Aiding & Abetting

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On the Limits of Humanitarian Work in Syria

Food is a weapon – a very effective weapon. People don’t cultivate, don’t farm, you cut the road off, then you subjugate them very easily.

Tom Catena

As the Syrian civil war has entered its ninth year, the intensification of hostilities in the last rebel enclave Idlib threatens to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, which had already been designated by the former United Nations (UN) rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein in 2017 as the “worst man-made disaster the world has seen since World War II”.1.“Syria ‘worst man-made disaster since World War II'” : UNOCHA

With a total requirement of $3.4 billion, the international donor conference for the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan was able to collect $2.2 billion for its work in Syria in 2018.2.UNOCHA Syria summary. This amount of donor participation was possible despite the fact that in the recent years those activities attracted a lot of attention due to a number of scandalous reports in the international media. Headlines like “Enabling Assad” or “Aiding Disaster” written by Dr. Annie Sparrow, shed light on the activities of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and its humanitarian departments, which are accused of permitting “the Assad regime to take control of the $30 billion international humanitarian response, using donor funds to skirt sanctions and subsidise the government’s war effort”.3.“Enabling Assad – The UN’S Failure in Syria” : Foreign Affairs4.“Aiding Disaster” : Foreign Affairs5.“How UN Humanitarian Aid Has Propped Up Assad” : Foreign Affairs

What at first appears to be an absolute mismanagement on the part of the active UN affiliates must rather be seen as a consequence of the governance strategy chosen by the OCHA to accomplish this task. In choosing orchestration as the only possible governance approach in Syria, the UN is dependent on fulfilling its task with the assistance of local intermediaries like civil society organisations or NGOs. Although the OCHA and its subordinated humanitarian departments typically coordinate the orchestration of their relief operations with local and international humanitarian organisations, this choice deserves closer consideration in context of Syria’s political system.6.Abbott, Kenneth/Genschel, Philipp/Snidal, Duncan/Zangl, Bernhard. “Orchestration: Global Governance Through Intermediaries”, in: International Organisations as Orchestrators, (Edit.) Kenneth W. Abbott, Philipp Genschl, Duncan Snidal, Bernhard Zangl, Cambridge, pp. 11-13 (2015) Due to its closed authoritarian political system, it is indispensable to consider the intermediaries’ scope of action in context of this authoritarian statehood.7.Lührmann, Anna/Tannenberg, Marcus/Lindberg, I. Staffan. “Regimes of the World (RoW): Opening New Avenues for the Comparative Study of Political Regimes”, in: Politics and Governance, Vol. 6, Issue 1, pp. 60-77 (2018) This raises the crucial question of the extent to which orchestration can still be judged as an optimal governance approach within this authoritarian social space, without the UN abandoning its commitment to neutrality, impartiality and independence. An examination of the orchestration of humanitarian aid in Syria can give us insight into the limits of effective intergovernmental cooperation with authoritarian states and should draw attention to the problem that such an approach to global governance does bear the risk of insufficiently representing the interests of the international community.

This article will therefore first discuss the most important actors with their intended strategies in order to explain the intentions for the choice of orchestration as a governance strategy. In addition to a short introduction to the pathologies of International Organisations (IO) as well as a brief overview of the selected governance approach of orchestration, the problems of humanitarian aid identified by contemporary research in conflict zones is provided. Subsequently, the case of humanitarian aid by the UN in Syria is empirically presented and concluded with some thoughts to the institutional challenges for future UN humanitarian interventions in intrastate conflicts.

The divergence in the UNSC – Actors & preferences

UN Security Council

The limitation of the following analysis to the permanent members of the Security Council is not intended to convey that the votes of the non-permanent members should be attributed a secondary role. Much more, it should be emphasised that the cleavage of the permanent members is sufficient to illuminate the core of the institutional problem. As is generally known, the UN Security Council can only act on important issues of world politics if the vote on the respective resolution has been passed unanimously.8.Chapter V, Article 27 of the United Nations Charter.

Even if a categorisation of the actors into blocks certainly does not claim to reflect the entire complexity of the reality of preferences within the international community, it is possible to group them into two dichotomous coalitions. In this context, the analysis is limited to the perspective of the actors on the cause of the Syrian conflict and their strategies in dealing with the external effects of refugee flows.

In order to facilitate the overview of preferences, a total of three groups of actors are identified for this analysis.

US – UK – France

The NATO members interpreted the events in Syria in 2011 as a popular uprising against the decades-long rule of the Assad regime, which was initially welcomed in the context of the so-called Arab Spring and whose demands for democratisation of the authoritarian system were rhetorically supported.9.“How Assad’s Enemies Gave Up on the Syrian Opposition” : The Century Foundation

However, attention should be paid to the fact that this support for reformation of the Syrian regime cannot necessarily be equated with a call for complete regime change. A closer look at the position of the US reveals that all ambitions for a regime-change in the starting days of the revolution had to give way to a demand for a modification of the behavior of the Assad regime since 2013. Even before the rise of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), the US concentrated primarily on containing radicalised groups. An ambivalent policy under Barack Obama resulted in the decision to only grant military support to rebel groups, if they obliged to use them only against ISIS.10.Sabbour, Omar. “Distancing to protect: the US role in preserving the Syrian regime” Published on OpenDemocracy (22 July 2019) Dr. Michael Karadjis from the University of Western Sydney College describes this decision as the American contribution to Assad’s regime preservation.11.Karadjis, Michael. “Regime preservation: How US policy facilitated Assad’s victory” Published on al-Jumhuriya (8 May 2019

While at the beginning of the uprising the European partners of the USA were still trying to signal a common political approach for their support of the Syrian democracy movement in the diplomatic collective ‘The Friends of Syria’, this support became increasingly regressive with the emergence of radical Islamist groups and heavy military losses on the part of the moderate opposition.12.“Syria’s Fair-weather Friends” : Foreign Affairs

