Operational Impediments Standing in the Way of Principled Humanitarian Response in Syria

The Path Forward is a CSIS Humanitarian Agenda series of reflections from humanitarian organizations on the challenges in food security, disrupted health systems, humanitarian access, civilian protection, and, ultimately, recovery for the Syrian people.

Syria is considered one of the most challenging places in the world to deliver aid. This is due to a complex and volatile security environment, highly complicated humanitarian architecture spanning cross-border and cross-line mechanisms, and myriad other access constraints. Humanitarian organizations require additional support from the U.S. government and other donors to effectively navigate restrictions on aid delivery. The humanitarian nongovernmental organization (NGO) community faces two challenges: (1) host authority-imposed bureaucratic and administrative impediments (BAIs), including overly burdensome and opaque processes around securing, inter alia, NGO registration, work permits, visas, and movement-related permissions, and (2) donor-driven or multilateral counterterrorism measures and sanctions.

Host authority approval of unfettered access to civilians in need remains a major obstacle for NGOs in Syria. Humanitarian actors must obtain permissions for needs assessments and quality monitoring of their programs. They often experience significant delays in procurement lines, directly affecting their ability to reach beneficiaries and the timely implementation of programs.

For instance, humanitarian actors with a presence operating in government-held areas are required to obtain facilitation letters that may take weeks or even months for cross-line movements. In Northeast Syria, NGOs have been continually faced with BAIs associated with the import of medical supplies and equipment in Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) area. Delays and blockages have created concerning gaps in the provision of critical medication and supplies.

To ensure that sufficient medical supplies reach Northeast Syria, NGOs rely upon one fragile supply chain route, which requires navigating a mosaic of bureaucratic challenges. In the last 12 months, the complexities of importing medical supplies through this route have increased due to restrictions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic—which has caused pharmaceutical shipments to be stuck for several months at a time. Delays have caused periodic stock-outs of lifesaving medications such as insulin in health facilities, with NGOs recently reporting that medicines required to support individuals with non-communicable diseases (such as cancer or heart disease) are facing critical shortages in camps.” North East Syria Forum

Significant efforts were made by the NGO community and their donors to overcome host authorities imposed BAIs. However, given the complicated and decentralized nature of negotiating access, it has been extremely challenging to make noticeable progress on this front.

On the other hand, a modest yet promising progress has been achieved collectively to navigate counterterrorism policies and sanctions that constrain the NGO community from implementing programs according to humanitarian principles.

Since the onset of the humanitarian crisis in 2011, humanitarian actors in Syria have struggled to mitigate the consequences of counterterrorism and sanctions policies, regardless of whether they operate in areas controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—the designated terrorist group (DTG) and local de facto authority in northwest Syria—or the government. These impediments often prevent a large segment of the vulnerable population from receiving life-saving assistance while creating a chilling effect across the financial sector, resulting in bank de-risking due to sanctions. Banks and other private sector actors hesitate to conduct business with charities to mitigate risk, even with humanitarian safeguards in place. Many organizations suffer unreasonable bureaucratic requirements by banks, delays in receiving money for their activities, and bank account closures.

In a country where communities depend on agriculture as their primary source of income and where food insecurity is worryingly rising, we’ve had to completely alter the kinds of seeds we purchase because legally, the only entity available to purchase seeds from (the General Organization for Seed Multiplication), uses a bank that is liable under sanctions law . . . Exemptions exist, but they require lengthy application processes, time, and resources that aren’t always available—and taking into consideration the weather-reliant nature of the sector, we’ve seen many agencies have to switch to less advantageous alternatives.

- Nasr Muflahi, AAH Syria Country Director

To address the bank de-risking crisis, the U.S. government should build on existing efforts to educate and bring awareness to the financial sector on safe yet flexible transaction channels that should be made available for humanitarian actors and their beneficiaries. This includes the issuance of public statements of support for relevant humanitarian safeguards in restrictive contexts.

Donor-related counterterrorism and sanctions regulations add complexity to an already difficult situation. Some donors—including the U.S. government—have clauses prohibiting NGOs from providing aid to anyone living in areas controlled by DTGs or suspected of being tied to DTGs. The lack of clarity on some of these clauses puts NGOs at risk of liability. NGOs can request donor-authorized “humanitarian exemptions” or licenses to deliver emergency aid to these areas. However, in waiting for the issuance of the exemption or guidance, NGOs often are confronted with the difficult choice of suspending activities or ending projects. Regardless, these decisions directly impact vulnerable Syrians as they are deprived of the much-needed assistance during the suspension/waiting process.

The U.S. government’s efforts—from the Departments of State and Treasury, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and Congress, among others—to address operational impediments by maintaining humanitarian safeguards in sanctions programs are acknowledged and appreciated by the NGO community. However, these safeguards are not sufficient. Additional action is required to tackle host authority-induced impediments, including using diplomacy to educate and engage authorities in Syria directly or with other donors, to influence improvements to streamline in-country bureaucratic and administrative processes for NGOs.

The U.S. government should integrate humanitarian safeguards, including Office of Foreign Assets Control-specific licenses, into sanctions policies, with clear guidance and terminology for humanitarian actors provided before a policy goes into effect. When designing and implementing humanitarian safeguards, the U.S. government should facilitate a review process in full consultation with the humanitarian NGO community to evaluate and mitigate the negative impact of counterterrorism and sanctions regulations on life-saving assistance.

Burden Sharing Is Necessary to Manage Impediments and Ensure Accountability

As civil society actors, aid agencies expect bureaucratic and administrative processes and comply with local laws and other reasonable requirements. When the impediments become undue or overly burdensome, the NGO community requires additional UN system and donor support. The burden of identifying and implementing solutions to these impediments should not solely fall on frontline aid agencies that heavily shoulder the legal and security-related risks when operating in high-risk environments. Further, NGOs alone are not necessarily best placed to bilaterally engage with various authorities on these issues. Humanitarian NGOs allocate significant human and financial resources to manage BAIs, and they do not typically enjoy the protection and privilege UN agencies have, even though they deliver the vast majority of frontline relief. Research indicates that the best chance of progress is collective efforts across donors, the United Nations, and NGOs to alleviate these challenges.

Exploring efficient options to safely mitigate the risk faced by humanitarian actors in Syria is now more urgent than ever. Solutions must result from continuous collaboration and transparent efforts between states, donors, UN agencies, and NGOs. The longer these restrictive impediments go unresolved, the more humanitarian needs in Syria will grow, further prolonging the pain of conflict.

Mais Balkhi is a program manager for Humanitarian Practice at InterAction in Washington D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Mais Balkhi

Program Manager for Humanitarian Practice, InterAction