On Monday Valerie Amos, the U.N. chief for humanitarian affairs, told the Security Council there were no words to accurately describe the brutality of the Syrian conflict.
On Thursday the United Nations and partners launched a major humanitarian appeal, seeking over $8.4 billion in funds to assist nearly 18 million people in Syria and across the region in 2015.
The request follows the renewal of a resolution allowing cross-border aid delivery in Syria for another 12 months. In July the Security Council authorized U.N. agencies to cross conflict lines using border crossings from Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. It was an unprecedented decision to authorize delivery of aid into the country without the consent of the Syrian government.
According to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), the renewal process for 2015 presents an opportunity to make improvements that will expand the impact of the U.N.’s cross-border efforts and increase their efficacy on the ground.
SAMS has served as an implementing partner for several U.N. agencies, carrying out cross-border shipments under Resolution 2165. Valerie Szybala, author of a new report on SAMS’ experience on the ground, told Syria Deeply about the challenges and the successes that aid workers encountered.
Syria Deeply: What has the U.N.’s cross-border aid measure accomplished?
Szybala: The U.N. cross-border aid measure is an accomplishment. It’s something the humanitarian community was calling for for a long time. Because of the politics of Syria and the makeup of the Security Council, it’s very difficult to get Syria resolutions passed. The previous resolution passed in 2014, Resolution 2139, was an abject failure in terms of parties following the request of the resolution: it was ignored by all parties on the ground. The fact that 2165 was not only passed and contained concrete measures to be taken, but was then acted upon so quickly, which was in large part due to U.N. OCHA pressing forward with convoys immediately so it became a fact on the ground, is a success we don’t take for granted. We see it as a starting point, a building block, and we hope to see it continue to grow.
We were calling for the renewal of the resolution for a period of a year that will give it some time to stabilize. What was passed this week is a good thing. The language of it hasn’t changed much in comparison to Resolution 2165, in terms of the operative paragraphs. Most of the changes we want to see, like funding increase and volume, don’t need a change in the text of the resolution.
Syria Deeply: What are the biggest obstacles to delivering aid? What needs to be improved?
Szybala: There are a lot of things that need to be improved.The amount of aid sent by the U.N. agencies to Syria is low, especially in comparison to the amount sent by other NGOs that have been sending aid across the border since the beginning of the conflict, to reach northern Syria.
It’s in part a challenge of implementation, getting the mechanisms working and getting supplies and stock. The bigger reason behind it is [the lack of] funding for the U.N. agencies. We are seeing donor fatigue because Syria’s needs are so unprecedented.
For the implementing partners like SAMS and other NGOs, the biggest problem is security. The U.N. itself doesn’t send its own employees across the borders with the convoys. It’s all done largely by Syrian NGOS: international NGOs also don’t send their international staff. Syrians are completely responsible for security of the convoys and staff, and there are no measures in place to protect them. The humanitarian community was hoping for a greater degree of protection with U.N. involvement in cross-border aid, but that hasn’t happened.
Syria Deeply: How is aid reaching the people who need it most? And how much of it are they getting?
Szybala: There hasn’t been a change on the ground, certainly not because of the resolution. The people who need aid the most are still not getting aid. The aid access to besieged areas has actually decreased since Resolution 2165 was passed. This is largely due to the Syrian government throwing up new beuracratic obstacles and approving fewer convoys to reach besieged areas, although they never really approved any.
One thing that the U.N. reporting does is it uses “hard to reach areas” without really defining the term. “Hard to reach areas” relates only to the U.N., which has been constrained by the fact that it’s a state-centric institution. It’s struggled with the idea of sovereignty and not going where the government won’t allow it to go. That’s one of the reasons Resolution 2165 was a breakthrough. According to U.N. figures, it’s been able to increase access to hard-to-reach areas. Overall, the U.N. efforts haven’t led to tremendous change. They are small in comparisons to the amount of overall aid that goes in.There have been implementing partners who have reached some of these areas for a long time.
Syria Deeply: The U.N. resolution that passed this week recognized the severity of attacks on health workers, facilities and patients. Have your medical staff been directly targeted?
Szybala: Resolution 2139 was very explicit in calling for the end of targeting of medical workers. For our doctors and medical staff, nothing has changed on the ground: they are still targeted, medical supplies are very difficult to get.
For SAMS, the biggest obstacle to aid delivery is the Syrian government. All of our field hospitals have been directly targeted with airstrikes or hit by barrel bombs on multiple occasions. Our doctors are killed all the time. We had one aid truck hit before it got to the border to pick up U.N. aid. There are movement restrictions with checkpoints etc. SAMS does not work in ISIS-controlled areas; people working in ISIS areas face additional security challenges.
According to the U.N. Secretary General aid report, Medical aid from the U.N. hub in Damascus is routinely removed from convoys because the government won’t let it through, and restricts the type and amount of medical supplies going through. The situation for what remains of the healthcare system in Syria is as dire as it’s ever been.
Syria Deeply: What are your recommendations going forward?
Szybala: SAMs is floating a new concept where the U.N. would designate hospitals as humanitarian locations where medical neturality is enforced.
There are armed groups that have turned former hospitals into military facilities, which is against international humanitarian law, and the Syrian government continues to use it as a rationale for targetting medical facilities.
The primary purpose of this idea is to remove the justification for targeting medical facilities. They would be remotely monitored to ensure they are medical facilities only, and that they aren’t discrimnatory in their treatment, and would potentially involve U.N. peacekeepers on the ground. They would also serve the purpose of increasing trust with Syrians who are too scared to go to the hospital because of the fear of being targeted. If we can reduce the targeting of hospitals, we can help a lot of Syrians.
The U.N. can continue to pass resolutions and we hope it does, but if they are just going to be more ink on paper, and if the majority of these resolutions aren’t followed up on the ground, people are going to continue to die and not be helped. We need to take concrete steps. Civilians are being slaughtered. It can’t be worse than the complete lack of protections for Syrians.
Photo Courtesy of AP Images