The U.S.'s Humanitarian Responsibilities in Syria

Corruption and inefficiency are not enough reason to oppose providing aid to victims of the country's ongoing civil war.

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Syrian refugees are seen in a refugee camp on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey, near Idlib, on January 29, 2013. (Reuters)

As Syria burns, Washington has begun a debate over the supply of humanitarian assistance to the millions displaced, injured or penniless from civil war. Some in the media and think tank world argue that humanitarian aid to Syria should be used, in effect, as a weapon of war, and provided for -- and even through -- the opposition to Bashar al-Assad. Humanitarian aid officials contend that aid must flow freely to all in need; if the U.S. and its allies want to help Syrians get rid of Assad, let them provide arms to the opposition rather than deny aid to the needy in government-controlled areas and debase long standing humanitarian principles.

The issue is hardly new. Humanitarianism and politics have never gotten along well, particularly in war. In 1979-1980, after Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the Khmer Rouge regime, the U.S. government was heavily criticized for supplying much-needed food and seed aid directly to the people of Western Cambodia, and even with a possible ulterior motive of undermining the Vietnamese-installed Phnom Penh government. But because that government had little means of delivering aid to its most war-torn region, the U.S. aid continued.

Billions of dollars have been spent to support Syria's needy, which number around two million within the country and 800,000 refugees abroad. The biggest humanitarian problem is not so much who controls the aid, but rather how much aid there is - an amount which, as it turns out, is grossly insufficient. The U.N. just raised $1 billion in pledges, but even that total is only good for the next six months. With future needs likely far greater, and without more aid for refugees, a parlous Jordan and Lebanon could be destabilized. The U.S., simply, will have to provide far more than the $350 million it has promised.

In any case, the Syrian opposition asserts that foreign humanitarian aid, by going mainly to areas which the government controls, is bolstering Assad's survival. The opposition wants to take charge of aid deliveries and funnel more to areas in their hands, which have plenty of needy people. This view has won some approval in the U.S., including from a Senate group which recently visited the region. The issue, as always, is compounded by debate over the facts, and questions relating to how foreign humanitarian aid is actually provided in wartime, as well as the delivery problems emanating from the continuing violence and the numbers of needy people throughout the country.

While the U.N. and its agencies operating in and outside Syria may not enjoy the strongest credibility, both the World Body and American officials strongly deny the negative assertions about aid deliveries to government areas. They argue instead that:

· U.N. humanitarian assistance is not controlled by the Syrian government, and that there are no credible reports of aid leaks to the Syrian government.

· The U.N. closely examines the list of 110 government-approved Syrian organizations that deliver humanitarian assistance. They insist that agencies are diligent in determining if these organizations have the technical capacity, operational experience and humanitarian commitment to deliver aid in an impartial manner. U.N. organizations point out they have long experience with many of these groups.

· Humanitarian organizations also struggle to negotiate with myriad armed opposition groups to gain access to areas outside government control. Indeed, humanitarian assistance is going to all 14 Syrian governorates but not to all communities in need. Forty-nine percent of U.N. food aid is reaching opposition-contested areas.

· The U.N. has the technical expertise and operational capacity to respond effectively and equitably to humanitarian disaster.

The U.N. view rejects the notion that the principal basis of aid delivery decision should be the prevailing authorities and not the people in need, which has long been the traditional American way of providing humanitarian assistance.

But this is not an either/or situation. We should find more means to provide aid to opposition-held areas, give aid only to opposition elements who can actually deliver it to the needy, and work to make sure that unsavory elements of the opposition do not decide who gets aid. A number of courageous private agencies are trying hard to provide aid in opposition areas, some with U.S. government funding. They base their work on one criterion alone -- the needs of the people being served. Similarly, in Syrian government-held areas we should help the afflicted as much as we can and as long as we are reasonably confident that aid is going to those in need.

Certainly, humanitarian aid can have political consequences. But making political criteria the determinant of providing aid will immediately endanger many hundreds of thousands of people and will erode the basis of future humanitarianism. The principle underlying humanitarian aid is a good American and international tradition. It should be preserved in Syria.