Aid experts warn U.S. aid to Syrian rebels blurs lines
March 2nd, 2013
12:50 PM ET

Aid experts warn U.S. aid to Syrian rebels blurs lines

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.”

soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. massoud

    Great we are funding these losers John Kerry is a globalist stooge, we should not be choosing sides in civil wars that are in the middle east or anywhere for that matter,

    March 3, 2013 at 12:59 am | Reply
  2. Thinker

    US has a short memory and doing same thing again and again, expecting different result.

    March 3, 2013 at 12:09 am | Reply
  3. Thinker

    This is a business decision. Saudi petro-dollar buys guns, Us feeds Islamist Jihadi and sends medicine, in case they get hurt.

    March 3, 2013 at 12:00 am | Reply
  4. admin

    Reblogged this on .

    March 2, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Reply
  5. seyed

    whats all of this pointless talk china should just nuke usa, britain, ireland, australia and ghana. just a-bomb all there irish asses bak to the jurassic age. then when they retaliate shot down all there minutman 3 icbms with your anti ballistic missile system. make these worm of humans pay a big prize for what they have said.

    March 2, 2013 at 6:15 pm | Reply
  6. Tembisa

    Reblogged this on World Chaos.

    March 2, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  7. George Patton in Bad Bad Mood today

    sixty mil in Syria, and few hundred mills for rebels in Egypt, North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, while we f***ing let go illegals. Obama you should be impeached.

    March 2, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Although I do agree with your post above, George Patton in bad Mood today, do cut out the nasty Tea Party lingo as it has no place here. Obama should not only be impeached but also charged with crimes against humanity for ordering the butchery of people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen with those ungodly drones of his, hurling 500 lb. bombs on them!

      March 2, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Reply
  8. George Patton in Bad Bad Mood today

    stupids are just going to throw away millions and millions down the drain; someone is going to get really really rich in Syria and here in the US. in 60 millions, you can rebuilt whole Damascus did you know that?

    March 2, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  9. Harry Kuheim

    Obama is glad to help out armed Islamofascist Rebels while at the same time trying to destroy his political rivals here in the US and disarm honest gun owners.

    March 2, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Reply
  10. Harry

    We are now in forced spending cuts which will cause thousands to lose their jobs but we have money to send to Syrian rebels? Makes sense to me! Pass the porcupine I have a nosebleed, anyone up for a game of hemorrhoids?

    March 2, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Reply
    • Harry

      "........... and if we don’t do it, people are just going to suffer unnecessarily.” Hmmm.... sounds like a good argument for solving the budget crisis here. Oh, I have an idea! Lets send more money to help other people f*** the people of this country.

      March 2, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  11. yarrov

    The way I see it, the small group of rebels is destroying their country.

    March 2, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  12. Walter A.

    Just curious how we can aid foreign fighters when we are about to chop 10's of thousands of employees due to the sequester? Foreign aid before home concerns?

    March 2, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Reply
    • Der

      Because authorizing aid bypass's that useless piece of crap congress we're saddled with.

      March 2, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Reply
    • V

      That's an easy one – it isn't really aid as much as an investment, is it? Stoke the embers until you start a rebellion, topple existing governments, install a puppet regime, milk them for everything they've got until they tire of you – and then start over again. Story sound familiar?

      March 2, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Reply
    • lapazjim

      How you ask?They will just take part of the money they cut and use it!! Isnt it nice to know that we have a country that will watch its own people suffer yet give billions and billions and more in aide to countries that would completley destroy this country and stab us in the back first chance they get.

      March 2, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Reply
    • diana horton

      i agree with you on your post. it"s not that i don't feel for the children however, we have people here at home that are hungry and in need of medical care. they want to give this money while we are told to cut spending. our own should come first. we also, need to keep our defences strong also. we alway seem to jump to help and then they bite the hand that feeds them. all we ever hear is how awful we are after they get what they want from us. we need to mind our own first. and kerry is a fool. they smile in your face and stab you in the back

      March 3, 2013 at 5:43 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      It appears that way, Walter A. This always happens when we elect those idiotic right-wing politicians into office. Enough is enough!

      March 3, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Reply
      • Walter

        Well Patrick, honestly, I'm looking at it from Canada (Windsor Ontario) across from Detroit. It just boggles my mind how a country can give away money when they are Trillions in debt, a city like Detroit ready to collapse and many people without work. Toss more out on the street. My homeland isn't much smarter.

        My concern is my daughters are all US citizens and one works in law enforcement and the other is stationed in Afghanistan with the Marines, thus my interest. Time to let the Non North American countries fend for themselves for once. Cheers.

        March 3, 2013 at 9:41 pm |
  13. Ronald Grey

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    March 2, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  14. maxanshelsegal

    Reblogged this on FUNANDGOOD.

    March 2, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Reply

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