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Assad's Syria plays dirty with US humanitarian aid

Assad's Syria plays dirty with US humanitarian aid
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The news from Syria continues to go from bad to worse to even worse.

Last week's attacks by Syrian government forces on the U.S.-backed army that helped drive ISIS out of Syria, and the U.S. military's retaliation with air strikes on Syrian forces in the southeastern Syrian city of Deir Azzour, create a worrying specter of escalating military action that could ultimately pit the United States against Syria's principal supporter, Russia.

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Last month, it was more chemical weapons attacks against innocent civilians in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. For months before, the Syrian government has blocked humanitarian aid to communities that support the opposition. Perhaps the Trump administration believes it has no other choice than to use military force to send a message to Damascus that we will not tolerate the Syrian regime's behavior against all who oppose it. But there is another way: Hit the Syrian government and Russia in the pocketbook and stop subsidizing their vile tactics.  

Russia and the Syrian government have regularly promised improved behavior in Syria: to stop the use of chemical weapons, to accept ceasefires, to allow humanitarian aid into besieged, starving communities. We have not been able to hold either accountable — the recent attacks on U.S.-backed forces are the latest evidence — but neither do we need to make their oppression in Syria easier, especially if the Trump administration aims to put pressure on Moscow and Damascus.

A good place to start is to recognize the fiction that our humanitarian aid is being used as intended and suspend definitively the free subsidy we are giving the brutal Syrian government and its Russian ally if they continue to block UN aid convoys.

The U.S. contributed more than $458 million to UN agencies in 2017 to provide food and medical supplies for civilians inside war torn Syria. According to the UN, the U.S. was the largest single donor for humanitarian aid for Syria last year.

The UN agencies are governed by international humanitarian law, which means the aid is supposed to be neutral. It should go to people in need, regardless of their side in the conflict. In short, the food and medical supplies we pay for is supposed to go to people on both sides of the battle lines.

Sadly, in Syria, this is not the case. The UN can and does deliver aid to communities in need inside government-controlled zones. However, even though over a million people in need still live in areas controlled by the opposition, the Syrian government blocks UN deliveries of aid, particularly medical supplies. The UN’s own figures show that on average only 27 percent of those in need in opposition held areas received aid in 2017. This was not because of aid shortfalls. It resulted from the Syrian government policy to stop aid from reaching besieged communities.

In 2016, 99 UN-led convoys were allowed to deliver aid to opposition controlled areas; in 2017 only 55 UN-led convoys were permitted all year. The Syrian government removed medical supplies from 54 of those convoys. East Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus with about 400,000 people, has not seen a UN truck for more than two months, despite repeated requests from the UN. Instead of aid, the people in East Ghouta are regularly shelled by the Syrian government and, in late January, there were credible reports there of another Syrian government chemical weapons attack. Currently 765 patients are in urgent need of medical attention, but the Syrian government refuses to let them travel a few kilometers to a Damascus hospital.

The U.S. is funding the UN inside Syria, while the Syrian government plays dirty politics with the aid we pay for.

The U.S. and other like-minded countries complain bitterly about the humanitarian situation inside Syria every week to the Syrian government’s supporters, principally Russia and Iran, at a special meeting in Geneva, to pressure the Syrian government to do the right thing and allow humanitarian aid for all in need, not just those friendly to the Syrian government. One of the authors co-chaired that meeting every week with Russia for 18 months to little or no avail; even 20 countries urging the Syrian government to unblock the aid fell on deaf ears.

The question now for those countries is whether to continue to pay for humanitarian aid for Syria when it is clear the aid is not neutral and is being used as a weapon by the Syrian government, and Russia and Iran, to starve communities into surrender. The converse is equally disturbing. The U.S. and other countries are helping to feed communities that are loyal to the Syrian government — areas that the Syrian government can easily reach without the UN’s help if it chooses to provide food and medicines to the populations it controls. When we pay for humanitarian aid for those areas we are effectively subsidizing the Syrian war machine.

The authors worked hard throughout their careers to improve humanitarian access in war zones. We accept that 100 percent perfect delivery is impossible in war zones. But after five years, Syria sets a new, consistent standard for abuse of humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, there are more humanitarian disasters in the world than the international community can possibly help adequately. South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia usually top the list, where the needs far exceed Syria’s.

It’s time to reconsider. Let’s stop pretending humanitarian aid for Syria is neutral and helping those in need, wherever they live. Let’s stop funding UN agencies charged with delivering humanitarian aid inside Syria if the Syrian government continues to block the aid. The UN might complain, but our taking such a bold step would strengthen their hand with the government in Damascus and its allies.

Damascus likes the free aid; maybe we would begin to see approvals for aid to flow again for people living in East Ghouta and other besieged areas, and new respect from the Syrian government for the forgotten principle of neutrality of humanitarian aid.

If not, we should instead boost our support for aid to desperate Syrian refugees outside government-controlled areas as well as boost aid for bigger humanitarian disasters around the world.

Robert Ford was the U.S. Ambassador to Syria 2011-2014 and now is a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a lecturer at Yale University.

Mark Ward led the U.S. team providing assistance for Syria from Turkey from 2012-16 and now teaches at the University of Washington.