In the face of the aggression of the Assad regime, a credible assessment of the material commitments of the Western powers to political change in Syria must admit that there has been only a limited opportunity for democracy to establish itself throughout the entire country.13.“What the West Got Wrong in Syria” : Foreign Policy

With regard to the external effects of the civil war the actors have responded differently to the refugee flows, with the geographical proximity to Syria as the most decisive factor in the formulation of a respective refugee policy. While until 2016 the US accepted about 18.000 Syrian refugees, France and the UK were exposed to a much higher number of asylum seekers due to Germany’s initially open refugee policy.14.Zong, Jie, and Batalova, Jeanne. “Syrian Refugees in the United States” Published by The Migration Policy Institute (12 January 2017) The propensity of all states to host a certain number of refugees has provoked identity-based politicisation within the population in the European countries, and has enabled the rise of right-wing populist parties, so that the reception of refugees from Syria has in some cases been completely abandoned or combined with strong residual reactions.15.Börzel, Tanja A., and Risse, Thomas. “From the Euro to the Schengen Crisis: European Integration Theories, Politicisation, and Identity Politics”, in: Journal of European Public Policy, 25:1, pp. 83-108 (2017)16.Hudson, Leila. “Syrian Refugees in Europe: Migration Dynamics and Political Challenges”, in: New England Journal of Public Policy, Vol. 30, 2, pp. 1-9 (2018)

Due to their direct exposure to the migratory movements, the European states prefer to combat the causes of displacement in the region, which in the current situation concentrates primarily on providing humanitarian aid.17.European Commission briefing on the migration crisis. Alongside the US as the largest donor at all previous OCHA donation conferences for Syria, the EU has contributed over $3.9 billion Dollar in humanitarian and development assistance since 2011.18.https://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-15-5597_en.htm

Russia – China

From the very beginning of the uprisings, which spread rapidly throughout Syria, Russia and China condemned the protests as a state collapse initiated by western powers in cooperation with Islamic terrorist elements. In particular, the agitations and demands of the radical groups by Russia as well as China are addressed and interpreted as a terrorist undermining of regional stability.19.Trenin, Dmitri. “The Mythical Alliance: Russia’s Syria Policy” Publication by the Carnegie Moscow Center (12 February 2013) Therefore both back Assad’s endurance and highlight the regime as the legitimate sovereign of Syria, which is situated in a state of emergency.20.“Russia and China Provide Cover for Assad’s Syria” : Brookings Op-Ed

Besides its active military as well as economic support for the resilience of the Assad regime, the Russian government is largely involved in financing the OCHA’s efforts all over Syria.21.Trenin, Dmitri. “The Mythical Alliance: Russia’s Syria Policy” Publication by the Carnegie Moscow Center (12 February 2013) Accompanied by a broad network of state-funded relief organisations, these activities are primarily the result of a soft-power strategy to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of internally displaced people in order to convince them of the peaceful intentions of the regime coalition.22.Sosnowski, Marika, and Hastings, Paul. “Exploring Russia’s Humanitarian Intervention in Syria” Publication by the Washington Institute (25 June 2019)23.Strategic Incoherence in Syria” : Foreign AffairsWhile Russia has so far only accommodated just over 7,000 Syrian refugees,24.“Why Syrian refugees don’t go to Russia” : Al-Monitor the refugee flows from Syria serves the Kremlin’s strategy in two respects. As the military engagement of the Russian Air Force since 2015 has killed 6,686 civilians and must therefore be judged as a reason for Syrians to flee,25.“Russian Forces Killed 6,686 Civilians, including 1,928 Children, Since the Start of Their Military Intervention in Syria” : SNHR26.“Safety First in Syria” : Foreign Policy more and more critical voices indicate that the generation of large waves of migration were used by Putin to hamper a unified foreign policy from the EU.27.“Is Russia ‘Weaponizing Refugees’ To Advance Its Geopolitical Goals?” : Radio Free Europe

This becomes especially obvious, since the Russian government openly aligns with right-wing political parties in Europe.28.“An Authoritarian Marriage of Convenience” : International-Review With this relationship it tries to take advantage of the rising resentment against Syrian refugees in the host countries by using its repatriation plans as a vehicle to prepare the European countries for a diplomatic recognition of the Assad regime as the legitimate representative of the Syrian Arab Republic and to encourage them to contribute to tremendous reconstruction costs of the war-torn country.29.“Syrian Refugees Concerned Over Russia’s Repatriation Plan” : reliefweb

With only nine officially recognised Syrian refugees, China is one of the more reluctant hosts for Syrian refugees so far. A decisive factor in China’s attitude is the CCPs leadership’s reference to the Western role in the collapse of the state in Syria. The former Chinese special representative for the Middle East, Wu Sike, claims that the interventionist democratisation policies of the United States in cooperation with western partners is responsible for the so-called refugee crisis and should therefore also be solved by the western states.30.“Why China Isn’t Hosting Syrian Refugees” : Foreign Policy

According to the pro-government newspaper South China Morning Post, the Chinese government is contributing around 130 million dollars to the international humanitarian aid effort.31.“China willing to open its pockets, but not borders, to Middle East refugees” : South China Morning Post

It is important to note that the first group understands the uprisings in the context of a demand by the Syrian people for a liberal understanding of popular sovereignty or self-determination,32.Jürgen, Habermas. “Popular Sovereignty as Procedure”, in: Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics, (Edit.) James Bohman, William Rehg, Cambridge, pp. 35-66 (1997) while the second group considers the actions of the Assad regime more in terms of its right as a sovereign, which reacts to a state of emergency.33.Carl, Schmitt. “Politische Theologie: Vier Kapitel zur Lehre der Souveränität”, Berlin (2009)

