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Opinion: Ten years of conflict in Syria and humanitarian aid is still a challenge to deliver

Meath man Derek O’Rourke is GOAL’s Middle East Security Advisor. He outlines the challenges faced by NGOs as they navigate Syrian regions devastated by war.

Derek O’Rourke

15 March is largely considered to be the ten-year anniversary of the start of the war in Syria. In that decade, hundreds of thousands have died and been displaced. This is our first in a two-part series on the devastating war, that shows no sign of easing:

ALL WARS END and the ten-year conflict in Syria will end one day, too. But that day is not close.

The four million people are squeezed between an active frontline and the Turkish border in the north-western Syrian provinces of Idlib and Aleppo – an area the size of Co. Galway – have no choice but to wait for the conflict to end, hoping that they and their children live to see that day.

Until that day comes, for many if not most of them, humanitarian aid is their only lifeline.

The only way to get food and medicine or tents and blankets to those people is via an international border crossing from Turkey, a process that since 2014 has been mandated by a UN Security Council Resolution.

Ireland joined the Security Council in January and we now have an opportunity to influence this critical matter.

There used to be four border crossing points under the Resolution – two from Turkey, one from Jordan, and one from Iraq. But in 2020 a permanent Security Council member used its veto to reduce the number of crossings to one.

The Resolution is up for renewal this 10 July and that same member has already indicated that it will use its veto to shut that last humanitarian lifeline down.

A failed argument for a failed system

The argument goes like this: there is no need for cross-border humanitarian aid from outside Syria when aid can be delivered cross-line, from inside Syria. All international aid, the argument goes on, should be given first to Damascus who will, in turn, decide where it goes, and then see that it gets there.

This argument rests on three premises. Firstly that aid “can” be delivered cross-line from inside Syria, secondly that aid “will” be delivered cross-line from inside Syria, and thirdly that it “can” and “will” be delivered across the line safely.

The first premise is a matter of logistical capacity, the second a matter of will, and the third a question of security. Now, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that either the capacity to deliver or the will to deliver exists, and even if both did exist, it simply cannot be done safely.

Regarding the logistics, thousands of humanitarian trucks pass through the Turkish border crossing every month. GOAL alone sends across around a hundred trucks per month, and GOAL is only one of many agencies doing so.

The UN’s World Food Program sent across 930 trucks through the Turkish-Syrian border in the month of December last. If the cross-border entry point is closed to humanitarian aid on 10 July, a replacement “cross-line” entry point needs to be operational on 11 July, but no such point exists, nor is there one planned.

Even if construction began tomorrow the infrastructure would not be ready and fit for purpose – to deliver thousands of truckloads of aid every month to millions of people – by July.

As for the “will”, ten years is a reasonable enough time span from which to draw conclusions about trends, and over the course of ten years, the record on cross-line humanitarian aid delivery has been abysmal.

Take for example the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus where hundreds of thousands were left besieged and without cross-line aid for four years until they were bombed into submission.

There are plenty of other examples. There is no precedent to suggest that Damascus is prepared to accept international aid on behalf of civilians it considers to be the enemy and ensure that it reaches them.

Security

Finally, the matter of security. When we talk about “cross-line” aid delivery, the “line” in question is an active frontline between enemy combatants and is mined. There has been a ceasefire on that line for a year now, but a Syrian Conflict “ceasefire” does not mean a full cessation of firing.

Cross-line shelling and sniping is a daily occurrence, albeit at a massively reduced rate, and there are occasional skirmishes.

A staff member of a GOAL partner organisation was killed near the frontline on 4 November last by a cross-line artillery shell. It is not safe. Should the ceasefire collapse, as all Syrian Conflict ceasefires eventually do, we return to the bombardment of the intensity that leaves entire towns flattened.

Humanitarian aid agencies and their staff have been systematically and deliberately singled out for targeting in northwest Syria. More than 400 humanitarians have been killed in this conflict.

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That figure includes four of my colleagues, GOAL staff, killed in northwest Syria. In September 2016, a 30-truck UN aid convoy that also flew the banner of the Red Crescent was callously blown to bits by airstrikes in northwest Syria, killing 14 humanitarian workers. Hospitals and medical staff have been routinely and deliberately targeted throughout the conflict.

“Cross-line” humanitarian aid delivery is not a “viable alternative” to cross-border delivery from Turkey as mandated by the UN Security Council. Those thousands of monthly aid trucks I mentioned are not going to end the Syrian conflict, but they will keep people alive long enough to see that day.

15 March marks the 10th anniversary of this mindless conflict. All wars end and the conflict in Syria will end one day, too. But that day is not close.

Derek O’Rourke is Middle East Security Advisor with GOAL. He is originally from Co. Meath.

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