In a unanimous decision today, the United Nations Security Council voted to authorize “humanitarian aid agencies and their partners” to deliver aid via “routes across conflict lines and as well as four additional border crossings – Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa, Al Yarubiyah and Al-Ramtha.” The decision addresses frustration within the international aid community that in recent months much of the aid has been sent to areas in western Syria controlled by the Assad regime.
The UN’s resolution, which relieves aid organizations of the need to obtain permission from the regime for cross-border deliveries, has been opposed by Syrian officials as infringing upon the nation’s sovereignty. Under the new rule, Syrian officials will be informed of the nature of the aid but will not have control over the deliveries.
Problematically, the resolution authorizes the delivery of aid through three border crossings that are currently controlled by Islamist groups, including the Islamic State and the Islamic Front, as reported by the New York Times yesterday.
Of the four crossings mentioned by the UN, the Ramtha-Deraa crossing in the south on the Jordanian border was taken over by al Qaeda’s Al Nusrah Front in September. The Bab al Salam-Oncupinar crossing on the Turkish border has changed hands several times of the course of the war, but was until recently controlled by the Islamic Front. Similarly, the Bab al Hawa-Reyhanlı crossing, also on the Turkish border, was controlled by the Islamic Front. According to al Jazeera today, however, both of the Turkish border crossings are now controlled by the Islamic State.
The Al Yarubiyah crossing, in Hasakah province on the Iraqi border, which is currently held by Kurdish forces, is in danger of falling to the Islamic State as well. Islamic State fighters have been battering Kurdish YPG forces in the area in an effort to take over the entire northern border region, called Kobani by the Kurds.
Certainly there are grave humanitarian needs in Syria that need to be addressed, which are increasing daily. The latest UN resolution may, however, represent more wishful thinking on the part of the international community than a realistic means of addressing those problems.
Even in areas of Syria under regime control, aid groups have complained that there is little or no monitoring of the distribution once it is inside the country. In mid-May, a report in Reuters said NGOs were deploring the uncertainty as to whether the aid they were sending into Syria was reaching its recipients, due to an almost complete lack of monitoring by the UN, among others:
But the lack of transparency around U.N. deliveries makes that hard to monitor, according to international non-government organizations (NGOs), which wrote to several U.N. Security Council members last month warning a lack of coordination meant assistance was not reaching priority areas.
“I can’t know if it’s done well or badly as the U.N. hasn’t told us exactly who the aid has gone to,” said the project manager of one Western NGO, declining to be identified for fear of jeopardizing already fragile relations with the world body.
“It’s doubly damaging because there is no accountability, transparency or coordination and all the while Assad is claiming credit (for aid deliveries) and criminalizing anyone who is crossing the border in rebel-held areas.”
NGOs complain that despite multiple requests, the United Nations has so far failed to share its methodology in identifying those most in need and monitoring where its aid goes after delivery. Often it does not even disclose what its food aid includes.
And the problem does not consist merely of difficulties in monitoring. As an article in The New York Times observed, also in mid-May:
Cross-border aid is a tricky matter for the United Nations agencies because of a raging debate inside the world body about whether the law allows them to enter Syrian territory without the state’s permission. But just trucking in aid from the long northern border with Turkey wouldn’t solve the problem. Some two million Syrians are deep inside the country — and getting food and medicines to them means crossing front lines and then checkpoints manned by numerous armed opposition groups.
So far, a little more than a half-dozen rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, have agreed to let United Nations aid convoys come through their areas, though none of the extremist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, which now dominate several key areas and roads.
If jihadists control the crossings through which the aid will pass, what assurances do the UN and the international community have that the aid will reach the populations for whom it is intended? And even if some aid does trickle down to those persons, isn’t there a strong likelihood that it will be used to reinforce the powers of the jihadist group controlling its distribution?
At this point, one can only hope that the overall effect of the new resolution will be positive for the people of the region. In the best-case scenario envisioned by the measure’s proponents, it will allow for the provision of aid to two million needy people.