Syria Insight: Russia weaponises aid as Syrians go hungry

Syria Insight: Russia weaponises aid as Syrians go hungry
Aid has been a bargaining tool by powers in the Syria war, but with the coronavirus crisis sweeping through the country it has become a matter of life or death.
10 min read
20 July, 2020
Millions of Syrians rely on aid to survive [Getty]
International humanitarian supplies to opposition Idlib resumed on 11 July, but only after the United Nations was strong armed into adopting a Russian-pushed resolution that limited official aid deliveries in northern Syria to a single border crossing.

For weeks, Security Council members had worked against to clock to reach an agreement for the continued delivery of vital aid to Idlib province before the framework for an existing humanitarian UN mechanism expired last week.

Efforts by countries such as the UK, US and France to open more border crossings for UN suppies were repeatedly blocked by veto-wielding supporters of the Syrian regime, Russia and China.

UN resolution

At zero hour, the UN members agreed to Moscow's demands that Bab Al-Hawa should be the only UN-sanctioned border point for aid to northern Syria, extinguishing Turkish hopes that other crossings could be included in the resolution, including Tal Abyad.

Officials said that travel restrictions due to the coronavirus crisis mean the real effects will not be felt immediately, but NGOs are predicting dire times for the people of northern Syria.

They say it will make it more difficult for aid workers to reach areas previously served by the Bab Al-Salam crossing near Jarabalus.

"The cross-border resolution has been a continuous concern for our operations," Amany Qaddour told The New Arab, Regional Director at Syria Relief & Development which provides health and other assistance to 85,000 beneficiaries every month.

"Over the past four years, the cross-border points have dwindled from four to one, now with Bab Al-Hawa. Aid cannot effectively reach those who rely on it… and Bab Al-Salama is essential. Bab Al-Hawa cannot absorb all the aid that needs to be delivered."

In May 1,469 UN trucks crossed into Syria at Bab Al-Hawa, while 312 used the Bab Al-Salam border point.

Although the new resolution won't prevent non-UN aid agencies from using other border crossings into northern Syria it will likely lead to congestion at Bab Al-Hawa.

It could also force aid workers to make costly and fraught zig-zag journeys across northern Syria to access areas such as Afrin and parts of northern Aleppo which were previously accessible from Bab Al-Salam.

"Our fear is that these areas may become neglected or besieged due to access issues," the director said.

More than 4 million people in northwest Syria are in dire need of aid - almost all procured from Turkey - while 1 million are still displaced along the Turkey border, after being uprooted during a Russian-backed regime offensive in southern Idlib earlier this year.

Most are living in schools, mosques or overcrowded makeshift camps in terrible conditions and rely on aid to survive.

While a ceasefire is largely holding, the families are unable to return to their homes in opposition-held southern Idlib due to the continued threat of violence, while the systematic destruction of key infrastructure during the regime offensive has made these areas uninhabitable.

The humanitarian situation in Idlib is fast deteriorating and an outbreak of Covid-19 in the province could be a death sentence for people living in overcrowded and unsanitary camps.

"Increases in the cost of food staples and the inability to secure other basic amenities is impacting on children and families. The most visible impact is malnutrition, specifically stunting with infants and children, and other diseases that surface as a result [of hunger]," said Qaddour.

"Our main challenges, currently, are related to the funding streams. Funding is often short-term making it difficult to plan ahead. Attacks on healthcare facilities and workers have also been a challenge."

The threat of Covid-19 - so far there have been 17 reported cases in Idlib - has restricted aid access and movement, while NGOs lack the necessary equipment and supplies, such as ventilators and ICUs, needed to tackle the pandemic effectively. 

Sanitary issues, overcrowding and malnutrition - combined with the difficulties presented by aid being channelled through a single border crossing - mean that the impact of Covid-19 could be considerable.

Russian rhetoric

Russia's official reason for restricting the number of border crossings is that the Syrian "state" now controls more territory than it did a year ago, and those Syrians living outside regime authority who are most in need of aid can be reached through the Bab Al-Hawa crossing.

Dima Moussa, a Syrian politician with the opposition, highlighted that Moscow is increasingly talking about the Syrian "state" rather than "government", and coincides with recent criticism of Bashar Al-Assad in Russian media.

By promoting the idea of the "Syrian state" on the world stage - rather than Assad - Russia can argue for more international aid to be channelled through Damascus and ultimately increases its authority inside Syria. 

"Russia is saying that now the state controls more territories more aid should come through Damascus. It falls into Russia's rhetoric of there being a centralised state in control of not just territory but also people," said Moussa

"It is politically motivated for sure… the reality on the ground is that there is still vast amounts of territory outside regime control, but they are getting away with it."

The economic crisis and state pressure on refugees in neighbouring Lebanon - where millions are at risk of extreme hunger - could mean that more Syrians are forced to return to Syria.

They will come to a country where the government is also unable to support its citizens and extreme hunger and suffering are widespread.