Despite a broad divergence in opinions, a preference for the provision of humanitarian aid can be identified as the common denominator of both groups. Apart from the altruistic reasons for this decision, states have several rational intentions when it comes to providing humanitarian aid. On the one hand, humanitarian aid serves as a face-saving element for states, which try to avoid a more active engagement for the solution of the conflict.34.David, Shearer. “Aiding or Abetting? Humanitarian Aid and Its Economic Role in Civil War”, in: Greed & Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars, (Edit.) Mats Berdal, David M. Malone, London, pp. 198 (2000) On the other hand, despite the scientific dubiety of this claim, many politicians hope that the provision of aid in countries affected by crisis will curb large refugee movements.35.Dreher, Alex/Fuchs, Andreas/Langlotz, Sarah. “The Effects of Foreign Aid on Refugee Flows”, in: GLO Discussion Paper, No. 195 (2018) These differences in the actors’ preferences give us an insight into the UN’s limited room for maneuver in which it has to formulate its governance strategy.

Syria

Although the choice of the Syrian Arab Republic under the leadership of the Assad regime appears obvious in the context of the issue, it is important to become aware of some key facts about the actor and his preferences. The credibility Assad attaches to the UN was revealed in his interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters in 2011, in which he with sincerely claims that Syria’s participation in the UN is part of a game.36.“TRANSCRIPT: ABC’s Barbara Walters’ Interview With Syrian President” : ABC News A game from which he tries to draw the maximum possible profit for the authoritarian persistence of his rule. Thus, the regime’s interests in humanitarian aid deliveries to Syria must be seen in the context of its need to accumulate further resources to provide a minimalistic social security system in the territories under its control.

Due to the constant recourse to a sophisticated institutionalised violence is not only the primary cause for most of the civilian victims of the conflict, but also for the large flows of refugees within Syria and to neighboring states.37. Ismail, Salwa. “The Rule of Violence: Subjectivity, Memory and Government in Syria” Cambridge, UK (2018) This is especially true of the regime’s forced displacement tactics, with which it tries to expel oppositional individuals through sheer violence or to re-engineer the demographic composition of certain territories.38.al-Jablawi, Hosam. “Increasing Tactics of Forced Displacement in Syria” Published by the Atlantic Council (6 Oct 2016)

The use of violence against the opposition must therefore be regarded as inherently systemic. Besides the fact that the Syrian Air Force is systematically targeting humanitarian infrastructure and field hospitals in the last rebel enclave in Idlib, those tactics are generally known during the conflict in the context of the deliberately implemented “Surrender or Starve”- strategy, which aims to place the population under collective punishment through sieges.39.Lund, Aron. “The UN Made a List of Hopsitals in Syria. Now They’re Being Bombed.” Published by the Century Foundation (13 June 2019)40.February-April 2018 Siege Watch report on Eastern Ghouta.

Since a state also includes a breathing civilian population, a repatriation of refugees must be judged in the context of the regime’s desire for persistence. Here the regime knows that an active repatriation process of refugees could correlate with its international diplomatic recognition and encourage international participation in the reconstruction of the country.

Despite the fact that there are repeated allegations of repression, forced conscription and arbitrary detention of returnees with at least 1,916 reported cases of arrests between 2014 and August 2019, a massive reflux of Syrian refugees to Syria is not in the interest of the Assad regime.41.“The Syrian Regime Continues to Pose a Violent Barbaric Threat” : SNHR42.“Vengeance, Repression & Fear : Reality behind Assad’s promises to displaced Syrians” : Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (2019) This is not only because of political stigmatisation towards those who fled as traitors or potential terrorist supporters, it’s more for economic reasons.43.Batrawi, Samar, and Uzelac, Ana. “Four ways in which the Syrian regime controls refugee return” Published by the Clingendael Research Institute.

However, the IDPs in particular play a decisive role in the regime’s strategic behavior, as it uses the figures on the internal displaced as a pretext for obtaining financial support from the UN and other independent aid organisations.44.Dalton, Melissa. “Elevating Civilian Protection and Quality Access for Humanitarian Action in Syria” Published by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (25 March 2019

Pathologies of international organisations

Interaction through international organisations has several advantages for states. Among other things, the decisive factors for this cooperation are the pooling of information and resources, the independence in performing tasks as well as the promise for neutrality.45.Abbott, Kenneth W., and Snidal, Duncan. “Why States Act through Formal International Organisations”, in: The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 3-32 (1998) Despite these functional advantages for states, however, it would be too short-sighted to regard IOs as simple agents of the nation states. Depending on the degree of autonomy of the IO, it can also exert a certain degree of power. Michael M. Barnett and Martha Finnemore gave a very comprehensive insight into their actions in “ways unintended and unanticipated by states at their creation”.46.Barnett, Michael N., and Finnemore, Martha. “The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organisations”, in: International Organisation, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp. 699 (1999) A crucial manifestation of power, besides the definition of meanings and categorisations of legal states like the definition of the refugee, is the diffusion and defense of norms. As an example, the principle of sovereignty and statehood can be considered as one of the most binding principles of contemporary state interaction determined by IOs.47.Barnett, Michael N., and Finnemore, Martha. “The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organisations”, in: International Organisation, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp. 713 (1999)

Due to the bureaucratic nature of an IO, however, various pathological behaviour patterns can also develop within the underlying system. In this context, the literature refers to the irrationality of rationalisation, in which an assessment analysis of the respective political or economic environment is omitted and an attempt is made to react with the playbook known from other crises. A well-known example of this problem is the UN’s attempt to prematurely establish elections in civil war countries as a measure of the success of peacekeeping missions. Empirical studies in Bosnia have shown that these elections have led to an intensification of ethnic tensions and not to a long-term pacification of the region. This bureaucratic universalism can therefore bear the risk of exacerbating the conflict in emergency situations or violating the IO’s own principles.48.Barnett, Michael N., and Finnemore, Martha. “The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organisations”, in: International Organisation, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp. 721 (1999)

