The limits and failures of the Syria response

Syria has illustrated the limits of global governance and humanitarian intervention time and time again. This week brings this back into sharp focus, highlighting the inability of UN humanitarian teams in Syria, and the UNSC mechanism, to protect civilians in Idlib, hold the Syrian government accountable for committing war crimes, or allow humanitarian aid assistance to reach those most in need without benefiting those guilty of the war’s worst crimes.

These limits are not new, but failure to adapt to these limits appropriately has the potential to alter the humanitarian sphere permanently. This raises two pressing questions: Will these limits and failures become a permanent feature? How will these failures and limits impact the next stages of the conflict and future conflicts?

Part of the problem in the Syrian context is attributable to a somewhat benign problem that snowballed due to inaction. Syria was a country with UN support pre-conflict, which had a heavy development focus, meaning organizations and staff members alike had close working relationships with the Government of Syria. They saw their role as one of attempting to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, which, at the time, was entirely appropriate. While investigating the limits of the UN and INGO response in Syria, it has become clear that there was a reluctance to let go of this mandate and that the protests, and the subsequent violence, were initially seen as something that may undo decades of good work. For this reason, the response did not shift from development to crisis response, until far too late in the crisis. It is for this reason, too, that senior staff members of some departments have long-standing relationships with government ministers and their families.

This reluctance to let go of the development response has recently pivoted to an enthusiasm to get back to it. The result is constant communications from agencies highlighting Syria’s former status as a tourist destination, rushing to repair vital infrastructure in government areas, and encouraging premature refugee return. Donors report feeling bullied and badgered by these agencies in their efforts to get them to untie the purse strings and fund development work.

It is a wonder, then, how the ‘Grand Bargain’ aims of increased cooperation between aid and development would possibly help a situation like Syria. What’s right for one context may not be valid for all, and while a case for a closer relationship between the sectors may be useful in other settings, it is not so for contexts where the humanitarian crisis is broadly the doing of the state and in Syria there’s a constant battle being waged to keep them separate.

In Myanmar, as in Syria, we see the limits of a humanitarian response that serves at the pleasure of the oppressing government power. While language changes in humanitarian response plans and communications may seem like petty grievances, acquiescing to the wishes of governments who choose language that assists them to build potentially-genocidal narratives as in Myanmar, or ensuring accountability remains elusive by avoiding terms of fact like ‘conflict’ and ‘besiegement’ in Syria, falls at the very first hurdle when it comes to protecting the groups those same governments seek to punish and destroy.

It is from this compromised semantic baseline that the very definition of civilian protection in Syria has been degraded. No longer is the aspiration to protect populations from war crimes and human rights violations, but instead, protection is measured in the number of early marriages or incidences of domestic violence experienced or prevented. These smaller concerns fit neatly into log frames, and interventions can include workshops or community centres. In short, saving lives is put in the too hard basket and replaced with outputs achievable in a context where the perpetrator makes the rules.

This new understanding of the very meaning of protection has shifted the entire conversation away from the fundamental responsibility to protect as it was imagined in 2005, to fiddling with gender-based violence and cash-based programming while the world burns. This leaves the humanitarian community with a decision to make: if the ability to protect at the most fundamental of levels is solely political and military, is protection the role of humanitarians at all?

An additional way in which Syria has profoundly changed humanitarian intervention is the degree to which humanitarians have become sub-contracting companies, rather than humanitarians in the more traditional understanding of the word. This has occurred in two ways, one being the difficulties in access, which have necessitated endless supply chains and partnerships that mean beneficiaries become and ever-more theoretical concept, and those who take the most significant risks, and for whom beneficiaries are not academic, get the least funding and the least say in how those funds are spent.

This relatively ‘easy’ subcontracting work and the high levels of funding and attention has seen humanitarians bend to the dollar. INGOs told Syrian NGOs in Idlib that it would not be possible to escalate their concerns about the future of the province because the INGOs feared it would jeopardize their pending applications to operate in Damascus. Rather than standing up for their local colleagues, they instead preferred to maintain a stake in a shrinking space for operation inside the country, aware that Syria still brings in grants and public donations. It is for this reason, too, that the UN is happily installing beehives in Tartous; because by keeping the government of Syria happy by programming heavily in areas it favours, and using only partner NGOs and companies it approves of, the government allows access elsewhere. Any access, even to those who are not in the most severe need, keeps donations and funding rolling in.

The argument that the heavy use of Syrian NGOs in these sub-contracting arrangements fulfills the localization agenda fails to see the lack of agency those Syrian NGOs have within this contractual structure, and corrupting effect that a lack of coal-face work has on those designing programmes and approving funding. Syria, in part through necessity, has entrenched the worst interpretation of the localization agenda.

These concerns build the foundation for lack of conflict sensitivity in programming, something that has underpinned much of the Syria response. In this sense, humanitarians have been outwitted and outsmarted by parties to the conflict. From Damascus, the government has allowed or disallowed, aid access as it sees fit. In failing to understand the conflict well enough to see when they are manipulated for political ends, agencies allowed themselves to become a pawn in negotiations for outcomes that include war crimes. Rather than conflict analysis driving conflict-sensitive programming, it is access driving programming, with analysis and sensitivity thrown in at the end.

The government’s influence on the Damascus hub means actors cannot, or are prevented from, understanding the full context of where they are working and the impact of their actions. These contextual blinkers, combined with a resignation to the fact the ‘big’ rights cannot be protected, is a dangerous combination moving forward from a humanitarian aid response, into post-conflict or stabilization. Which is to say, the circumstances that allowed the UN to be duped into aid convoys that cemented ‘reconciliation’ deals, are allowing them to passively programme in ways that entrench displacement and disenfranchisement, probably permanently. A cursory look at project plans coming out of the early recovery, and refugee and IDP returns, strands of UN Damascus, suggest that these concerns will not be addressed in a meaningful way before they continue into subsequent phases of their work.

There are some in the response who refuse to believe that have erred even slightly, or that criticism of their actions is warranted. Many others see the problems and are personally and professionally concerned by them and try to change them as best they can.

As humanitarians peel off toward other responses and crises around the world and take the bad habits they learned in Syria with them, and others draft new work plans for the ninth year of the Syrian conflict, it’s important to remember that it can be better than this, and it behooves all of us to try and make it so.

Follow-Up Reads:

Some of my own work on this subject is featured on my website:

Human Rights Watch, ‘Rigging the System’:

Chatham House, ‘Principled Aid in Syria: A framework for International agencies:

Emma is an award-winning independent investigative journalist, producer, and analyst. She covers the conflict in Syria, and all things aid.

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