BEIRUT –Nearly three years ago, the Syrian government gave international aid organization Mercy Corps an ultimatum – stop working in rebel-held areas of the country or leave Syria. So in April 2014, Mercy Corps closed its base in Damascus, shifting the focus of its Syria operation to southern Turkey, where it had been doing cross-border aid deliveries to opposition-held areas since 2012.
From its base in Gaziantep, a Turkish town on Syria’s northern border, Mercy Corps was able to provide humanitarian assistance to roughly 360,000 people in Syria each month. But on Wednesday, the Turkish government revoked the aid group’s registration, forcing Mercy Corps to shut down all operations in the country and lay off 200 Turkish staff members.
“There are many other things we have to do in order to wind down responsibly. We expect that process to be complete in a matter of weeks,” said Christine Bragale, Mercy Corps’ director of media relations.
In November 2016, following an attempted coup against the government in Ankara, Turkish authorities issued an executive decree ordering some 375 NGOs to permanently halt their operations in what Amnesty International called a “systematic attempt by the Turkish authorities to permanently silence all critical voices.”
It is still unclear if the decision to revoke Mercy Corps’ permits are rooted in Ankara’s national and geopolitical interests, or a snub at the aid agency’s funding sources. While Mercy Corps receives funding from U.K. and E.U., a large portion comes from U.S. entities like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The closure comes as Turkey and the U.S. are increasingly embroiled in the war in Syria, where Washington and Ankara have diverging interests. The U.S. is allied with the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters, which Turkey has vowed to target in an effort to push Kurdish forces away from its border. Tensions increased last week, when the Manbij Military Council, part of the SDF, agreed to a deal that would see Syrian government forces act as a buffer between Kurdish forces and Turkish-backed rebels hoping to seize the city of Manbij.
Syria Deeply spoke with Bragale about Mercy Corps’ plan to continue humanitarian operations in Syria and the broader issue of the Ankara government’s recent crackdown on aid organizations inside Turkey.
Syria Deeply: Who will be most affected by the suspension of Mercy Corps’ operations in Turkey?
Christine Bragale: Most affected will be the hundreds of thousands of innocent people who depend on our assistance, in Syria and in Turkey. Our humanitarian operations managed from Turkey reach about 360,000 people in Syria each month. Our range of social services and other emergency assistance in Turkey, reached about 100,000 Syrian and Turkish men, women and children in 2016 alone. We are working as quickly as possible to identify local organizations that can take over our programs in Turkey. We are very proud of the meaningful work and impact we have had in Turkish communities, and we want this important work to continue.
Syria Deeply: How will Mercy Corps continue its Syria operations?
Bragale: Our Syria operations will continue and our priority right now is to limit any adverse effect our departure from Turkey may have on the thousands of innocent people who depend on our assistance. Our work across Syria consists primarily of deliveries of humanitarian supplies such as flour for bakeries, food, hygiene kits, blankets and other essential household items. We are working closely with our donors and partners to find the most effective way of reaching the people we were reaching from Turkey by other means.
Syria Deeply: What adjustments or cutbacks will have to be made to Syria operations in light of the shut down?
Bragale: The obvious adjustment is that we will no longer be making deliveries from Turkey into Syria. Our registration in Turkey included permission to make cross-border deliveries into Syria from Turkey. Now that we no longer have the permission, those deliveries have stopped.
Otherwise, we anticipate our operations will continue, and we are working very hard to close any gaps as we finalize our contingency plans.
Syria Deeply: A Turkish government official told Reuters that the decision was “technical” and that Mercy Corps failed to meet certain documentation requirements. Was Mercy Corps made aware of this? Has the government been reception to any dialogue that would see this suspension overturned?
Bragale: We received a formal notice of revocation from Turkish authorities on February 20, but we still have not received an official reason and do not know what it could be. We are deeply committed to continue working in Turkey and to do what we can to resolve this issue and strengthen our partnership. We remain hopeful that the government of Turkey will allow us to return to serve those in critical need.
Syria Deeply: The Turkish government has shut down a number of NGOs recently, citing alleged links to various non-state groups. Does Mercy Corps’ suspension fall into that same category?
Bragale: We can’t speak to the perspective of the Turkish government. We can tell you that, as an impartial humanitarian organization, we maintain a laser focus on finding innocent people who need our help to survive through conflict or after a natural disaster and providing the assistance they need so they can survive through crisis. We do that with utmost impartiality and transparency, in line with humanitarian principles.
Syria Deeply: Is this a telling of an increasingly deteriorating situation for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, particularly as world leaders are increasingly considering safe zones and returning refugees?
Bragale: Next week will mark six years of the crisis in Syria, and the fact remains that innocent civilians are still caught in the crosshairs of conflict. Millions of families in Syria and neighboring countries are living in limbo as they wait for peace and hope for a chance to resume work, school and normal daily life. With no peace in sight, Mercy Corps and other humanitarian agencies and even the United Nations are struggling to keep up with needs that continue to mount.
Establishing safe zones is a political and military decision, and keeping safe zones safe is complicated. For us, the number one consideration must always be the well-being of civilians: they must be protected, and they must be provided with shelter, food, clean water and access to medical care and education. This consideration must always be front and center of any decision-making about safe zones.
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