Sometimes a conflict situation requires the managers of the IO to formulate flexible policies, which could include a deviation from the institution’s own standard procedures. However, these exceptions run the risk of institutionalising themselves over a certain period of time.49.Barnett, Michael N., and Finnemore, Martha. “The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organisations”, in: International Organisation, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp. 721-722 (1999)

The most decisive factor for the analysis of the Syrian case, however, will be the cultural contestation within an IO.50.Barnett, Michael N., and Finnemore, Martha. “The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organisations”, in: International Organisation, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp. 724 (1999) Here the different normative perspectives of the individual member states, which collide during the interaction within an IO, come to effect. In the case of the cleavage of the UN Security Council – especially regarding the confrontation between liberal states and its authoritarian counterparts – it can be assumed that the desire for a decentralisation of the provision of humanitarian aid in cooperation with actors outside state control is opposed to a preference for an authoritarian, state-sanctioned distribution.51.Barnett, Michael N., and Finnemore, Martha. “The Politics, Power, and Pathologies of International Organisations”, in: International Organisation, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp. 724-725 (1999)

Orchestration: A soft form of governance

Since the ability of any UN body to fulfil a task generally depends on a unanimous and clear mandate from the UN Security Council, no direct variant of governance can be implemented in the case of Syria. Hereby the IO is constrained to use alternative models of governance to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid. If there is no possibility for a hard governance approach, like a delegation of tasks to the respective consortium of UN bodies, the UN must resort to the governance approach of orchestration in cooperation with local intermediaries. Moreover, orchestration is therefore identified in the scientific literature as a soft and indirect governance approach, which represents a promising solution for an operation in restrictive terrain in which resources are scarce or a mandate is limited.52.Dai, Xinyuan “Orchestrating Monitoring: The Optimal Adaption of International Organisations”, in: International Organisations as Orchestrators, Cambridge, pp. 140 (2015)

In addition to NGOs, other civil society actors can also be considered as intermediaries to accomplish a certain goal.53.Abbott, Kenneth W., Genschel, Philipp, Snidal, Duncan, Zangl, Bernhard “Orchestration: Global Governance Through Intermediaries”, in: International Organisations as Orchestrators, Cambridge, pp. 4-8 (2015 If potential local partners are available, the IOs confine themselves to delivering material and ideational resources to the intermediaries.54.Dai, Xinyuan “Orchestrating Monitoring: The Optimal Adaption of International Organisations”, in: International Organisations as Orchestrators, Cambridge, pp. 149 (2015)

Abbott et. al. define several conditions that favour orchestration. According to them, this begins with the lack of a clearly formulated mandate to generate resources or to establish a mission of their own. In addition, there must be a sufficient number of local intermediaries with goals similar to those of the UN. Apart from a strong divergence of goals between the member states of the IO, the authors also mention a low level of interest in a comprehensive monitoring process for the pursuit of the performed tasks.55.Abbott, Kenneth W., Genschel, Philipp, Snidal, Duncan, Zangl, Bernhard. “Orchestration: Global Governance Through Intermediaries”, in: International Organisations as Orchestrators, Cambridge, pp. 21-29 (2015)

Xinyuan Dai gives a comprehensive overview of the dimensions in which an orchestration is more likely. For example, less orchestration can be expected in the area of security than in the area of trade or in environmental issues. The most preferable outcome for coordination in soft governance is in the area of human rights, as there is usually a high availability of intermediaries.56.Dai, Xinyuan “Orchestrating Monitoring: The Optimal Adaption of International Organisations”, in: International Organisations as Orchestrators, Cambridge, pp. 149 (2015) Due to the distributive character of the orchestration, there are winners and losers in this process. Who belongs to the beneficiaries within this distribution is determined by the rule maker and depends on the extent to which this rule maker can be sure of a number of rule supporters.57.Mattli, Walter, and Seddon, Jack “Orchestration Along the Pareto Frontier: Winners and Losers, in: International Organisations as Orchestrators, Cambridge, pp. 346 (2015)

Against the backdrop of the large number of reports on the politicisation of humanitarian aid in the Syrian conflict, it is helpful to give a brief overview of the historical phenomenon of a definite mandate by the UN Security Council to delegate humanitarian tasks and to clarify the role of humanitarian aid as a weapon of war.

The idea of preventing humanitarian aid becoming a weapon of war

The end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the bipolar world order favoured direct and coercive intervention strategy. This was accompanied, among other things, by a heightened expectation of a prospect of a global peace order, with the UNSC acting as a focal point for these solutions to violent conflicts and their humanitarian consequences. Alongside Angola, Iraq, Bosnia and Somalia, increased awareness of the humanitarian consequences of such conflicts was established and the concept of humanitarian intervention, based on the principle for the Responsibility to Protect was reinforced.58.Virginia, Haufler. “Orchestrating Peace? Civil Wars, Conflict Minerals and the United Nations Security Council”, in: International Organisations as Orchestrators, (Edit.) Kenneth W. Abbott, Philipp Genschl, Duncan Snidal, Bernhard Zangl, Cambridge, pp. 220-222 (2015) Despite the tragic failure of the mission, the case of kinetic, military intervention in Somalia in 1992 serves as an example of a UN mandate that had foreseen to establish safe havens for the delivery of humanitarian aid that should be secured by military defenses. Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, which originated from UN Resolution 794, can be traced back to the active lobbying of some interventionist NGOs, which demanded a more active role from the US in alleviating the famine at the Horn of Africa. The US-based CARE-International was one of the protagonists of this armed humanitarianism, calling for an international protection force to secure humanitarian aid supplies to the country, which had been shattered by the civil war.

