More on the dilemmas facing humanitarian workers in conflict zones

A while back I wrote about the difficulty for third-parties of remaining neutral/impartial in conflict zones (here). These debates flare mostly in the context of the war in Syria. Yesterday there were more news on the dilemmas that humanitarian workers in Syria face. The journal Foreign Policy obtained records of how many Syrians the World Food Programme (UN’s food relief organization and the largest aid agency on that issue) was able to reach and where these people were located. Read the whole piece here.

I want to make three points. First, the coverage of the humanitarian effort is still not very wide. It is estimated that 9.3 million Syrians in the country need steady humanitarian aid, the WFP reaches only 4.1 million. Second, WFP is reaching more people now than a few months ago, but it is not because WFP is able to operate in a larger portion of the country. Rather, it is because many Syrians are migrating into regime-controlled areas, which is where WFP is allowed to operate. The Assad regime restricts WFP’s access to rebel-controlled areas to starve the rebels (and the civilians helping them) and, it looks like this tactic is working. On the FP webpage you can see maps of where the WFP is able to provide relief aid. 

Finally, the article does not say that food is not the only motive for this migration to regime-controlled areas. It is possible that people are leaving areas under the control of radical Islamist rebel groups, because they prefer to live under Assad. We simply do not know. However, the article tells us that at least the rebels hold Assad’s tactics responsible and highlight how this lop-sided delivery is weakening them.

The bottom line is this: 

“Stuck between a brutal regime willing to use food as a weapon and radical rebel groups who haven’t shied away from attacking NGOs in the region, the U.N. is in a tough spot as the vast majority of its aid goes to the Assad regime. “It’s a terrible dilemma for the international community and World Food Program,” said Landis. “Do you stop providing all aid because it goes through the hands of Assad and legitimizes him or not?”



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