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US Leads Struggle to Avert Humanitarian Disaster in Syria

Delegates from 60 nations gathered in Kuwait to consider increased pledges for U.N. humanitarian aid for more than five million civilian victims of the Syria conflict, January 30, 2013.
President Barack Obama announced this week that the United States will increase aid to Syrian war victims by $155 million.

The aid package was presented Wednesday at an international humanitarian conference for Syria chaired by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The U.N. asked the 60 nations attending the conference in Kuwait to contribute $1.5 billion for operations over the next six months.

The president’s announcement brings the total of U.S. humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and those displaced inside Syria to $365 million since the crisis began 22 months ago. The total is the largest amount pledged by any single country and is slightly higher than amounts pledged by all European Union donors combined.

Debate is growing, however, over how to reach the homeless and needy inside Syria, a number now estimated to be 4.5 million.

Humanitarian conditions within Syria ‘catastrophic’

The humanitarian situation inside Syria is already catastrophic,” said Valerie Amos, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA). “Four million people are facing unrelenting violence and violations of their human rights, and we continue to see the terrible damage being caused by heavy weapons used in urban centers.”

Donors and international agencies are now debating the effectiveness of what many now call the most complex and dangerous humanitarian emergency in the world.

Among other questions, the debate centers on where the aid funds should go and how to deliver assistance to civilians in areas controlled by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“Currently, the lion's share … is going to the 650,000-plus who have fled the country,” according to a paper published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The study was written by regional experts David Pollock and Andrew Tabler.

The regime's recent strategy seems to be the deliberate destruction and depopulation of selected major urban and suburban areas
David Pollock & Andrew Tabler
That trend is now shifting with the president’s announcement of additional assistance for the homeless and needy inside Syria. The new U.S. funding for 2013 showed increased attention to Syria’s displaced: $64 million compared to $99 million for refugee assistance for the region as a whole.

But according to Tabler and Pollock, delivering that assistance inside Syria will be difficult so long as the Assad government controls who gets it.

“The regime's recent strategy seems to be the deliberate destruction and depopulation of selected major urban and suburban areas precisely in order to starve and terrorize their populations into submission,” they warned.

‘Humanitarian policy is a mess’

“I would say humanitarian policy … inside Syria is a mess,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar. Shaikh calls conditions inside Syria “a real humanitarian disaster.”

The problem, Shaikh says, is that because the Assad regime is the still the government of Syria, the United Nations is still trying to deliver assistance through Syrian government agencies.

Because of this, some donor nations are discussing alternative ways to deliver aid.

“There is a clear need for the international community to really think realistically, creatively and with purpose about humanitarian policy that actually works,” says Shaikh. “Otherwise, I’m afraid we will see a worsening humanitarian crisis…”

This is the largest, most complex and perhaps most dangerous crisis we are facing
Kelly Clements, U.S. State Department
Despite all of the words of encouragement from the world community, Shaikh said that after almost two years of civil war, Syrians are losing hope about the arrival of humanitarian aid.

“There is a perception inside Syria the international community has failed to protect civilians and now - given the dire human situation - that the international community is failing again just to keep them alive…,” he said.

Management challenges for Syrian aid delivery

Despite the difficulties, U.S. officials say aid is still getting through.

“This is the largest, most complex and perhaps most dangerous crisis we are facing,” said Kelly Clements, deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. State Department’s Population, Refugee and Migration Bureau.

Assistance projects supplied by the United States and other donors are carried out by partners in major U.N. agencies and among “a broad range of non-governmental organizations,” Clements explained. She added that the assistance is getting through to both government-controlled as well as 'contested areas…'”

Amos of the U.N.’s assistance coordinating office agrees, estimating that 49 percent of the food aid assistance had been successfully delivered in contested areas, which she said is evidence that some of the aid gets through to the toughest places.

How to avoid working through the Assad regime

Even so, the study by Pollock and Tabler listed several possible ways to get around Syrian government restrictions on humanitarian aid. One possibility they cited was Doctors Without Borders, the international assistance group that has set up a few clandestine clinics in rebel-held northern areas of Syria. Another is the Syrian-American Medical Society that raised $2.5 million last year in grants for Syrian medical missions and sent 23 doctors and medical technicians to work inside Syria.

If (U.S. leadership) is not forthcoming I’m afraid we are likely to see Syria become the failed state everyone has been warning about
Salman Shaikh, Brookings Institution
However the assistance is delivered, the U.S. government remains the biggest donor and the biggest factor in setting new humanitarian aid policy in Syria, says Brooking’s Shaikh. He calls for even greater U.S. involvement in the political, military, economic and humanitarian aspects of the situation in Syria.

“If that is not forthcoming I’m afraid we are likely to see Syria become the failed state everyone has been warning about,” Shaikh concluded.