The international sanctions imposed on Syria since April 2011 are the most comprehensive on record. Nonetheless, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has over the past seven years waged an extraordinarily brutal war on his own people, killing half a million Syrians, displacing millions more, and creating a massive humanitarian crisis in the country.
Why have sanctions been so unsuccessful at stopping Assad’s killing machine? To some extent, the failure can be attributed to the Assad regime’s determination to survive, as well as to military and economic assistance from allies such as Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah. But a big part of the blame lies with the UN-led humanitarian effort in Syria. UN agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have permitted the Assad regime to take control of the $30 billion international humanitarian response, using donor funds to skirt sanctions and subsidize the government’s war effort. The bulk of these billions in diverted funds are from the same Western governments that imposed the sanctions.
The Syrian government’s ability to hijack the most expensive humanitarian effort on record signals a need for the UN to reform its system for providing aid, which defers to sovereign states even when they have declared war on parts of their own population. It is especially important to accomplish this reform now, before Syria replicates its deadly—and successful—redirection tactics through its new appeals for reconstruction aid.
The roots of the UN’s problems in Syria go back to the early years of the civil war. In spring 2012, when the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) began mobilizing to provide aid to Syria, the Syrian government insisted that OCHA centralize all operations in Damascus. The regime cited UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182, the basis of OCHA’s mandate, which states that “humanitarian assistance should be provided with the consent of the affected country” and that “the affected State has the primary role in the initiation, organization, coordination, and implementation of humanitarian assistance within
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