The Politicization of Aid in Syria

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Jon Alterman: Dr. Carsten Wieland is a German diplomat, the senior Middle East adviser for Germany’s Green Party Parliamentary Group, and an associate fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. He is speaking to us today in his personal capacity, and his latest book is Syria and the Neutrality Trap, released in May 2021. Carsten, welcome to Babel.

Carsten Wieland: Thank you, Jon, for having me here.

Jon Alterman: What's the neutrality trap?

Carsten Wieland: Well, the neutrality trap is that people who decide about the funding for humanitarian deliveries in donor countries—in ministries—are faced with a dilemma. We all have a firewall between the political people in an institution and the humanitarian ones. There's this notion that politics spoils humanitarian purity. You have a case in Syria where the international practice is that humanitarian aid goes through governments, but you also have a government that is responsible—to a large extent—for the humanitarian disaster that is happening on the ground. It gets a big chunk of humanitarian aid delivered through its government. You ask yourself, “is that something that this international practice was made for?”

The humanitarian deliveries—especially in the first years of the conflict—were very difficult. This government besieged areas and made besieging and starving a part of its warfare. Now, in this case the small NGOs that worked in cross-border aid in the north and reached areas where the bombs were falling were not considered neutral by many donors in the first years of the conflict because they were working with the rebels. They were considered political. It was much easier for any kind of auditing board controlling money flows in our Western countries to spend the money with the United Nations and with the United Nations’ humanitarian deliveries, but where the money went—how the UN operated in Syria—was much less a topic of discussion. Now you end up in the neutrality trap. You don't want to be political. You want to be neutral, and you want to adhere to the international practice of neutrality. In the end, you end up financing a government that is responsible for most of the destruction through humanitarian deliveries.

Jon Alterman: So, rather than relieving humanitarian suffering, you're reinforcing the abuse. What percentage of humanitarian assistance to Syria now goes through the government in Damascus?

Carsten Wieland: It has changed throughout the years, but there were years where almost 90 percent of humanitarian deliveries went through Damascus. If you look at the statistics from the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the government is responsible for more than 90 percent of the civilian deaths as well, so you have a mismatch here. In some areas, only 1 percent of the aid went through to besieged areas in the difficult years—in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Nowadays in Idlib, most of the aid comes from cross-border operations because the government doesn’t allow cross-line operations. Why are cross-border operations necessary in the first place? Because cross line operations don’t work. There are 4 million people in Idlib. Many of them have been displaced various times in the recent years, and 3 million of them are in need. This is mostly done through cross border delivery.

Jon Alterman: And cross-border is aid that comes in through Turkey to help people, so it doesn't have to go through a government in Damascus that many people in the Idlib area either see themselves hostile to, or threatened by.

Carsten Wieland: Yes, indeed it goes through Turkey. Basically, the government of Syria doesn't control those borders anymore, so there are controversial issues here. First of all, a government in place like the Syrian government claims that it has the right to deny cross-border delivery—because of course this government is not interested in feeding those people that they're fighting. On the other hand, in humanitarian legal discussions, there is a strong view that in the progressive humanitarian and international humanitarian law, you don't even have to ask a government for its consent when there are massive humanitarian sufferings or massive violation of human rights occurring. Still, the international practice is that the UN Security Council needs to approve cross border delivery, so that's the first controversy. It’s easier to adhere to this international practice—as it has been in the past decades—and to deliver the big chunk through government than to opt for cross-border operations because then you need the Security Council. It was three years into the conflict in Syria—2014—when the first cross-border resolution was passed, so there were three years of humanitarian suffering without cross-border in the first place. Then this cross-border resolution has been challenged in the Security Council several times, especially by Russia and China, and it will be challenged again on July 10.

So, the question is: is the UN allowed to deliver cross border beyond July 10, or will this practice end? In this case, there will be a lot of people who are not reached anymore—especially in Idlib. And the other question that is interesting is: will NGO's or bilateral humanitarian aid be able to compensate the loss of the United Nations' cross-border deliveries? Most experts say by far that it's not possible.

Jon Alterman: What has the trajectory of the humanitarian response in Syria looked like over the last 10 years? Has the government learned more than the NGOs have? Has the government learned more than the donor governments have learned? How has this unfolded? Humanitarian assistance is traditionally for acute problems, and this is an acute problem that's lasted more than a decade.

Carsten Wieland: There have been developments throughout the years. The United Nations in the first place made a crucial decision to stay in Syria and to operate under the conditions that the government imposed on them—and the conditions were quite tough. They needed to register with the government. They can only work together with partners or NGOs that are under the so-called Syria Trust that is run by Bashar al-Assad’s wife. There is a whole system where the Syrian government is refeeding that money into its own machinery, and thus it is also ending up in its own war.

