At the start of the Arab Spring, Syrian newborns could expect to live nearly 71 years. Five years later, life expectancy has plummeted to 55.4 years, lower than that in Afghanistan or Libya. As violence escalated, the United Nations even gave up on counting the Syrian war dead. Its last toll was 191,369 in August 2014. Since then, it has stuck firmly to an estimate of 250,000, despite continued slaughter and a February 2016 tally by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research of 470,000. Meanwhile, more than half the country’s population has been displaced: 6.3 million were forced to move within the country, and 4.9 million fled it altogether.

Such numbers highlight the importance of long-established efforts to protect and aid civilians during wars. That was the basis of the first Geneva Convention in 1864, and now it is part of the larger body of international humanitarian law, which allows the United Nations and other aid agencies operating under the principles of impartiality and neutrality to help those in need. But the task of sparing civilians also depends on the host government’s respect for such rules and principles.

In Syria, for nearly six years now, the Bashar al-Assad government has utterly disregarded these norms. The problem was first evident in March 2011, when the Syrian regime met a peaceful uprising with violence and repression. Since then, it has targeted civilians in areas unsympathetic to its rule, using siege and starvation, chemical weapons, cluster munitions, missiles and barrel-bombs, snipers and landmines, incendiary weapons, and incarceration and torture. Beyond attacking the people themselves, the government in Damascus has gone after essential civilian institutions such as schools, hospitals, and public health infrastructure, as well as doctors, aid workers, and first responders. From March 2011 to July 2016, there have been 400 documented attacks on health facilities, more than 90 percent by Syrian and Russian air forces. Of the documented 797 medics killed on duty, whether bombed, executed or tortured to death, 742 (93 percent) died at the hands of pro-regime forces. The Syrian regime, of course, denies these war crimes, as does Russia, its most important military ally.

Meanwhile, 87 professional aid workers (those employed by UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, international organizations such as Medecins sans Frontieres, and national agencies such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent) have been killed: 82 Syrians and five internationals. Another 50 have been kidnapped or incarcerated. Since the inception in early 2013 of the Syrian Civil Defense Union—better known as the White Helmets—a civilian team dedicated to recovering fellow Syrians from rubble and rescuing them from chemical attacks, 155 of its workers have been killed.

To date, the United Nations has spent well in excess of four billion dollars in donor funds on its emergency response; the bulk has gone directly to Damascus, without oversight or audit.

Assad’s shredding of the most fundamental rules of warfare presents a challenge to the United Nations, which—from its Syrian headquarters in Damascus—defends working with and even subsidizing the same government that is primarily responsible for the humanitarian crisis. To date, the United Nations has spent well in excess of four billion dollars in donor funds on its emergency response; the bulk has gone directly to Damascus, without oversight or audit.

In 2016, upset by a series of press exposés on the UN’s multi-billion-dollar support to the Assad regime, senior staff at the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) insisted that “the UN does not have the luxury of taking sides,” claiming that in partnering with the government, it can reach more people. It argues that, without such collaboration, it would be prevented from helping anyone.

There are several problems with this statement. First, not taking sides is not a luxury but a basic humanitarian principle (neutrality) designed to underwrite the distribution of aid according to greatest need (impartiality). Second, by its own admission, the UN is not reaching those in greatest need. The draft of the United Nations’ 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP), which I have reviewed (although it has yet to be released), acknowledges that the single biggest problem in reaching those most in need has been the lack of access to them. The reference is to the 6.3 million people living in areas “most affected by explosive weapons”—a euphemism for opposition-held territory, which Syrian and Russian air forces have relentlessly bombed—as well as the 1.2 million people living in besieged areas.

People sit around a fire in the rebel-held Syrian town of al-Rai, January 2017.
People sit around a fire in the rebel-held Syrian town of al-Rai, January 2017. 
Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

Behind the rhetoric are a number of controversial practices that the United Nations defends or denies. For example, it was revealed that UN agencies made payments to Syrian businesses (posing as NGOs) that were owned by officials on U.S. and EU sanctions lists. Similarly, the World Health Organization (WHO) has provided a multi-million-dollar subsidy to the Syrian Ministry of Defense (MoD) through the National Blood Bank, which the ministry controls. In other words, WHO effectively funded the ministry that is responsible for attacking hospitals and blood banks in opposition-held areas.