Alongside the humanitarian ventures in the former Yugoslavia, the events in Somalia in 1992-1993 are considered unpopular examples of an armed humanitarian mission. This resulted above all from the high competitive orientation of the NGOs involved and the lack of approval for military intervention by UN troops when militants were attacking the established protection zones.59. Tim, Allen. “War, Genocide and Aid. The Genocide in Rwanda”, in: Dynamics of Violence: Processes of Escalation and De-Escalation in Violent Group Conflicts, (Edit.) Georg Elwert, Stephan Feuchtwang, Dieter Neubert, Berlin, pp. 177-202 (1999) While the leaders of this mission largely refrained from an assessment to determine which operational mistakes led to the disaster, the intention and the institutional arrangement should serve as a blueprint for rectifying the current grievances in the delivery of humanitarian assistance in crisis regions. Although the concept of armed humanitarian aid is rightly condemned by critics as an excuse for geopolitical interests used by great powers,60.Samuel J., Wyatt. “The Responsibility to Protect, Imperialism and Military Intervention in Libya”, in: The Responsibility to Protect and a Cosmopolitan Approach to Human Protection, (Edit.) Samuel J. Wyatt, Hampshire, pp. 177-198 (2018) a decline in the general willingness to intervene since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 will consequently also have an effect to optimise the delivery of this aid in an authoritarian political environment. In this context, this aftermath will lead to a stagnation in the establishment of institutional foundations within the UN, which should ensure that humanitarian relief does not end up as a weapon in the war efforts of violent actors.

The role of humanitarian aid as a driving force of ongoing violence and as an instrument for tactical warfare is comprehensively considered in the contemporary literature of conflict studies.61.Sarah, Lischer. “Collateral Damage: Humanitarian Assistance as a Cause of Conflict”, in: International Security, Vol. 28, Issue 1, pp. 79-109 (2003) In this context, reference is made not only to the fact that humanitarian aid can prolong conflicts under certain conditions, but that it can also become part of the conflict dynamics.62.Reed M., Wood/Christopher, Sullivan. “Doing Harm by Doing Good? The Negative Externalities of Humanitarian Aid Provision during Civil Conflict”, in: Aid DATA, Working Paper 11, (2015)

The misuse of humanitarian aid by a violent actor can be summarised under the following points:

  • Restriction and Control of Access

By controlling access routes or establishing sieges, a warring party denies access to an area with a high humanitarian need. This includes attacks on aid convoys to steal humanitarian aid by force. Control over the influx of humanitarian goods helps depopulate areas or break the will to fight of the respective adversary.

  • Manipulation of population movements

Violent actors use strategic displacement of populations in order to bolster legitimisation of the controlled territory, but also to control the need for humanitarian aid. Delivery of this aid is used as a strategic means to win the hearts and minds of the local civilians.

  • Diversion of Aid

Humanitarian aid is stolen by militants for their own consumption or for expulsion on the black market. Here aid becomes a pure resource in the strategic planning of the conflict party for the reduction of its own war expenditures as well as for the acquisition of further weapons.63.John, Prendergast. “Frontline Diplomacy: Humanitarian Aid and Conflict in Africa”, London, pp. 18-23 (1996)

The OCHA’s orchestration of humanitarian aid in Syria

You are in a country and you have to deliver.

Amin Amad, UNHCR Bureau Director for MENA

For the provision of humanitarian aid in the Syrian conflict, all preconditions defined by Abbott et. al. for the governance approach of orchestration are fulfilled. The strong divergence of actors in the UN Security Council over the handling of the crisis in Syria is reflected in Resolution 2042 of 2012, which refrains from delegating autonomy and authority to OCHA as well as its affiliated bodies. In this resolution, the UN Security Council calls on all parties in Syria to cooperate fully with the humanitarian departments.64.United Nations Security Council. “Resolution 2042, pp. 2-3 (2012)

Without the establishment of a direct delegation of this task via a humanitarian military intervention in cooperation with compliant members of the UNSC, OCHA, as the coordinating body of the UN aid agencies, falls back on the governance approach of orchestration. Normally, OCHA would select a number of local and international intermediaries to act as intermediaries. In the light of its authoritarian system, the Syrian regime instructs the humanitarian organisations that are becoming operational in Syria to do so through the local intermediaries it has selected, such as Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) or the Syrian Trust for Development.65.Haid, Haid. “Principled Aid in Syria A Framework for International Agencies”, in: Chatham House, Middle East and North Africa Programme, pp. 6-7 (2019)

The Syrian Trust for Development became more widely known at the latest since the revelation of the UNs financial donation of $8.5 million.66.“UN pays tens of millions to Assad regime under Syria aid programme” : The Guardian A cooperation that in 2016 was strongly criticised by 70 relief groups, who threatened to suspend their work in Syria if the UN did not stop this cooperation.67.“UN downplays charities’ concerns over Assad government influence on Syrian aid” : Deutsche Welle Founded and run by Syria’s First Lady, Asma al-Assad, the DW has been the focal point of civil society in Syria’s authoritarian social space since the inauguration of Bashar al-Assad.68.Claudie, Fioroni. ““Société Civile”: Et Évolution de L’autoritarisme en Syrie”, in: Graduate Institute Publications Genève, (2011)