There are cases in conflicts where governments have pushed out the United Nations—have tried to get rid of the United Nations or international workers on its ground. In Syria, it was the opposite. It was an important, valuable resource to have UN activity on Syrian ground. On the one hand, it was valuable because of the money. There is a regulation in Syria that only 10 percent of humanitarian deliveries can be imported from abroad, and the rest is delivered by Syrian businessmen who in turn have to pay a percentage to the Assad government again.

Secondly, another resource was legitimacy, and international activity on your ground is a source of legitimacy because you can say, “look, we are cooperating with the UN. The UN is in our country now.” Legitimacy is important, and that's why the government really had a high interest that the United Nations stay in Syria. The question is: what would have happened if the United Nations had said, “well, I think the real damage and humanitarian suffering is actually taking place out of your control, and if you don't allow us to really reach the needy—if you don't allow us to deliver principled humanitarian aid—we will pull out all together. That would have been the radical option. I know that there are a lot of difficulties and problems in pursuing this option but perhaps it is also a matter of how hard humanitarian actors negotiate.

For example, in Bosnia in 1993, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stopped all its deliveries—all of a sudden—to all the parties because they were obstructing humanitarian aid. That caused a huge uproar, but in the end, the parties gave in and said, “Okay. Okay. We will let the trucks cross through the truck checkpoints again. We will let this humanitarian aid be unloaded.” I have never heard that from Syria, and to the contrary there are years where only 10 percent of the demanded or requested aid got through to the needy. It’s a tradeoff. Those who say we cannot leave Syria altogether also have a point, because a lot of other people would then suffer, right? It's a huge dilemma. In the end, it's a dilemma that shows that when a conflict is escalated to such a degree with a government that does not show any particular responsibility for its people, you see that humanitarians are carrying the load of that warfare when political actors fail to find a solution.

Jon Alterman: This is your third book about Syria. You understand the Syrian government from before the war started in 2011 better than almost anybody. What of this story is specific to Syria and what parts of the experience of the last 10 years do you think humanitarians should generalize as they think about conflicts elsewhere?

Carsten Wieland: Some of the patterns are not specific to Syria. One thing that is specific to Syria is the scale—the large scale of deaths, suffering, and destruction—and the larger asymmetry of the conflict. There is a responsibility under international law for the government to protect its citizens and population. There is also not only how many people died, but also how they died—in torture chambers. The humanitarian disaster and suffering was just immense.

Another interesting aspect about this conflict is the timing in which it happened. We had all this experience before—military intervention in Iraq and the Arab Spring—where the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) had a heyday. Then came the intervention in Libya that overstepped its mandate.

Russia—and others who fear to be at the receiving end of that responsibility at some point—have counteracted all of these developments. They are afraid of a gradual shift in international law towards their disadvantage—towards a possibility to intervene on behalf of people who are suffering human rights violations and humanitarian suffering. In the Syria context, R2P has been buried under the rubble. R2P hardly plays a role. There is no appetite to intervene on behalf of people. In Iraq, we had no fly zones for the Kurdish areas in the north. Nothing of that kind has happened in Syria. It was a bad timing. International law is now shifting. The goalpost is shifting.

There is even the controversy that you don’t even need to ask a country to allow cross border delivery, but now, you have Russia, China, Syria, and allies—Venezuela, North Korea, and others—who try to question consensual language and consensual principles in international law. In UN Human Rights Council documents and conclusions, things are very often turned backwards. They don't talk about the “consent of a government” to allow cross-border aid. They now call it the “full consent of a government.” It's nonsense semantically, but you know where this is heading.

We have to take care not to allow this goalpost to shift further and further into the corner. We have to pull it back into the center, and say, “look, we have had the Geneva Conventions and even Syria is part of its signatories. We have hundreds of years of international law.” We are in an era where multilateralism, international norms have not been very highly respected, and the outcry against their violations have been lower and lesser than in other conflicts.

Now this is a challenge that goes far beyond Syria, but Syria could be—because of its massive scale—a trigger to think about lessons learned, if international practice should be continued as it is, and what operational recommendations one could take from this disaster in Syria.

Jon Alterman: One of the complexities of the conflict in Syria is it's not just a conflict between the government and part of the population, but there's a terrorist element that has been at play for many years. You could argue about whether it's exacerbated by one side or the other, but it certainly creates problems for humanitarians who—in many cases—would have to deal with designated terrorist organizations to deliver assistance to different populations. In the area of Idlib, the government is controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which has its roots al Qaeda. How should humanitarian organizations deal with not just governments that are repressive, but terrorist groups that in some cases are integrated with the opposition?