Last year, the United Nations’ humanitarian needs overview (HNO), used to provide the rationale for programming and funding of humanitarian operations, led with a sanitized description of the situation in Syria. At the Syrian government’s instruction, the HNO was scoured of all reference to conflict, hostilities, and besieged locations. A $32 million cross-border program for landmine clearance was removed from the document on the pretext of illegality. Population data was withheld, and there was no disaggregation of need between territory retained by the government and that held by rebels. An uninformed reader could be forgiven for imagining that the Syrian crisis was the result of an extremely long-running natural disaster.

The purpose of these efforts was to minimize the amount of aid that would enter Syria through Turkey and Jordan and to maximize aid that Damascus could control and distribute itself. And the exercise paid off. Most aid from the UN was channeled directly to Damascus. NGOs, in turn, jockeyed to position themselves near the money. The Norwegian Refugee Council partnered with Syria Trust, which was until recently headed by First Lady Asma al-Assad. Apart from following the money, NGOs sought the “street-cred” of being in Damascus, which was seen as desirable to many donors. 

This year’s HNO has been touted as a technical reboot—an apolitical document replete with all the numbers needed to inform an appropriate humanitarian response and mobilize funding. It was meant to be without the editorializing of 2016. The HNO is indeed packed with numbers, such as the staggering 13.5 million People in Need (PIN) figure. Yet the essential data are missing. There is no mention of such basic figures as the country’s total population (19.6 million), life expectancy, rate of child mortality, national vaccination coverage, or incidence of infectious diseases and outbreaks. The 13.5 million PIN is disaggregated according to catastrophic, critical, severe, major, and minor needs, absent any explanation of the criteria for these categories. Also lacking is a correlation of catastrophic or critical need with the relentless attacks and sustained sieges by government forces and their allies. There is likewise no relationship noted between need and non-government territory. 

Moreover, the document still insists that “all parties are responsible for violations of human rights.” Although that is technically true, the sweeping claim ignores the differential scale of atrocities committed by the Assad regime and its vastly more powerful weaponry that carry out those crimes. 

Last year’s sanitization of the HRP was crude. This year, it is hidden in carefully chosen language and footnotes, according to December 2016 emails I have seen from UN OCHA’s regional coordinator, Kevin Kennedy, and Ali Al-Zatari, Yacoub Hillo’s replacement as the humanitarian coordinator for Syria. After four rounds with the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the lack of a finalized document and the increasingly vague language in circulated drafts reflect the dictates of the Syrian government.

For example, the Syrian Foreign Ministry has rejected the term “besieged,” used by the ICRC to describe civilians surrounded by enemy forces, denied humanitarian aid or evacuation, and deprived of food, fuel, safe water, and medicine. Of the roughly 1.2 million civilians under siege in Syria, 1.1 million are besieged by the Assad regime. The HRP draft skirts the issue by referring to “locations listed in relevant UNSC Resolutions” or the new term “militarily encircled,” as if to downplay the fact that besieging civilians is a war crime. The Foreign Ministry’s only concession is a statement that it would agree to a footnote saying that, for the United Nations, these locations refer to areas declared as besieged.  

Syrians in the rebel-held town of Azaz inspect the site of an exploded fuel truck, January 2017. 
Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

The words “war” and “conflict” are not permitted, period. The term “hostilities” is allowed, but only for sparing use. On the one hand, this is an improvement from the 2016 HRP. On the other, acceptance of the Syrian government’s instruction to the UN to use another footnote to refer to its understanding that “crisis” may mean “conflict” marks a new low. The Syrian government further refuses to allow any reference to other non-state actors, such as the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar-al Sham, Jabat al-Husra, ISIS, or the left-wing Kurdish PYD, holding territory outside of regime control. Kennedy’s and Zatari’s explanation of the Assad regime’s refusal to allow mentions of these groups is that being named in the HRP implies a recognition of them.

And these are among the least bizarre euphemisms. A man, woman, or child forced to flee very fast from a bomb targeting their home is a “sudden-onset” displaced person. The report speaks of people who have “fallen into poverty,” as if that were an accidental consequence of war rather than the result of the government’s targeting of civilians or of its dismissal and “disappearance” of people deemed politically dangerous, such as teachers and lawyers, architects and economists.

