syria through Damascus. It is distributed to people in need via UN agencies, local groups and international NGOs that operate with the consent of the Syrian government. In practice, this results in more aid reaching populations who live in cities and towns controlled by the government as opposed to people who live in areas controlled by rebel groups. Some aid does make it to rebel-held areas, but delivering aid to the rebel controlled cities and towns requires crossing a front line. This, in turn, requires negotiating with the Syrian government and rebel groups on a case-by-case basis. This means that far less aid makes it to rebel held areas.

One solution to this problem might be to deliver aid to directly to rebel held areas by crossing the border. Under this scenario, humanitarian agencies could load up their trucks in Turkey and drive across the border to rebel held towns and cities to deliver aid. This is what the UN would do under normal circumstances, say if it were responding to some natural disaster and was invited by the host government to bring aid in any way possible.

The Assad government has most definitely not consented to this kind of cross border operation and it’s generally considered illegal to cross an international border without the consent of the country you are entering. To be sure, a group of legal scholars last month made a compelling case that the cross border deliver of urgent humanitarian assistance to Syria would be legal under international law and existing Security Council resolutions. But the legal question is a relatively minor complication compared to the practical consequences to ongoing humanitarian operations should the UN mount cross border operations without the consent of the Syrian government.

There is a very real fear that should UN agencies like the WFP, UNICEF and others cross into Syria via Turkey to bring aid to rebel held areas without the consent of the government, the Assad regime would respond by kicking them out of Damascus. That means that the millions of civilian non combatants, women and children who are currently served by relief agencies in areas under the control of the government will go without the food, medicines and vaccinations they need to survive. (And it’s important to remember there are over 6 million IDPs in Syria; the location of a family is no real indication of their political allegiance — not as if one’s politics should determine whether a child gets a meal.)

Even worse, there is no guarantee that the Syrian air force would not target these aid convoys as they deliver aid. Humanitarian agencies would be loathe to deploy a convoy of trucks if there’s a real risk it they will be bombed.

So what can be done? The only practical way to ensure that a maximum number of people receive aid is for the Security Council–namely Russia — to use its influence and compel Assad to consent to the cross border deliver of aid. But Russia does not appear willing to do so. That leaves us in the situation we are in today. Aid arriving via Damascus only flows to rebel held areas at a tickle. But delivering aid directly to rebel held areas without the consent is entirely impractical.

This is a quagmire for which there is no good solution. But at this point it’s likely that delivering aid without the consent of Damascus is both impractical and would have potentially profoundly negative consequences.


Image credit United Nations