By Allison Brennan and Elise Labott
The decision by the Obama administration to provide nonlethal aid to Syrian rebel forces seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad is drawing fire from some in the aid community, saying it politicizes aid and violates principles of neutrality which governs aid delivery.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday announced the United States would give aid to armed opposition, including medical supplies and meals. The aid marks the first signs of direct and vocal American support for the rebels in the nearly two-year bloody conflict, which the UN estimates has claimed more than 70,000 lives and forced millions more from their homes.
Washington hopes the aid will bolster the credibility of the Syrian opposition, peel away supporters from al-Assad and curb a growing allegiance to radical Islamic groups gaining favor among the population by providing basic services to citizens in rebel-controlled areas.
But some aid workers worry al-Assad’s regime could punish all humanitarian groups for the U.S. decision, thus hampering efforts to deliver aid.
“I can’t imagine that they are going to be super happy about it,” said a senior aid official for a faith-based organization operating on the ground in Syria who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing aid efforts. “Is it going to impede our access six months from now if one side gets a better hand than the other side?”
The State Department is making a distinction between the direct aid to the Syrian opposition and some $385 million in humanitarian aid which is delivered through the United Nations and aid groups throughout the country.
“There are still two separate pots,” deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters. “We will still continue to spend money through aid organizations to feed any Syrian that needs it. And some of that has crossed rebel lines between the rebel and regime lines, and some of that has gone into areas that are still held by the regime... Separately, and apart from that, what we’re trying to do is accelerate the opposition’s ability to govern the space that they have. And so part of what we’re doing is working with the opposition coalition as they build that up.”
But Andrew Natsios, a former USAID administrator currently at the Bush School of Government and Foreign Policy at Texas A&M University, says because the aid to the military involves life-saving items like food and medical supplies, it jeopardizes the humanitarian groups. Aid efforts, he said, must remain neutral in order for groups to access needy populations in areas held by both sides in the conflict and receive safe passage through war-torn areas. Groups seen as favoring one side over the other may be viewed with suspicion and lose their access to those in need or expelled from the country.
“Assistance that saves people’s lives should not be based on foreign policy considerations,” Natsios said. “It should conform to the international agreed-upon standards we’ve been following for two decades, and it would really be a serious compromise of that which the NGOs, the UN, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, most of the aid agencies would strenuously object to if (the Obama administration) starts politicizing it.”
In addition to the food and medical supplies for the rebels, the aid package announced by Kerry on Thursday also included $60 million to local groups working with the Syrian Opposition Coalition to form a government-in-exile and deliver basic services to Syrians in rebel-held areas.
While the political aid for the opposition does not include items that are need-based, such as food or water, some aid experts say the whole package blurs the lines and warns Syrian forces, which have targeted bread lines and clearly marked humanitarian envoys. They could start targeting all aid workers in an effort to stop supplies going to the rebels.
One official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect aid workers on the ground, says his organization makes a concerted effort to distinguish between the $385 million the United States has earmarked for humanitarian aid, to be delivered through the United Nations, and direct funding for the Syrian opposition.
“If aid is being seen as overtly political, there is always more of a risk [of danger],” the aid official said. “If we starting pushing that definition of humanitarian aid, we end up with [our] people that are kidnapped and killed. I’ve been through that before in Chechnya, and I don’t want to go back to that.”
But Elliot Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations argues the aid system is not neutral because humanitarian groups must negotiate access with the Syrian government. In a recent statement, Doctors Without Borders cautioned that “international aid provided to Syria is not being distributed equally between government and opposition controlled areas. The areas under government control receive nearly all international aid, while opposition-held zones receive only a tiny share.”
What’s more, Abrams argues, the United States could help strengthen the opposition by helping them deliver aid to rebel-held areas.
“It should be obvious that the ability to dispense food, medicine and other crucial humanitarian goods is a source of power and influence,” Abrams wrote on his blog, Pressure Points.. “We have for two years complained of the composition of the opposition and the worrying strength of extremist elements – and have then failed even to provide the more moderate elements with humanitarian support that they could distribute to strengthen themselves. “Meanwhile the extremist groups engage in humanitarian relief efforts, such as paving new roads and clearing old ones, baking bread for the increasing number of needy Syrians and supplying foodstuffs.”
Michel Gabaudan, president of Refugees International, an advocacy organization that works to help refugees in conflict-ridden areas, argues Washington’s effort to help the opposition supply populations with basic services could underscore the principle of neutrality.
“In a conflict where there are victims, neutrality is trying to reach as many people as you can by whatever means you can,” he said. “There are lots of people who we could never be able to access through any other means than working through these Syrian groups, and if we don’t do it, people are just going to suffer unnecessarily.”