In complement to the Trust, SARC acts as the more traditional part of humanitarian organisations with an apparently independent objective.69.The Syrian Campaign. “Taking Sides: The United Nations’ Loss of Impartiality, Independence and Neutrality in Syria”, pp. 30-31 (2016) In reality, the Syrian regime ensures that SARC arranges its internal decision-making on humanitarian affairs according to the wish for authoritarian persistence of the Assad family. This conclusion can be drawn from the facts that SARC is the single branch of the Arab Red Crescent that has to justify to a special Syrian ministry of Arab Crescent affairs and that its president, Abdul Rahman Attar, is a businessman, who owes his wealth to his good connection to the inner core of the regime. The focality of SARC for the OCHA is undeniable because it administered about 60% of the humanitarian aid supplied by the UN within Syria.70.Reinoud, Leenders/Kholoud, Mansour. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War”, in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 233 (2018)

Abdul Rahman Attar

After SARC’s proximity to the Assad regime gradually came under international criticism, OCHA established the so-called “Whole of Syria” approach. The associated resolutions 2139 and 2165 enabled cross-border delivery outside the regime’s total control in cooperation with distribution centers in Syria’s neighbouring states. 71.United Nations Security Council. “Resolution 2165, (2014)

However, the fundamental problem with these cross border deliveries remained that the total volume of aid supplied did not expand as a result of the new approach and that most of the relief was still channelled through Damascus.72.Reinoud, Leenders/Kholoud, Mansour. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War”, in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 245 (2018) In figures, this means that in 2014, with a total volume of $1.2 billion, only $6.5 million was sent to UN aid across the Turkish border, while Damascus received $1 billion.73.“How UN Humanitarian Aid Has Propped Up Assad” : Foreign Affairs At the same time, participation in this cross border delivery means for many INGOs the end of their work in regime-held areas.74.Reinoud, Leenders/Kholoud, Mansour. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War”, in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 244 (2018) Due to the massive recapture of former opposition territories by the Syrian regime, the OCHA recently discussed a lifting of this practice and thus a redeployment to Damascus.75.“Outcry at UN plans to consolidate Syria aid operations in Damascus” : The New Humanitarian

Although it is not necessarily a new phenomenon that authoritarian states are abusing liberal internationalism for their own strategic goals,76.Ian, Hurd. “The Strategic Use of Liberal Internationalism: Libya and the UN Sanctions, 1992-2003”, in: International Organisations, Vol. 59, No. 3, pp. 495-526 (2005) the case of humanitarian supplies from the OCHA to the Assad regime deserves a separate chapter in the playbook of the systematic deprivation of resources provided by the international community to ensure the resilience of an authoritarian state. The research of Reinoud Leenders and Kholoud Mansour offered a comprehensive insight into the way the Syrian regime by “injection of its state sovereignty climbs into the humanitarian aid effort gave it access to critical benefits and resources“.77.Reinoud, Leenders/Kholoud, Mansour. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War”, in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 240 (2018) The government enforced its oversight of this process by a regular reference to UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182 adopted in 1991. The latter stipulates under international law that the delivery of humanitarian aid by the UN is required in close cooperation with the respective sovereign state.78.General Assembly Resolution 46/182: “Strengthening of the coordination of humanitarian emergency assistance of the United Nations” (1991)

Despite the fact that 7.2 million of the 11.7 million people in need currently live in areas regime-held areas, most of whom have had to flee their homes because of food shortages,79.Reinoud, Leenders/Kholoud, Mansour. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War”, in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 245 (2018)80.Haid, Haid. “Principled Aid in Syria A Framework for International Agencies”, in: Chatham House, Middle East and North Africa Programme, pp. 15 (2019) a reference to the sovereignty of the Syrian regime is hardly consistent with empirical reality. This results both from numerous military interventions and occupations of the country by foreign actors, unclear border demarcations and a lack of a monopoly on violence due to the large number of non-state actors with different hierarchies.81. Reinoud, Leenders/Kholoud, Mansour. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War”, in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 256 (2018) Through a constant reference to its state sovereignty, Damascus successively established itself as the rule-maker of orchestration by establishing various control and approval mechanisms for every activity of a UN organisation.82.Haid, Haid. “Principled Aid in Syria A Framework for International Agencies”, in: Chatham House, Middle East and North Africa Programme, pp. 2 (2019)

Thus, the respective authorities had to go through several administrative processes in order to be able to obtain permission to carry out a monitoring mission and to gain access to the respective locations. In many cases, these processes were so time-consuming and non-transparent that many projects could not be accompanied on a permanent basis and as a result many UN funds were channelled to projects that were never implemented. An evaluation of local developments was only possible via the two intermediaries chosen by the regime. For example, the World Food Programme had to coordinate each independent evaluation of the situation with SARC, which then determined when and where these processes could take place.

If the UN identified humanitarian requirements outside the authorities provided by the regime, this had to be submitted to the relevant authorities first. A large proportion of these requests were answered by the regime with alternative proposals.83.“Rigging the System – Government Policies Co-Opt Aid and Reconstruction Funding in Syria” : Human Rights Watch (2019)

For access to Syrian territories, the OCHA was ready to accept almost every rule of engagement demanded by Damascus. This submissive attitude is excused by OCHA with the assertion that it would be better to provide only a small amount of relief instead of having to suspend it completely.84.“Aiding Disaster – How the United Nations’ OCHA Helped Assad and Hurt Syrians in Need” : Foreign Affairs This mindset meant that the UN had to completely dispense with being able to make its own assessments of the humanitarian situation on the ground and thus depending on the manipulated data of the regime. Operations by UN agencies outside the regime-held areas were almost always denied by Assad’s security forces with references to the fragile security situation in rebel territories. In many cases, a direct request was simply ignored, leaving about 75% of all requests unanswered in 2015.85.Haid, Haid. “Principled Aid in Syria A Framework for International Agencies”, in: Chatham House, Middle East and North Africa Programme, pp. 6 (2019) The selection process for the delivery of aid was tied by the Syrian regime to the political sympathies of the local population. The Governorates like Idlib and Raqqa, where the opposition was able to establish a strong foothold, received the smallest amount of international aid since the regime withdrew in 2014.86.Reinoud, Leenders/Kholoud, Mansour. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War”, in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 243 (2018) This one-sided advantage for loyal areas has been normalised over time. In 2018, an internal UN study revealed that the city of Harasta received more rehabilitation support than the city of Douma, although the latter showed a much greater need for humanitarian aid due to the heavy bombing campaign of the Syrian air force. Human Rights Watch attributes this differentiation to the fact that many individuals returning to Harasta were previously accommodated in government-held areas, while many civilians in Douma sympathised with the rebel group Jaish al-Islam.87.“Rigging the System – Government Policies Co-Opt Aid and Reconstruction Funding in Syria” : Human Rights Watch (2019)