“Local agreements” is the term used to describe the forced evacuation of people living in besieged areas such as Daraya, Moudamiyah, and Eastern Aleppo. “Lack of permission” is the explanation given for the failure to deliver aid to a particular area, without saying who denied the permission—almost always the Syrian government—or acknowledging that permission is often never granted at all. Further, the Syrian and Russian militaries’ targeting of health care becomes “seriously disrupted” health services.

The United Nations and its World Health Organization have stood firm in their choice of language even in the face of mounting criticism and serious concerns about financial malpractice. They didn’t back down after revelations of WHO’s ongoing multi-million-dollar subsidies for the National Blood Bank and outright denial of a direct relationship with the Syrian Ministry of Defense.

Meanwhile, UN OCHA’s acknowledgment that millions need humanitarian help—while it recognizes that humanitarian access has been denied to the millions who need it most but insists that the UN is “saving millions of lives”—is not only false but verges on fraudulent. Increasingly, donors aren’t buying it. The UN regional response budget of $3.2 billion for 2016, three times larger than that for other humanitarian emergencies such as Yemen and South Sudan, is less than 50 percent funded. UN OCHA has thus revised Syria’s 2017 budget to $2.5 billion, asking fellow UN agencies to cut programming considered unrealistic or without demonstrable impact.

OCHA’s instruction regarding financial parameters for 2017 speaks to the problem: “Unless the humanitarian community is better able to articulate priorities in the HRP, donors will have an excuse for not supporting the plan on account that it is not a sufficiently credible document that describes the priority response to assessed needs that can meaningfully be implemented by the humanitarian community in light of access and capacity constraints and that they can therefore be held accountable to funding.”

Syrians flee violence in the town of al-Bab, January 2017.
Syrians flee violence in the town of al-Bab, January 2017. 
Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

For now, WHO justifies working with the government on the basis that “most IDPs are in government territory.” Other agencies have said similar things—and their claims could be true, given the government’s takeover of major areas, most recently Aleppo, as well as the movement of people from areas targeted by bombs to those under government control. Yet given the radical and continued drop in life expectancy, the burden is on WHO and other UN agencies to show that their working with and supporting the Syrian government is doing substantially more good than harm. And there has been no such public analysis.

Further, without the considerable financial support provided by the UN (not only through direct subsidies, but also hundreds of jobs in Damascus and revenue from international staff), the Assad government would have had to pay for its own blood transfusions and its own food and shelter for the military (instead of relying on WFP food and UNHCR tents). It would have to pay for the scores of airdrops to government areas of Qamshli, Deir Ezzor, Foua and Kefraya. In turn, it might have found that it could afford fewer military aircraft dropping fewer bombs. As things stand, the humanitarian response in 2016 for Syria was almost $1.5 billion. WHO alone has spent well over $400 million there in the last four years. With what result? And at what cost in Syrian lives? They don’t say.

The failure to respond to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 is defended, albeit falsely, as a failure of not knowing. But after nearly six years, Syria reflects the agony of knowing all too well but doing too little.

The failure to respond to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 is defended, albeit falsely, as a failure of not knowing. But after nearly six years, Syria reflects the agony of knowing all too well but doing too little. In their defense, the United Nations and its subsidiaries insist that if they run afoul of the Syrian regime, they will lose all access to government-controlled parts of the country, and that partial access is better than none because there are still millions of lives to save. But there is a big difference between lives to save and lives saved, and the evidence of the latter is sparse. 

Meanwhile, the UN and its agencies avoid the real question: Is it worth working with and financing the murderous government on these terms? At the very least, the United Nations should provide evidence that aid is distributed impartially in government territory. Yet reports reveal that it goes first to the military, followed by military friends and family.

The United Nations was created to curb and prevent the horrific crimes of WWII, to provide asylum for refugees fleeing violence and persecution, and to protect fundamental freedoms. If UN agencies continue to prioritize institutional self-interest over serving those in greatest need, as they have in this year’s $2 billion humanitarian response plan for Syria, they move ever further from the UN’s founding principles. The international humanitarian community should check out of the Four Seasons, leave Damascus, and focus on coordinating effective cross-border aid from a distance. The siege of civilians and other war crimes must not be passed off in euphemisms.

The Syrian conflict has already been long and terrible, and it will worsen unless the bodies tasked with ameliorating such conflicts do their jobs. War is a growth industry not only for arms traders, but also for the aid industry. Yet WHO is not Wall Street. There are minimum standards of humanity at stake. As a new secretary general takes over the United Nations with a background in humanitarian assistance, the world should hope for considerably better. 

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