From Turkey to Syria: The murky world of cross-border assistance

We recently returned from the Turkish-Syrian border, where we found mostly positive changes in the Turkish response to the Syrian refugee influx since our last visit to the region in October 2013. Although Turkey currently hosts almost 1.8 million registered Syrian refugees – of the total 4 million in the region – this number pales in comparison with the over 12 million Syrians within Syria who are in need of humanitarian assistance.  

Barrel bombs target health facilities, millions of children are unable to go to school, and civilians cower in basements. Some 4.8 million Syrians live in what the U.N. calls “hard to reach areas” – a euphemism that glosses over the nightmare they face. Most Syrians in these “hard to reach areas” are now unemployed, have depleted their savings, and are therefore unable to flee to the relative safety of the Turkish border. 

The U.N. reports that over 7 million Syrians have been displaced within the country, but we have noticed that displacement is dynamic and that many internally displaced persons (IDPs) are constantly moving. But this 7.6 million figure has remained constant since last October. There is virtually no international protection mechanism operating and reporting from inside Syria – at least for those displaced within opposition-controlled areas or in “hard to reach areas.”    

In this horrific context, cross-border assistance plays a vital role in keeping Syrians alive. Turkey’s cross-border aid system, the so-called “zero-point delivery system”, is still in place. Under this system, the Turkish Red Crescent Society oversees the collection and transfer of assistance into Syria in coordination with a Turkish NGO called the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH). However, the operation of this system has become much more complicated, as some of the areas along the Syrian side of the border have come under the control of radical Islamic outfits, including ISIS. Both security concerns and logistical challenges have increased, complicating efforts to ensure the safe delivery of humanitarian assistance into Syria: International humanitarian staff are no longer allowed to accompany cross-border aid and Syrian staff find it increasingly dangerous to deliver aid to an area where control of territory frequently shifts. Because delivering assistance depends on negotiations with a changing array of armed actors, monitoring where the aid actually ends up is, to put it mildly, difficult – if not impossible.

Since we last visited the area, the U.N. Security Council has adopted two resolutions enabling U.N. agencies to mount cross-border assistance into Syria at four designated crossings without approval from Damascus. Since then, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has set up operations in Gaziantep, Turkey, and has achieved greater coordination between U.N. agencies as well as with INGOs working on cross-border operations.

While coordination seems to have improved and operations are gradually extended to the whole of Syria, this is still far from sufficient. The reality is that Syrian organizations are responsible for ensuring the delivery of relief in what is probably the most difficult operating-environment in the world. Although Syrian staff put their lives under risk, many have reported feeling like second-class citizens within the humanitarian community and are unable to access coordination meetings held in English. If there is a silver lining to this tragedy that is unfurling within Syria, it is that Syrian NGOs are developing a logistical and organizational capacity that may prove useful in the post-conflict era.  

Although coordination seems to be improving, at least on the Turkish side, monitoring humanitarian assistance going into Syria has become much more difficult. Compared to the findings of 18 months ago, the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition has exacerbated the situation by creating shifting lines of control and multiple checkpoints manned by armed actors with different affiliations. It has become more difficult to deliver relief, and as a result, an increasing number of civilians are trapped in untenable circumstances. 

For many, reaching the Turkish border has become risky and prohibitively costly. In these opposition-controlled areas, people are provided sustenance through cross-border assistance, most of which comes from Turkey. As the war enters its fifth year, however, this humanitarian assistance is quickly exhausted. Measures need to be taken to revitalize the local economy and to build up local production. We have spoken to many people who underlined the need to support long-term agricultural projects, but it is difficult to see how development projects can be implemented across conflict-stricken zones. 

Since our last visit in October 2013 the Syrian displacement crisis has clearly become much deeper, more complex and is increasingly recognized as a protracted crisis. Almost everyone we talked with – governments, the U.N., non-governmental organizations, academics, Syrian groups, businessmen – recognized that the situation in Syria is unlikely to improve in the near future. While the refugee situation receives at least some media coverage, the conditions of those who are trapped or displaced inside Syria are virtually unreported.  

At a time when the number and scale of humanitarian crises are straining the international community’s ability to respond, the greatest challenge is to remain committed to ensuring the continued flow of humanitarian aid into Syria. The role of the Turkish government in supporting these humanitarian cross-border operations needs to be acknowledged and affirmed. At the same time, every effort should be made to insulate the humanitarian operations from other less-humanitarian activities. The lives of millions of Syrians inside Syria depend on it.

This piece was originally published in
Hurriyet Daily News