Through the restrictive visa processes mentioned above, Syrian authorities were able to prohibit humanitarian aid workers with a critical attitude to the regime from working in Syria and thus exert a strong influence on the composition of humanitarian operation teams.88.“Rigging the System – Government Policies Co-Opt Aid and Reconstruction Funding in Syria” : Human Rights Watch (2019)

Precisely because of this dominance in personnel matters, this one-sided influence went so far that people close to the regime, such as the wife of the deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad, Shukria Mekdad, were employed in the WHO office in Damascus. In general, individuals were preferred who carried out this work for career reasons and were easy to be manipulated for the purpose of shaping internal processes according to the regime’s intentions.89.Reinoud, Leenders/Kholoud, Mansour. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War”, in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 241 (2018)

The limited operational freedom of movement combined with the associated desire for a good relationship with Damascus caused OCHA to allow the regime to have decisive key terms such as “sieges” or “besieged areas” removed from the HRP Plan in 2016. This direct interference led to the result that territories that were actually under the siege of Assad troops fell out of the humanitarian demand request.90.Haid, Haid. “Principled Aid in Syria A Framework for International Agencies”, in: Chatham House, Middle East and North Africa Programme, pp. 8 (2019) A more recent example of OCHA’s acclimatisation to the concerns of the Syrian regime despite a transparent factual situation of a humanitarian disaster in Syria, is the current negotiation of the dissolution of the besieged refugee camp Rukban. Regarding the bad humanitarian situation in the refugee camp and the further strict siege of the Syrian regime, the UN announced its intention in August 2019 to send a mission to the camp to evaluate how many of the 40,000 residents refuse to return to regime-held areas due to fears of harassment or arrests by Assad’s security forces. Because of to the critical attitude of the regime, the UN has so far refrained from making a pledge to provide essential humanitarian supplies to the starved people inside the refugee camp.91.“Syria Daily: UN Mission to Assess Residents in Besieged Rukban Camp, But Concerns Over Coercion To Leave” : EA Worldview Although the existential emergency forces many civilians to give up their resistance and many agree to be deported to government-held areas,92.“Syria Daily: Anger at UN as Another 150 Leave Besieged Rukban Camp” : EA Wordlview47% of the displaced still refused to leave because of fear of detention.93.“Syria Daily: Aid Convoy Finally Reaches Besieged Rukban Camp” : EA Worldview With the UN reportedly still unable to provide much-needed medical care to Rubkan via its recent aid convoy,94.“Hundreds evacuated from besieged Syrian Rukban refugee camp after ‘UN failure to provide” : The New Arab the camp’s General and Political Committee accused the UN for submitting fully to the Russian-Syrian repatriation plan for Rukban residents.95.“From Cordoning To Dismantling, Russia About To Close Al-Rukban Camps’ File” : Enab Baladi

Medical Care for a Child in Rukban Camp
UN/SARC Convoy to Rukban Camp in September 2019

The mastermind behind this systematic deprivation and restriction of humanitarian aid was the Syrian Mukrabarath, which recently proved leaked documents from the Syria Justice and Accountability Center.96.“Documents Obtained by SJAC Show Role of Syrian Intelligence in Directing Humanitarian Aid” : Syria Justice and Accountability Centre The Mukrabarath did not only briefed the local intermediaries, overlooked the delivery routes and oversaw the beneficiary lists and programs of all organisations active in Syria at any time, but also provided the pre-approved list with the local partners for the UN authorities. These were often oriented towards the economic needs of the violent actors of the regime.

SAA units with UNHCR Tents on the Frontline with ISIS (2016)

According to Human Rights Watch at least three OCHA-funded projects were led by individuals, who are known to be associated with the Syrian army or an affiliated militia. Alongside Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, and his charity organisation, al-Bustan association, the al-Shaheed Foundation, is one of these local partners. The foundation is led by the founder of the National Defense Force in Homs, which is accused for various human rights abuses.97.“Rigging the System – Government Policies Co-Opt Aid and Reconstruction Funding in Syria” : Human Rights Watch (2019)


Pro-Regime Militias with UN/SARC Aid Supplies


Ultimately, the underlying, highly centralised, economic structure in Syria made it most difficult for OCHA to maintain its neutrality and impartiality. When choosing its distribution partners or recruiting services from its staff, such as hotels, food stores or warehouses, the UN was required to purchase these services from regime friendly businessmen. In many cases, this direct allocation to certain business sectors was linked to the success of a project, as the acceptance of services was often linked to the advocacy of a government official. Many of these businessmen were already on the sanctions lists of the US or the EU.98.“Rigging the System – Government Policies Co-Opt Aid and Reconstruction Funding in Syria” : Human Rights Watch (2019) To get a glimpse of the size of these financial flows to companies, which are known for their close ties to the regime: the UN gave about $700,000 to Syriatel Mobil Phone Network, which was run by the aforementioned tycoon Rami Makhlouf. Between 2014 and 2015, the UN alone spent over $12 million on accommodating its staff in the Four Seasons Hotel, one third of which is owned by the Syrian Ministry of Tourism.99.Haid, Haid. “Principled Aid in Syria A Framework for International Agencies”, in: Chatham House, Middle East and North Africa Programme, pp. 9 (2019)

