Syria's earthquake survivors are pawns in a battle for power

Co-opting aid to control who gets what and where violates sacred humanitarian principles

Syrian artists Salam Hamed, left, and Bushra Hamed paint the remainder of a wall of a collapsed building in Al Milan village, Idlib, on Saturday. EPA
Powered by automated translation

Not much could withstand the raw power, equivalent to several atomic bombs, unleashed by the huge Kahramanmaras earthquakes on February 6. But that could not stand in the way of determined humanity.

The local, national and global disaster response mobilisation in Turkey is the fastest and biggest I have seen in my thirty years in humanitarian work. It is an inspiring demonstration of solidarity transcending borders and ideologies. Normally, international co-operation requires the grit of bureaucracy to turn its cogs. But this was brushed aside.

However, that is in Turkey, not Syria. Of course, this is not about judging which innocent victims are more deserving. The 13 million people living closer to the epicentres in Turkey are badly affected and it is heart-warming to see them helped. The more the better.

Conversely, it is heart-breaking to see 8.8 million quake-affected Syrians neglected.

The humanitarian instinct was crisply summarised by Henry Dunant, the 19th-century founder of the Red Cross Red Crescent, as the visceral urge “to help without asking whom”. It is in full flow as people worldwide collect money, pack relief boxes and volunteer. They want to help everyone.

But they cannot in Syria because the path of good intentions is severely obstructed. This compounds the suffering of quake survivors who lost what little they had after 12 years of vicious civil war that displaced them several times and enfeebled them through malnutrition and disease.

A UAE plane carries earthquake aid at Damascus airport on February 8. Reuters

They are now pawns in the fights among and within multiple armed groups in northern Syria and the government in Damascus. The potential post-quake humanitarian bonanza is a tool to leverage their own interests. Co-opting aid to control who gets what and where violates sacred humanitarian principles, and further undermines respect for an already tarnished international humanitarian system.

The system is tarnished because donor governments are, by definition, political – not humanitarian – actors even when they are driven by their kind-hearted citizens to give foreign assistance in crises.

Official humanitarian aid is provided not just on the basis of need but where it is expedient to give and gets kudos and benefits in return. So, we see large cheques written in Turkey and aid groups from donor nations labouring on the ground.

Syria could not be more different. Both national authorities and opposition groups are under sanction as murky conflicts continue involving several powers such as the US, Russia, Turkey and Iran. Donor governments have promulgated blood-curdling travel advisories to keep out their aid workers and groups. Only the brave or foolhardy go there.

However, geopolitical calculations demand the demonstration of compassion and, therefore, a way to deliver humanitarian aid in Syria. That is where international organisations venture because others can’t or won’t. They are licenced to do so by UN Security Council resolutions and the Geneva Conventions on international humanitarian law.

But ground dynamics don’t always care for the permit you carry or the flag you fly. So, UN agencies get set up to fail because they are not allowed to adapt to the perverse realities of complex and contested circumstances. They become easy prey for anyone wanting to score a point or worse, to target them.

As a cumbersome multi-billion-dollar risk-averse system riven by internal rivalries and snarled-up by protocols and regulations imposed by funders, the UN is inevitably late to the show. Its reputation is not helped by frequent scandals around corruption, fraud, misuse or profligate use of resources, and staff misbehaviours which are usually glossed over.

UN officials are expected to plead for better state behaviour. But few listen, and it is prudent not to complain too loudly

Meanwhile, we blame the UN system for everything wrong – justified or not – because it is the world’s lightning conductor for all frustrations, especially those caused by member states failing their UN Charter obligations. While it would be impolitic, or even dangerous, to call out such states, it appears acceptable to castigate the UN, because it is made thick-skinned by the immunities and privileges in which it is shrouded. It does not have to heed its critics and it is rarely held accountable for its shortcomings.

UN officials are expected to plead for better state behaviour. But few listen, and it is prudent not to complain too loudly. Courageous UN officials who annoy a powerful state are removed for the sake of wider peace and harmony.

