Home > News > The U.N. says Syrians can keep getting international aid from Turkey — for now. Here’s what’s at stake.
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The U.N. says Syrians can keep getting international aid from Turkey — for now. Here’s what’s at stake.

Syrian activists have built humanitarian aid groups and a nascent civil society in rebel-held areas — which puts them in danger if the Syrian government retakes that territory.

- July 22, 2021

On July 9, the U.N. Security Council voted to renew the mandate allowing cross-border humanitarian aid operations into Syria. The 2014 resolution had allowed international aid agencies to send supplies into Syria from neighboring countries, without the Syrian government’s permission.

Since the resolution was passed, the Syrian government has recaptured territory. Russia and China, Syria’s allies on the Security Council, have challenged the cross-border operations as infringing on state sovereignty. Only one border crossing from Turkey remains active.

Western governments and international organizations have spent months arguing that millions of civilians in northern Syria rely on cross-border aid simply to survive. The Syrian government has a record of obstructing international organizations in Damascus from delivering aid across front lines. Ending cross-border aid would endanger the well-being of civilians in rebel-held areas.

But closing the last remaining border crossing would also threaten Syrian organizations that deliver aid, as my research has documented.

The remarkable growth of Syrian aid organizations

In 2011, the Syrian government met a popular uprising with repression. The ensuing war has displaced more than half of the country’s population, killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians and enabled numerous groups to launch unlawful and extreme violence. Syrians who remained engaged in nonviolent action in rebel-held territory, and even outside the country, have been detained, violently targeted or forcibly displaced throughout the war, observers report.

From the start of the conflict, the Syrian government blocked international aid organizations from the parts of Syria it wanted to punish: areas held by rebels and populated by civilians and activists who opposed the government. In response, several international aid groups set up shop in neighboring countries so that they could deliver medical supplies, flour for bakeries, and toilets and showers from neighboring countries directly to the people in need. As Doctors Without Borders explained, that was “the only realistic way to increase aid in the rebel zones.”

U.N. agencies couldn’t do that; they work through governments. So the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) lobbied for a solution. As a result, in July 2014, the Security Council passed Resolution 2165, allowing aid groups to work across the border, from Turkey and Jordan, without the Syrian government’s permission. They would still deliver from the Syrian capital as well. This “Whole of Syria” approach was an institutional innovation.

But none of these international groups could work across borders themselves, or easily. Access was risky and difficult, and they lacked up-to-date information and contacts.

Meanwhile, Syrians who engaged in the uprising were adapting to war. Instead of protesting, many of those in rebel-held areas and in neighboring countries were undertaking things like journalism and local governance. On the humanitarian side, they were trying to take care of medical needs and educate children who could no longer go to government schools. They had no background in any of this or the capacity to scale it up to the needs of, say, thousands in a displaced persons camp. But they had language, access and the appetite for risk — the very things international groups trying to deliver aid across borders lacked.

So, local activists and international organizations linked up. The international groups offered their money, infrastructure and practices — which helped members of these nascent Syrian groups mobilize to deliver aid such as food baskets and generators, all while risking their lives to do so. They were still engaged in their cause, but via humanitarian aid delivery, my research finds — quite the transformation from barely organized protesters. That’s despite the fact that Syria has been among the deadliest places for aid workers in the world, according to international humanitarian group CARE.

OCHA counts the number of “partner organizations” for cross-border operations from Turkey each month. These increased from 49 in April 2014 to more than 400 in December 2017. That remarkable growth represented Syrian organizations in northwest Syria. Hundreds more have emerged there and elsewhere, focused variously on refugees, civil society and governance, and development and stabilization.

Syria’s seen more than 140 cease-fires. What did they achieve?

The tide turns against cross-border operations

When rebels controlled substantial territory in the north and south, international groups were able to deliver a great deal of aid, especially through Turkey. But as the Syrian government has gained control of more territory, it has lobbied to have all aid operations consolidated in its capital. International aid delivery has been shaped by who controls territory where, not just by where Syrians have the greatest needs.

OCHA has argued that it should continue delivering aid across borders, no matter who is in control. But Syria’s allies on the Security Council have had other plans. Daraa in southern Syria was brought under Russian and Syrian control in 2018; when the cross-border mandate went up for renewal the next year, Russia and China helped shut down aid delivery to the south from across Jordan’s border, as well as one crossing that was briefly open from Iraq to the Kurdish-held northeast of Syria.

That leaves Idlib in the northwest, the last remaining stronghold of Arab rebels in Syria, and home to millions of displaced people and vulnerable populations who depend on international aid. Without that aid, U.N. officials have warned, the situation in Idlib would go “from terrible to catastrophic.”

Will Syrian refugees head home?

Syrian aid workers are vulnerable

As Assad’s forces reclaimed territory and obstructed aid in southern Syria, they swiftly shut down hundreds of activist organizations. That happened in Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs as well, forcing activists and their organizations to flee and disband.

That leaves Syrians needing aid quite vulnerable. The nascent Syrian aid organizations in northwest Syria are also vulnerable. The Security Council has renewed the mandate for cross-border aid, for now. But the threat of closure reminded these organizations — already operating on short-term and competitive project-based subcontracts — that they cannot rely on the rest of the world indefinitely.

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Rana B. Khoury is an incoming postdoctoral fellow at the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University.

For more on Syria, check out TMC’s Syria Topic Guide.