GAZIANTEP, Turkey — “They starve them so they submit to them,” an opposition field commander from Aleppo told me as reports came in of residents trickling back into Homs, a strategic city where a deal had been struck between government forces and rebels.
The sun streamed into a dusty hotel lobby in downtown Gaziantep, where five Free Syrian Army field commanders from Aleppo, Idlib and Deir Ezzour sat around a table to speak about the impact of humanitarian assistance on the war.
The commanders asked their names not be published, but otherwise they spoke freely, sometimes angrily. A couple of them pushed prayer beads through their fingers as if marking time, which is running out for many innocent civilians in the war zones that are hardest to reach.
“Each area is difficult and different,” said the commander from Deir Ezzour, pointing out the fractured nature of a country in its fourth year of a civil war. He leaned back and flipped open his notebook. He drew me a map of the main corridor that runs through Raqqa to explain how battles with the ISIS, a jihadist group so radical even Al Qaeda has disowned it, make it next to impossible for assistance to get in. “They allow it to pass through if we give them half,” he tells me.
The principle of neutrality for humanitarian assistance may be a necessary international standard, but in Syria these commanders suggest the way assistance is delivered has become a critical part of the conflict itself. The United Nations passed a resolution three months ago demanding that all parties allow delivery of aid, but in his latest report to the Security Council, Ban ki Moon notes that since its passing “the situation on the ground has gotten worse, not better.”
One reason for this is history. Beth Ferris, co-director of the Project on Internal Displacement at the Brookings Institution, notes that in “the crises of the 1990s—Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda—humanitarian organizations were at the forefront of calls for safe areas, humanitarian corridors, military intervention. But today these same organizations are quiet, feeling that these initiatives ultimately failed.”
The need for regime permission to deliver assistance into Syria has reduced the ability of humanitarian assistance to reach those in need, according to the report to the Security Council. According to a U.S. State Department official, “As Secretary Kerry and others have noted, the main issue in this humanitarian crisis remains that the Assad regime continues to deny humanitarian access, besiege villages and drop barrel bombs on its own people, completely disregarding the U.N. Security Council’s demand in Resolution 2139.” Since the beginning of the conflict, the U.N. has been able to deliver assistance across the border from Turkey into Syria twice, with the permission of both governments. However, a Turkish official told Reuters, “We still don’t know where it went and we’re not comfortable with this. The U.N. is constrained by the [Syrian] regime.” Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch, told me the U.N. is “hampered by its lawyers who prioritize sovereignty over feeding the starving.”
The commander from Aleppo puts the problem this way: “The liberated areas get only about 30 percent of what is coming in.” U.N. figures confirm that for the first three months of this year—more than 85 percent of food aid and more than 70 percent of medicine going into Syria went to areas controlled by the government. The proportions previously were close to 50-50, but increased fighting has isolated rebel areas.
He claims the majority of assistance that stays in regime-held areas is not distributed among civilians, “it’s distributed to the fighters, the people in the army.” He leans forward and looks me in the eye. “The U.N. is supporting the regime, indirectly or directly. I don’t know if they know that or not.”
According to World Food Program spokeswoman Abeer Eteefa, “We can’t monitor some of the hard-to-reach areas, we are just happy that assistance has gone in to those families cut off from humanitarian assistance and food for so long.” The same proportion of assistance does not reach rebel-held areas, according to Eteefa, because “there are more displaced people in areas under government control, which leads to a larger percentage of people in need under government control,” but she also notes that more people flee into government-controlled areas “because they perceive that it could be safer.” With conflict lines constantly shifting, the categorization of who got what and from where has become increasingly blurry.
The only way to reduce the amount of humanitarian assistance that ends up in the hands of the regime’s forces is to deliver “directly to liberated areas, not through the regime,” one of the commanders from Aleppo tells me.
His position is supported by 35 international legal scholars, among them Richard Goldstone, the former chief prosecutor for The Hague war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia, who signed an open letter saying that the U.N.’s current requirement for permission from the regime is “an overly cautious interpretation of international humanitarian law.”
The U.N. has indicated that it is ready to “put in place arrangements at key border and line crossings,” including those outside the regime’s control. Delivering assistance without regime approval has been endorsed as a concept by the British government. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has indicated that Washington is “open to anything that will get the aid to the people,” expressing frustration with the need to go through Damascus as “unacceptable” and acknowledging that the people of Homs “were being starved to death.” At the Friends of Syria meeting in London, a joint communique was issued which addressed humanitarian assistance. A U.S. State Department official said “it’s worth noting last week the London 11 announced it would step up efforts to deliver humanitarian aid across borders and across lines irrespective of the consent of the regime.”
As the international community considers more options to get assistance into areas in need, Roth suggests that “the only appropriate step for governmental donors is to take funds that would have gone to U.N. humanitarian efforts in Syria (and any other funds they can find) and give those funds to the humanitarian NGOs that are willing now to deliver humanitarian aid cross-border to the people who desperately need it.”
Valerie Amos, the emergency relief coordinator of the U.N., is set to address the Security Council on Syria this week but whether her words will be followed by action remains to be seen.
“I have a relative in the area of Homs who tells me they are eating the leaves of trees because unfortunately all the cats have been eaten,” the commander from Aleppo tells the group.
Everyone becomes quiet. The metronome of prayer beads grows louder.
The commander from Deir Ezzour finally turns to me and asks, “Why did this world stay silent?”