Aid Operations Caught in the Crosshairs of Syrian Conflict

This article was published by the Interdependent on April 18, 2013

In early April, two trucks belonging to the World Food Programme (WFP) were hijacked en route to Aleppo. It was but the latest in a string of incidents primarily involving rebel forces that have challenged the ability of UN organizations to provide aid and health care to those Syrians who need it most.
Both the WFP and the International Red Cross (ICRC) and Red Crescent have sounded the alarm recently about rising security risks to their operations. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) has seen 23 of its vehicles hijacked and six ambulances destroyed. The WFP has endured over 20 attacks since it started operations in December 2011, affecting trucks that transport food and warehouses and other vehicles.The attacks on WFP operations averaged once a month in 2012. Since the beginning of this year, that number has jumped to once a week, which makes the two-truck hijacking particularly alarming. According to Matthew Hollingworth, who is in charge of WFP’s operations in Syria, “[The trucks] were detained at opposition checkpoints while they were crossing front lines and the drivers detained and the commodities taken.”

After three days of negotiations through the SARC, both the drivers and the goods were released, but such violent incidents are clearly on the rise, and often goods are not returned. In March, three trucks containing food for 17,000 people in Al Hassakeh were detained by an armed group in rural Deir Ezzor, in the northeast of the country. Although the drivers were released, the food was never recovered.

Across Multiple Lines

During the past two years of the civil war, millions of Syrians have been displaced and consequently rely largely on aid for their survival. The WFP, the world’s largest humanitarian organization, is helping feed 2.5 million people per month throughout Syria, more than 90 percent of whom are internally displaced. But reaching them has been increasingly difficult. “The problem is that you don’t just cross one front line anymore, you cross multiple lines because there are so many factions,” says Kate Newton, WFP’s deputy country director for Syria.

According to Rima Kamal, spokesperson for the ICRC in Damascus, “Every aid organization that is working in Syria is facing that situation every day.” The dangers and incidents involved with providing aid have “definitely” increased, Kamal says. “For every field trip our staff make, we have to make that trade-off between what kind of risk is our staff willing to take and the needs on the ground,” she adds. “It is becoming more and more difficult for us to do our work.” Unfortunately, ICRC has had to cancel a number of field trips.

Attacks on aid workers have been on the rise globally, but especially in Syria. No incidents were recorded before 2011, but nine have been reported since then, leading to the deaths of six national staff and the wounding of seven more, according to data obtained from theAid Workers Security Database. Meanwhile, 17 staff members of the Arab Red Crescent have been killed, including two in March. And although nobody has died yet from the WFP, the agency is also facing problems. “We have had incidents where our staff have been shot at directly; we have had drivers being shot at and we have had staff who have been highjacked,” says Newton.

The drivers are most affected. Some areas are too dangerous for UN staff to enter, and so the contracted drivers are on their own. For particularly disputed areas, it is difficult to find drivers to deliver aid. “Not that there is an overall shortage of drivers, there are plenty of people who are unemployed and are willing to drive in Syria,” Newton explains. “The question is where they are willing to go. Many of the drivers are not too keen to risk their life.”

For now, the majority of the problems are in opposition areas. There have been instances of items being offloaded at government checkpoints. “It’s a few cartons here and there,” says Newton. “But it’s not widespread and it’s not in large quantities, and we hope that it stays that way.” However, the moving transport of food and medical aid has not been the only target.

Recently, a whole warehouse containing 300,000 to 400,000 tons of food was engulfed by fighting in Adra, on the outskirts of Damascus. During a lull in the fighting, WFP tried to recover the stock. “Obviously we don’t want to lose any food, any time, because every bit counts,” says Hollingworth. But as they were going in to rescue supplies, a mortar hit the facility.

“I’m not sure we are going to be able to get back to that site; there are now remnants of war,” Hollingworth says. Among the incoming fire was an RPG, which failed to explode. Food for approximately 10,000 people thus remains inaccessible. “These sort of things are sporadic, but they are becoming more and more frequent as the intensification continues across the country,” he adds.

Organizational Outreach

In the absence of a ceasefire, organizations are doing outreach to educate groups and governments about the importance of their work. The ICRC says it is reaching out to opposition fighters and the Syrian government about sparing health-care workers and relief personnel. WFP is also providing information to the population about their efforts. The agency sent out 400,000 food parcels in March, each of which contained a leaflet explaining the work of the UN and the WFP.

“It’s a case of…trying to get those groups to recognize that they are taking from their own people,” Hollingworth contends. “It is not in their own interest to take it because they are harming the people from which they come themselves.”

Meanwhile, the political situation in neighboring countries is also affecting aid. The road to Jordan cannot be used at all anymore, so anything arriving by road has to come through Lebanon. Yet in recent weeks, trucks coming from Lebanon have been attacked in the north of the country by armed groups that accuse the Lebanese government of letting through oil supplies to Syria. As a result, trucks are now being held up on both sides of the border. According to Hollingworth, 20 truckloads of WFP food have been held up in the north of the country.

The Human Cost

Syrian civilians, already suffering the greatest toll in the ongoing war, have been the most impacted by these disruptions in aid distribution. “People are dying every day, not because they are taking part in the fighting but because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Kamal of the ICRC, who contends that the conflicting parties should have more respect for civilians. The UN estimates that at least 70,000 people have already died in the conflict.

Meanwhile, the biggest threat to continuing aid distribution is not violence, but funding. In an unprecedented move, the leaders of five top UN humanitarian agencies—the WFP, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN Refugee Agency, the World Health Organization and the UN Children’s Fund—united on Monday in a joint appeal to the international community to come up with a political solution for the Syrian crisis.

The historic appeal came on the heels of the WFP’s urgent request last week for $81 million, which it needs to continue assisting 2.5 million people inside Syria and an additional million refugees in neighboring countries. If the funding does not come through, many of its current aid problems will have to be stopped.

“We’re only about one-third funded until December, so we hope that governments are going to support the Syrian people and are going to cough up,” says Newton of the WFP in Damascus. “For now we’re OK, but after May we have a huge shortfall in our food supply chain.”

One thought on “Aid Operations Caught in the Crosshairs of Syrian Conflict

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