Western powers seek aid alternative to north-west Syria after UN impasse

A fund supported by the US and other powers bypasses the UN, diplomats and aid officials say

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Western powers are working to channel aid to the people needing it in north-west Syria through a fund that was set up to bypass the United Nations, diplomats and aid officials said.

Russia and western countries failed this month to agree on renewing a Security Council authorisation needed to keep aid flowing through Turkey to the north-west of the country.

The area is home to several million refugees, living outside the control of President Bashar Al Assad's government.

The US, Britain, Germany and France are supporting the Aid Fund for Northern Syria, which aims to distribute aid by using local organisations in the north-west, mirroring the way that the United Nations has been operating in the area, sources say.

“Russia has been making it more difficult at the Security Council and we needed to seize the initiative,” a European diplomat told The National.

In May the fund launched a $40 million allocation to support Syrian humanitarian organisations in the area, according to its website.

"It aims to operate like a chess board, with Syrian organisations at the front, and international ones in the back," said a manager at a Syrian non-profit group, while appealing for financing.

A fund official in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, a centre for aid organisations operating in Syria, declined to talk about the fund's activities.

It has a strategy to bring together donors and aid organisations “to maintain the continuity of flexible multi-donor humanitarian assistance to northern Syria”, the website says.

Delivery of aid to Syria has been the centre of international contention over the past decade.

Moscow has insisted on empowering Mr Al Assad’s position by giving him control over its flow, arguing that sending aid through Turkey undermines Syria's sovereignty.

Western countries have resisted handing over control of aid to Damascus, and refuse to support reconstruction projects in government areas without an implementation of UN resolutions for a political solution to the civil war first.

The UN is also carrying out substantial aid and recovery operations in areas controlled by Mr Al Assad, despite objections by human rights' organisations over a regime veto over staff there, and complaints about funds going to the president’s associates.

“Arguments about sovereignty cannot be allowed to override the humanitarian effort,” the diplomat said.

But he cautioned that the fund is still in its infancy – it plans to start distributing the $40 million this month.

The Syrian non-profit group's manager said the fund mirrors the UN Syria Cross-border Humanitarian Fund, under which Syrian organisations have been applying for financing.

"The mechanisms and organisations appear the same,” he said, adding that the Aid Fund for Northern Syria has not started any significant operations.

Khaled Al Helou, a Syrian opposition figure working on a transitional justice framework, said the fund indicates a tougher western stand against Russia, mainly over the war in Ukraine.

“After Ukraine, the West appears less willing to let Russia have its way on Syria,” said Mr Helou, a former judge who moved to Turkey after the crackdown on the 2011 revolt against Mr Al Assad.

"The regime is also backtracking," he said, pointing to a letter from the Syrian government to the United Nations last week.

In the letter, the Syrian government said it was willing to grant permission to the UN to send aid through the main Bab Al Hawa crossing with Turkey if the UN co-ordinates with Damascus.

In February, after an earthquake in Syria devastated much of the north-west, Mr Al Assad agreed to open two additional crossings linking rebel-held and regime areas for UN aid deliveries. But Bab Al Hawa has remained the main conduit for the movement of aid.

"In a way the letter is a joke because Damascus does not have control over Bab Al Hawa,” Mr Hilou said. “But it shows how much the regime wants to maintain its sway over the aid."

A US State Department spokesman told The National that "our clear expectation is that the UN operation at Bab Al Hawa will continue unimpeded and that humanitarian assistance will continue to flow unfettered."

Updated: July 21, 2023, 4:26 PM