Carsten Wieland: The humanitarian problems have occurred at a time when the radicalization was not at its height, as it is now. This problem was there first. It was an upheaval that was civilian and was not armed in the first place, but then it radicalized, it militarized and—as you say correctly—we have many conflicts and sub-conflicts in Syria far away from the original conflict: the government against large parts of its population who wanted better governance.

The responsibilities of governments are higher and stronger than those of non-state actors. However, progressive international law is also putting a burden on those actors, and they do also have certain obligations, although they're not as hard and they don't reach as far as the government's. Nowadays, as the sub-conflicts and variety of conflicts have mutated into what we are seeing now in Syria, we do have pressure on humanitarian work in those areas and the Commission of Inquiry has stated that all sides have committed humanitarian war crimes. This is not something that only the government has to deal with.

You have a wide spectrum of opposition: those who are more moderate, those who are sitting in Geneva in the stalled political process, and then you have those on the ground—the groups that have radicalized under these circumstances. However, if you look at the scale—where the great chunk of humanitarian resources is flowing and how these humanitarian deliveries are handled—you will see that there is a huge asymmetry as well.

The government has an apparatus that has a lot of advantages and a lot more resources than the other side. When it comes to international humanitarian and human rights law, what the government's doing is much more significant, also with its potential to change the interpretation and practice of these international rules and regulations.

Jon Alterman: The Russian government has used the terrorist threat to justify much of what it does in Syria. We have the exploration of Security Council permission for cross-border assistance coming on July 10. You are a career diplomat. How do you think Western countries should deal with the Russian position on Syria and Russian influence in Syria? Coming up in the Security Council, what should diplomats, be doing both immediately before that vote and immediately after the vote?

Carsten Wieland: I think it is important to note that humanitarian aid is not tradable; it's not transactional; it's principled. You cannot start trading humanitarian access or cross-border delivery. It’s a very difficult dilemma, especially for the people suffering. But when we start letting ourselves be pushed into a corner where we have to trade humanitarian access with non-humanitarian services, I think then that we are losing this battle because the battle is already there in that we are asking a government for permission in a situation that is so dire that many experts of international law would say that you wouldn't even have to ask it and we do that—we still do ask them. And we have this situation in the Security Council.

Now, we cannot let this goalpost shift and shift evermore. Don't trade humanitarian aid. Try to learn from the mistakes made on the ground in Syria shouldering up with partners in Syria that were not really humanitarian and employing government family members in UN ranks—all this has happened in Syria. These are practices that have caused controversial reaction and criticism, and the UN has had to adjust and to react, and that's why they started to draft the parameters and principles on how to deliver humanitarian aid in Syria. But this is a paper—you have to put it into practice through this vote in the Security Council again now. Diplomats always have to find compromises, but we always have to remember that these are principles from the Geneva Conventions. We are living in an international environment where we still adhere to multilateralism, in some ways. If you give away these pillars of international principles and law, we will find ourselves on a slippery slope, which was even worse than the neutrality trap.

On the one hand, what they should do is insist on the border crossings to remain open, to deliver humanitarian aid by the UN. Beyond that, I think all the channels are open. You have also different camps on the Russian side. Their political minds are always interested in a “dialogue” on Syria, but something that I think most Western countries have rejected is the normalization discourse on Syria, hearing, “Well, now everything is normal, the war is over. Now, you can start reconstruction, and we don't need cross border any longer.”

I think this is something to resist because, as we remember, the Syrian government has not really engaged constructively in the Geneva process, and there has not been an inch of political reform and movement in Syria. It's not about regime change, and I know that the government in Damascus fears—even the political process in Geneva to be—regime change with other means or something similar; I think it is far from that. If there is no unlocking of the political process, this would entail an improvement of the humanitarian situation and of the human rights situation. Then, there is no discussion of normalization as somehow plausible and logical in Syria because it's just not normal.

We have a situation where 90 percent of the Syrian population is living under the poverty line, and this is in the so-called “peace time” of Assad. Bashar al-Assad is still young as a president. He will probably not see this country be united and rulable again, so what is his alternative? His fear is that he gives away his entire power if he does the first small step, so that he's getting into something that he cannot resist and stop any longer. I think this is not the case. I think there are many Syrians on both sides of the aisle who would hope that this country will turn into a country that is governed in a different way. And lots of Syrians would be happy to return, and others, of course, would not, but there are Syrians who would like to return to a country where they are safe. And these are human rights protection issues and humanitarian issues at the table. It's not regime change issues at the table. You know, what Syrians want right now from this government is protection. It’s return.

It’s property rights, et cetera. It’s not regime change. They're tired of war. But we don't have any progress in Geneva, and that and normalization discourse is hard to understand for many Syrians.

Jon Alterman: Carsten Wieland, thank you very much for joining us on Babel.

Carsten Wieland: Thank you very much for having me, Jon.