Men will likely remain in Lebanon for work and to avoid detention or conscription by the Syrian regime, Moussa said.

It means that the majority of returnees to Syria will be women and children, forced into the position due to an absence of education and other opportunities for young refugees in Lebanon.

An increase in the number of dependents will likely see Russia use the issue of aid to further its calls for international assistance to the Syrian regime.

Moscow will also likely pressure Europe to contribute reconstruction aid, which remains conditional on political reforms.

Russia's argument that the only solution to the Syria crisis is through the formation of a unified and centralised state ignores the huge fragmentation and divisions within the country, said Moussa, including in regime areas.

Loyalist territories are viewed as receiving preferential treatment to the former opposition territories the regime now controls, when it comes to the distribution of aid.

"[Russia] is trying to convince some of the regions outside regime control that you have to be linked to Damascus to receive assistance, and that - in the long run - it is more beneficial to maintain a unified Syria," said Moussa.

"Of course, the regime is going to exploit that and punish those it sees as dissidents and this is not going to make the regime more conducive to engaging in a real political process."

[Russia's aim] is to centralise aid and give the perception that Damascus is in control and Syria has a strong centralised government
- Dima Moussa, Syrian opposition politician
Signs of this were seen early on in the coronavirus crisis when Kurdish authorities complained that most WHO Covid-19 assistance to northeast Syria - which came via Damascus - was being delivered to hospitals and administrations under regime control.

It highlighted, once again, the flaws in Russia's argument that humanitarian assistance should be channelled through Damascus and that the regime can be trusted to distribute aid fairly.

"[Russia's aim] is to centralise aid and give the perception that Damascus is in control and Syria has a strong centralised government. The whole idea that Russia is trying to get across is that it is better, for the political solution, to have more of the territories linked to Damascus and this minimises the risk of fragmentation," said Moussa.

"It is not convincing because the fragmentation is not always on a geographical basis. Even within regime-controlled areas there is evidence that it does not distribute to areas according to need. It is really based on allegiance and [punishing] those who lived in areas under opposition control."

Aid access

Last week, Oxfam and the Norwegian Refugees Council issued a report highlighting some of the challenges faced by its workers in distributing aid inside Syria.

Hard Lessons called for international donors to by more ready to engage with Syrian ministries but also complained of aid deliveries being blocked by authorities.

The two NGOs threatened to reduce or shut down some of its projects in Syria unless it was able to engage with local communities, particularly in Deir az-Zour, Daraa, Raqqa, Homs countryside and Eastern Ghouta – all until relatively recently outside regime control.

Mathew Hemsley, Oxfam's Syria Policy and Communications Advisor and one of the authors of the report, told The New Arab that there are evident delays in accessing some parts of Syria held by the government, while the economic situation worsens due to the crashing lira.

"In Deir az-Zour and Daraa local authorities have been useful in helping us access some of those hard to reach areas but there is no doubt that trying to get into those communities, and particularly trying to get into them quickly, was difficult," Hemsley said.

"Due to the change in control in Ghouta, to get in and scale-up took a long time. It is not always clear to us the reasons behind that, sometimes it is because the government says it is about demining, but whatever the reasons it delays us in reaching people with assistance that they often desperately need."

Hemsley said there are minimum standards Oxfam need to meet in order to deliver projects effectively and ensure aid reaches the right people and are not unintentionally harming communities.

"It could also depend on the type of project we are doing. Doing a water project for a whole community is different to household level assistance, where you really need to ensure the aid is going to the right people," Hemsley said.

"We also don't work in some communities where they are sparsely populated. You wouldn't repair infrastructure until it was clear who the ultimate beneficiaries of those projects would be.

"Ultimately if we are not comfortable that the people who need the assistance will get it then we either postpone an intervention until these standards have been met or in some cases we won't do it all."

Oxfam teams have been given approval by authorities to access Douma, a former opposition stronghold outside Damascus, which had been emptied of part of its population during a so-called evacuation agreement.

There are still challenges in providing support to residents  two years after it was taken back by Bashar Al-Assad's forces.

"When we have tried to scale-up or do new projects in these areas there has been a lot more time to get the approval on the first instance," said the Oxfam workers.

"That is unfortunate because these people, living in these areas, have experienced a lot of violence. There is heavy destruction in these areas, public services are functioning much less, and we want to be there to provide timely assistance and scaling up."

Another challenge faced by Oxfam is finding the funding needed to scale up these projects with Hemsley saying aid agencies, too, have been hit by the Syrian currency crisis with official exchange rates reflecting half of the lira's real value.

"It definitely isn't a one size fits all and the dialogue is definitely taking longer, but I think the local government has helped us do more projects and get more access and engage more with communities," Hemsley said.

"But it is still not as timely, or as we say in the report, there are still a lot limits with community engagement.

"We would like to hear from people to understand more about their needs and we would like to hear more from women…. we would need those type of things to change and be quicker to provide the type of assistance we need."

Syria Insight is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Insight in your inbox each edition, sign up here.

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin