Syria’s Mess Causes Soul Searching in Humanitarian Aid World

On January 29, the aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) shook the aid world by criticizing imbalances in the delivery of aid inside Syria, saying that aid operations, centered in Damascus, are not reaching opposition-held areas. Yesterday, on March 7, it reiterated this wake-up call by urging that the provision of impartial aid to areas controlled by the Syrian opposition should no longer be subject to the consent of the government and should be expanded across borders from neighboring countries.

As the situation in Syria deteriorates sharply, the debate is rife within humanitarian circles between those attempting to step up “crossline” aid delivery from inside the country with the consent of the Syrian government—which implies crossing frontlines and multiple checkpoints—and proponents of “crossborder” aid operations into opposition-held territory despite the objection of Damascus. What is at stake in this “crossline versus crossborder” debate is not only the ability of the international aid system to reach those most in need in Syria, but also the means to make that possible, bringing in the question of the availability of funds.

Key Conclusions

  • Humanitarian aid in Syria is constrained by the deeply state-centric nature of the legal and institutional framework regulating humanitarian assistance, which requires the consent of the host government.
  • While stepping up their assistance to the Syrian opposition, traditional Western donors are reluctant to fund crossborder operations without the government’s consent, wary that it could jeopardize activities of aid agencies that operate from Damascus.
  • Unlocking broader funding of crossborder aid operations is dependent on Damascus’ authorization and requires engaging into robust humanitarian diplomacy with the regime’s allies (Russia, China, and Iran) who might be able to secure this agreement.


The January 29 statement by the aid organization MSF, reiterated this week, bluntly criticized the humanitarian response in Syria, saying that “the current aid system is unable to address the worsening conditions facing people,” especially the estimated one third living in rebel-controlled areas. A concomitant but unrelated needs-assessment report conducted jointly by several unidentified aid agencies and the humanitarian arm of the Syrian opposition further claimed that at least 3.5 million people require urgent humanitarian assistance in opposition-controlled northern Syria, almost outpacing the country-wide estimates given by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). To fill this gap, MSF is urging the international community to step up its support to humanitarian assistance delivered across borders in rebel-held areas, including without the consent of the Syrian government if it cannot be secured.

This call for action, bolstered also by the Syrian opposition’s criticism that international aid ends up in the government’s pockets, touched a raw nerve as it questions the impartiality of aid, a fundamental principle guiding humanitarian action. Other aid organizations were quick with statements of their own. OCHA, through the voice of its operations director John Ging, acknowledged the need to have crossborder operations but insisted this must be subject to the agreement of all parties, including the Syrian government. However, he denied the accusations of imbalances, claiming that “almost half the food assistance is delivered in disputed or opposition-controlled areas.” Pierre Krähenbühl, John Ging’s counterpart within the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), recently defended the stand of its organization to operate across frontlines by the fact that many of those suffering “are located deep inside Syria,” in areas not easily accessible from borders or under government control.

Underlying this debate is the deeply state-centric nature of the legal and institutional framework regulating humanitarian assistance. International humanitarian law, which gives the legal bases to humanitarian action in situations of conflict, recognizes that states have the primary responsibility for ensuring the basic needs of affected populations—a responsibility confirmed by UN General Assembly 46/182 of 1991, the cornerstone of the modern humanitarian system. Humanitarian aid is subject to the consent of the host state, which must allow and facilitate relief for civilians in need as long as the aid is impartial (i.e., guided only by the priority of objectively assessed needs) and is not supporting the adverse party. Beyond the concrete operational implications of impartial and neutral humanitarian action—that allows acceptance by all parties and therefore contributes ensuring aid workers’ safety and access to populations—these principles also have legal implications, as a lack of respect thereof can justify a refusal by the government to let assistance in.

One can denounce, as the aid agency Médecins du Monde/Doctors of the World did, the “hypocrisy of influential governments…who, whilst proclaiming their desire to see an end to the conflict and the departure of a murderous dictator, refuse to support the massive delivery of aid to the so-called ‘free’ zones.” But it remains that, if donor governments openly fund crossborder humanitarian operations in defiance to Damascus, it could compromise funding to agencies operating from government-controlled areas and jeopardize their activities. As Western traditional donors slowly step up their assistance to the Syrian opposition—ironically, a cause of concern to many aid agencies—they remain cautious to maintain an appearance of impartiality and neutrality in their humanitarian funding in line with international humanitarian law. For that purpose, they maintain, somewhat artificially, two pots of money: one for funding Syrian opposition groups, and one to finance aid agencies operating with the consent of the regime.

Donors could immediately expand support to aid actors already operating across borders in rebel areas, but, for reasons above, they would likely do so by conspicuously reaching into the money pot dedicated to support the Syrian opposition. Besides ensuring an appearance of legality, donors are wary that funding crossborder operations with the humanitarian envelop without Damascus’ consent would give the regime a handy excuse to further constrain aid agencies operating from the capital, or expel them altogether. Indeed, in the existing international legal order, crossing a border without the agreement of the sovereign government—arguably a bold and respectable endeavor in the Syrian context—is perceived as an act of militancy and hardly passes the neutrality test under international humanitarian law.

There is no doubt that crossborder aid operations are needed, but so is the presence of humanitarian agencies operating from Damascus, despite all their constraints. In an environment where frontlines are moving almost on a daily basis and where population seen as supportive of the current regime are increasingly embroiled in the conflict, needy populations in rebel-controlled areas today might well be found on the other side tomorrow.

As unsatisfactory as it may sound, the best way to achieve a greater coverage of humanitarian needs is to convince the Syrian government to consent to crossborder humanitarian aid, or to secure a resolution from the UN Security Council authorizing such efforts, as called for by Human Rights Watch. In either case—and as previously argued in this publication—this requires engaging in robust humanitarian diplomacy to convince Damascus’ allies such as Russia, China, and Iran, to apply pressure on Damascus to secure this agreement.

Jérémie Labbé is a Senior Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute.

About the photo: Syrian refugees in Kurdistan’s Domiz camp. Credit: UNHCR/J. Seregni