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Increasing aid access into Syria – building confidence, cooperation & security

“A step change in access is still required that will make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who suffer in the Syrian Arab Republic.”         UN Secretary General, 21 August 2014

The UN now having the ability to enter Syria without Syrian government permission is a huge breakthrough but the humanitarian situation is still catastrophic - now we need to build on that breakthrough so more civilians in Syria, without discrimination, are protected. 

How can we do that and who can assist?

One aim must be to increase the time international humanitarian workers are doing their vital work inside Syria. To be secure & effective, this should entail regular coordination between the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), International NGOs already doing cross border work with Syrian implementation partners and - most importantly - influential Syrian contacts who have the trust of Syrian community leaders, Syrian civil society groups, Syrian political groups and opposition armed groups inside Syria. 

For practical purposes, it may make sense to initially limit such mapping, engagement and coordination work to a small, defined area where the UN is already entering Syria without the Syrian government’s permission. A coordinated and inclusive approach based on international humanitarian principles, if managed and resourced properly, can greatly help contribute to confidence building and security for aid workers and civilians in such a designated area - this shouldn't be underestimated. 

The areas leading out from Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam crossing points in the north of the country would seem a practical choice given that the UN already has access there and given that the Syrian government doesn’t control these crossings and doesn’t have any officials or ground forces there to block convoys. 

Confidence building is vital for more effective and more secure aid operations. 

There are many misconceptions among some Syrian’s who sometimes view the UN and international NGOs with a sceptical and even conspiratorial eye. If OCHA can harmonise operations with a broad range of Syrian grassroots actors and – importantly - deliver tangible and impactful results for the local populations, they can also build confidence and broader acceptance within local communities, armed groups and others. It will also set a good example for selling such an approach within other areas in northern Syria if the UN seeks to - and is able to - access Syria through other crossing points later on.  

The main indicators of success needed to help build confidence would need to be OCHA’s own humanitarian indicators. This means many local actors undergoing a shift in perception over what they view and prioritise as success – i.e., not just who controls which checkpoint or road or frontline, but whether more Syrians are receiving - at the minimum - adequate food, shelter and medicine. It will be difficult for even the most hardened opposition armed fighter or their funders and facilitators, to object to a proposition which clearly prioritises civilian protection needs – especially if Syrian civilians and civil society themselves are actively & publicly promoting the importance of increased UN led aid access.

Now of course Syrians didn’t peacefully rise up three and a half years ago to get food and medicine hand-outs but we are in a very different reality now – Assad’s relentless brutality and the spiralling conflict has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and numerous security vacuums across the country. But also, achieving and securing deeper rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly needs to be built on the sustainable protection of basic human rights – this starts with the right to life, food and health. These are essential for human security and regional security. 

No Syrian groups have the capacity or skills yet to lead a truly coordinated aid response 

OCHA are much better placed to lead on such coordination - whether it is ad-hoc or not, so I’d say to any Syrians discomforted by this (and there are many) to put aside any residual doubts or beliefs that such operations must always be ‘Syrian led’. It really would be an own-goal if, after rightly demanding the international community “do something” to help civilians in Syria, some Syrians chose to stand in the way of these efforts. 

Syrian groups and key influencers certainly have a crucial and equal part to play of course, especially in mapping their contacts and networks to facilitate engagement and trust building with international aid access partners and to help increase coordination in a truly joined-up approach. If such an approach works we should see aid workers spending much more time inside designated parts of the country and even developing new humanitarian hubs - from here we can begin to perceive the building blocks of reconstruction, development and a better enjoyment of more rights among the Syrian people - but I don't want to get ahead of myself too far yet.

I also see such an aid operation being seperate from the aid operations which emanate from Damascus under the increasingly bureaucratic oversight of the Syrian government. The Syrian authorities may object to such a proposal which does not include them, they may say this is 'politicisation' of aid, but this is purely an attempt to help better implement UNSC resolutions 2139 and 2165. These important resolutions authorise UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners "to use routes across conflict lines and the border crossings of Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa, Al Yarubiyah and Al-Ramtha, in addition to those already in use, in order to ensure that humanitarian assistance, reaches people in need throughout Syria through the most direct routes".

Next steps?

I recently returned from the south of Turkey where I had several fruitful meetings and discussions on the issue of increasing aid access and filling security vacuums. There is a good level of understanding and acceptance of well-coordinated aid access between Syrian opposition actors and internationals being a necessary way forward, especially for those areas outside government control. Initial discussions on establishing a coordination mechanism were held with contacts in the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), Syrian grassroots contacts from inside Syria and UN representatives. Many more will be needed to operationalise such an approach involving many Syrian representatives with divergent political, military and social outlooks. If they can all agree on prioritising civilian protection needs based on clear international humanitarian indicators then we will be making huge progress.  

There are of course challenges (legal, political, ideological & logistical) and risks from some still hostile Syrian opposition groups, ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra and of course the Syria government. But the approach I’ve outlined here is designed to help mitigate many of those risks by ensuring grassroots buy-in for greater humanitarian access for longer periods and in ever-widening areas with security generated partly through local agreement & acceptance. It would be a massive backwards step if any opposition forces, imitating Syrian government forces, started imposing bureaucratic restrictions or making aid delivery more insecure than it already is. This would certainly be highlighted by Damascus and also by human rights organisations and the UN. Now is a time to think long-term, build on UN Security Council resolution 2139 and 2165 and protect, in a secure way, more Syrian civilians. Indeed, if civilians themselves are experiencing the benefits of increased aid access, and those positives are being amplified by Syrian civill society groups, it will be difficult, especially for armed group representatives, to stand in the way of this. 

On a final point, it’s instructive to remember that just a few months ago many were saying there were credible reasons to believe the UN would not get international agreement to enter Syria without government permission. Well the doubters were wrong. The same “realists” will also say it’s far fetched to think that aid access and delivery could be increased and for longer periods of time in a contiguous area genuinely outside the control of the Syrian government (or of ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra). I disagree.

My hope is that we see effective and scaled-up aid access. That delivery is expanded and the conditions for development are created as local forces and those with influence on them, especially the local communities; agree that increased and sustained aid access is actually a good thing. Hopefully we will now start seeing a much more established and coordinated mechanism & response between internationals and influential Syrian civil society actors which facilitates this aim.  


Kristyan Benedict is on Twitter as @KreaseChan


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