from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

American Humanitarian Aid in Syria: Too Little, Too Late, Too Much to Assad

February 27, 2013

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Today’s Washington Post reports that

The Obama administration is moving toward a major policy shift on Syria that could provide rebels there with equipment such as body armor and armored vehicles, and possibly military training, and could send humanitarian assistance directly to Syria’s opposition political coalition.

The United States will continue to refuse military aid to the rebels, but the policy change is viewed as a significant one and has been signaled in remarks by our new secretary of state during his trip this week.

The rebellion against the Assad regime is now two years old. There are an estimated 70,000 dead and perhaps 4 million refugees and displaced persons. Large areas of the country are now in rebel hands or are contested between the rebels and the regime.

In that context it is worth stopping to re-read one line quoted above: if the new policy is implemented the United States "could send humanitarian assistance directly to Syria’s opposition political coalition." This of course makes one wonder where we have been sending it. The Post answers the question:

The Obama administration, citing legal restrictions on direct funding of the opposition, has funneled $385 million in humanitarian aid through international institutions and nongovernmental organizations, most of which operate under Syrian government supervision.

There is no better measure of the failed policy toward Syria that has been followed these two years by the Obama administration. Nor need we look much further to understand why, as the Post also reports

The opposition...has been strident in its criticism of the United States and others for refusing to provide it with the resources to organize a quasi-government and broaden its support inside Syria.

In the midst of a gigantic rebellion against the Assad regime and immense humanitarian suffering inflicted by that regime, we have been providing aid to agencies that operate under the supervision of that regime. The disgraceful result is revealed in a January 29, 2013 statement by Medecins Sans Frontieres:

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.

It should be obvious that the ability to dispense food, medicine, and other crucial humanitarian goods is a source of power and influence. 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."

That the provision of military aid, lethal or non-lethal, directly to the rebels should occasion long debate is understandable, though two years of dithering is unforgivable. But even if you think it to be forgivable, and indeed proper, to be considering two years in whether we should now direct our humanitarian aid away from government-controlled agencies and areas and toward rebel-controlled areas and rebel groups we favor is the greatest indictment of the administration’s Syria policy. Let us hope that the policy changes Secretary Kerry has been talking about are implemented immediately.

More on:

Middle East and North Africa

Syria

United States

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