Otherwise, UN officials are busy begging for funding for their part of the overall work while others clamour for their share. Agencies that are bigger, louder, use incomplete information more creatively, and conduct slicker PR, get more funding. That is how the competitive humanitarian marketplace works, with self-evident implications for life-and-death around the world.

Having grasped how the UN humanitarian system works, back to earthquakes. The slow UN response has been regretted by no less than the Secretary General and the Emergency Relief Co-ordinator. The UN released emergency funds but was otherwise largely invisible in early days.

That made little difference in Turkey where strong government leadership directed emergency efforts. Arguably, the UN is less needed there because of alternative well-functioning channels of assistance and strong domestic institutions.

But in Syria, where 85 per cent of people in the north-west were already dependent on UN aid, the glacial pace of post-quake mobilisation is shocking. Local communities with ramshackle health facilities and the awe-inspiring White Helmets were left on their own.

A woman looks out from a school-turned-shelter for families affected by the deadly earthquake in Latakia, Syria on Thursday. Reuters

The UN prevaricated for several reasons. Its lawyers nit-picked on whether new UN Security Council provision was needed to open more border crossings. It was not because sovereign states – Syria and Turkey – voluntarily agreed to do so. Why politicise more than necessary by invoking a confrontational Security Council intervention?

Besides, reports of physical disruption to cross-border relief flow were exaggerated and the main crossing never closed. Sadly, the first trucks to pass only carried body bags as many Syrian refugees came home for burial. Subsequent aid flow cannot even be described as a trickle. Meanwhile, commercial flow – requiring no UNSC permission – kept going through several crossings. But the UN mindset could not use the private sector as it cannot act out of the box.

Many senior UN leaders came to Syria but could do little practically and were not allowed to go cross-line. The diplomacy on Turkey-Syria border crossings was not done there but by political pressure from influential capitals including Moscow, Washington, and friendly Arab capitals such as Abu Dhabi.

Unfortunately, the UN has no influence to resolve the more difficult cross-line access problem because it is not respected by the several Syrian parties involved. Another calculation in top UN echelons is that it is not worth risking ambitious careers by expending political capital on warring groups under sanction and affronting tricky member states. It is not the first time that self-interest has trumped humanity.

The UN will get its act together, even if later. But nothing it does from now will make up for the earlier preventable loss of life and unnecessarily prolonged suffering.

The recent UN appeal for Syria seeks $397.6 million to help 4.9 million quake-affected people. This deserves support but donors should question if it should be via UN agencies with limited access when it would be quicker and cheaper to go directly to proven local implementers.

This comes down to longstanding donor mistrust in locals. Donors also prefer to use big UN agencies to channel their grants wholescale because they can then externalise their own administrative costs and accountability risks. That is why aid provision in places such as Syria is so inefficient. Inevitably, fewer people get helped by the same limited dollars, raising uncomfortable moral issues.

This crisis has shone the lens on longstanding humanitarian dysfunctions. Comparable issues have arisen elsewhere, as in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Tigray/Ethiopia. Technical tinkering at the margins of proposed reforms has achieved little. More fundamental questions are at stake.

The world has changed immeasurably since specialised UN agencies were formed many decades ago. Over time, they proliferated to cover all sectors beyond the UN’s core political mandate. That was justified in an era where other assistance bodies to help needy nations did not exist. Now there are many other agencies including civil society groups to do so, especially in humanitarian work. Under these circumstances, for the UN to continue to work in direct aid delivery is not vital and distracts from its peace-making efforts for which it remains indispensable. Furthermore, humanitarianism is getting overly-contentious by association with the political UN.

International co-operation would be better-served if technical UN agencies – dealing with food, health, education, refugees, women and children, and so on – reverted to their original norm-setting and good-offices functions to bring quarrelsome countries together to find best solutions for tricky problems. And stopped competing for funding with other agencies who are better at last-mile aid delivery.

The UN is precious and we need it more than ever for the big problems that cannot be tackled other than under its wings. Its humanitarian disappointments show that asking it to do what it is not good at degrades its currency, and ultimately, we are all poorer for that.

Published: February 28, 2023, 5:00 AM