The UNHCR Bureau Chief for the Middle East and North Africa, Amin Awad, soberly refutes the comprehensive criticism of the UN’s entry into this moral labyrinth with a reference to the lack of mechanisms for controlling who belongs to the regime and who does not. In his opinion, this question must be of secondary importance for the UN, since it is a matter of accomplishing a humanitarian mission.100.“The UN enters Syria’s moral Labyrinth” : Carnegie Middle East Center101.“UNHCR on aid to Syria: what’s important is to deliver” : The National

Despite the gradual awareness of this active misuse of humanitarian aid by the Assad regime, the international donors are merely protesting against a total recentralisation of coordination through Damascus.102.“Outcry at UN plans to consolidate Syria aid operations in Damascus” : The New Humanitarian So far, there has been no real willingness on the part of Western states to publicly criticise these shortcomings vis-à-vis the UN, particularly on the part of EU leaders.103.Reinoud, Leenders/Kholoud, Mansour. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War”, in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 242 (2018)104.“UNHCR on aid to Syria: what’s important is to deliver” : The NationalA silence that has undoubtedly enabled the regime to maintain its alleged right to an empirically fading sovereignty over the distribution of humanitarian aid.

Lessons from the Syrian crisis

But what lessons can be drawn from the orchestration with the Assad regime? Haid Haid and Human Rights Watch rightly recommend some medium-term strategies, such as a call for more stringent monitoring rules for UN operations in conflict zones, a more consistent negotiating stance in negotiations with authoritarian regimes or more sustainable compliance guidelines for recipient states.105.Haid, Haid. “Principled Aid in Syria A Framework for International Agencies”, in: Chatham House, Middle East and North Africa Programme, pp. 15-20 (2019)106.“Rigging the System – Government Policies Co-Opt Aid and Reconstruction Funding in Syria” : Human Rights Watch (2019) Finally, it should also be questioned whether, in dealing with a resistant authoritarian state, orchestration was an adequate choice for implementing the humanitarian mission in Syria.

While the massive financial donation to the Assad regime, which was described by the UN as dealing with reality, undeniably disregards the specific humanitarian principles of the organisations humanitarian bodies, the orchestration of humanitarian aid can be identified as another vehicle for an authoritarian regime to pursue its strategic objectives at the expense of international cooperation.107.Reinoud, Leenders/Kholoud, Mansour. “Humanitarianism, State Sovereignty and Authoritarian Regime: Maintenance in the Syrian War”, in: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 133, No. 2, pp. 255 (2018) The humanitarian mission in Syria loses its impartiality and neutrality by giving authority to a conflict party, guilty of the most civilian deaths in this war, to apply its system-inherent behavior to international organisations as well. According to Emma Beals, this is a consequence of OCHA’s renunciation of a “conflict-sensitive programming” towards conflict response, in favour of an “access driving programming”, which puts the analysis of the respective operational environment at the back of the agenda.108.“The Limits and Failures of the Syria Response” : Medium A development that is not only attributed to the increased time pressure to which the UN departments are exposed in so-called new conflicts, but is also a direct result of the acute financial crisis of the IO.109.“Work and reforms of the UN ‘at risk’, Guterres warns Member States, amidst ‘record-level’ cash crisis” : UN News

Certainly, a realistic view would have to ask the question to what extent such neutrality is achievable at all, especially if one considers the empirical examples of humanitarian missions of the last decades.110.Joseph R., Rudolph. “Humanitarian Aid in the Former Yugoslavia: The Limits of Militarised Humanitarian Assistance”, in: The Politics of International Humanitarian Aid Operations, (Edit.) Erica A. Belgrad, Nitza Nachmias, London, pp. 137-156 (1997) However, with all this dry disillusionment, the world community should not expect to be absolved of the challenge of reflecting on how adequately we need to align the international institutions towards future global emergencies. This makes a consideration of the above-mentioned cultural cleavage within the UNSC and thus its institutional basis all the more central since “institutions cannot be expected to correct distortions that are embedded in their own structures“.111.“Why the Security Council failed : Foreign Affairs Should the cleavage within this institution occurs between the so-called rule of the strongman and a remnant of liberal forms of governance, the liberal wing should become clearer about the ways it wants to accomplish it goals. As the largest donor of humanitarian aid in Syria, the western states not only funded a driving actor of the conflict and thus led to decades of postponement of the problem in the form of a never-ending insurgency,112.“Assa hasn’t won anything” : Foreign Policy but also deprived itself of any creative power within the United Nations. While the US represented its full potency against the powerlessness of the UNSC during its intervention in Iraq in 2003,113.“Why the Security Council failed : Foreign Affairs it now disappoints in cooperation with its Western partners by its inability to adequately formulate an efficient humanitarian mandate. If the lowest, most rational interest of the West is to isolate itself from the external effects of global conflicts by combating the causes of flight, then the financing of an actor, who must be seen as the driving force behind the collective violence in the region, is not a reasonable strategy.

In a realist world “states use those institutional tools that are available to them“.114.“Why the Security Council failed : Foreign Affairs115.“Realist world. The players changed, but the game remains” : Foreign Affairs This enabled an authoritarian regime to invoke a state-centered concept of sovereignty, even though it’s facing the most serious legitimacy crisis in its history. A circumstance that has made humanitarian aid a resource of war and thus abolished the validity of OCHA’s humanitarian principles.

It is certainly the most difficult part of this exercise, but if the world community has a rational interest in being able to meet the humanitarian challenges of the coming decades adequately without doing more harm than good, a widening of the horizon towards a fundamental reform of the institutional settings of the United Nations seems inevitable.


Sascha Ruppert

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