When the Ba’th Party assumed power in 1963, the Syrian government set up state-funded associations for all major groups of the population – women, youth, farmers, etc. As the government saw no need for parallel structures, most pre-existing associations were subsumed under the government-sponsored organizations and the registration of new organizations was virtually stopped, according to Badael Research Team, Activism in Difficult Times: Civil Society Groups in Syria 2011-2014, Lebanon, 2014.
With this state monopoly in place, the only associations that were founded and registered in the 1960s and 1970s were almost exclusively charitable and very largely religiously motivated. They supported the poor, the elderly, orphans and the disabled. Political unrest and subsequent emergency legislation led to the halt in registration of all local charities between the 1980s and 1990s (Alliance for Peacebuilding, Civil Society in Syria: A Milestone for Sustainable Peace, September 2013). It was not until the end of the 1990s that the Syrian government finally granted official status to a number of charitable associations that had been set up in the preceding two decades and had been operating informally.
One effect of the Syrian Crisis – alongside the associated restrictions and declining capacity of the provision of aid and basic services – has been the growth of local national governmental organizations (NGOs) to fill the gap left from the prior lack of organizations. Thanks to these local NGOs, the UN has been able to operate and scale-up its programmes within Syria.
Despite this, the process of UN aid distribution remains grueling as the Government vets all locations prior to aid distribution – meaning, unless an agency has approval from the Government to distribute aid in a certain location, they are not authorized to access the area. Prior to the UN Security Council Resolution 2139, this caused many restraints in regards to humanitarian space, as many needy people residing in opposition (non-Government) held territories could not be reached. Since its adoption, the resolution has allowed the frequent movement of aid between Government controlled, across control lines.
In addition to this, the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2165/2191 allows for the distribution of aid cross border from Jordan, Turkey and Iraq slightly. Other than widening the scope for humanitarian actors inside Syria, this resolution ensured that even the people residing in opposition held territory are being reached with life-saving assistance.
The idea then would be one of complementarity – the ability of aid agencies to reach both Government and opposition-held territory means the wider reach of people in need. This in principle, because for locations such as Madaya – seemingly the only one of these locations being covered by international news agencies – which are under siege, are strategically inaccessible for aid agencies in so far as the supply route into the location is cut off. Let us take Madaya as an example – it is a city located in the western countryside of Damascus (Rif Damascus) whichhas been under siege for over seven months. In this sense, Madaya has been under opposition control, but is surrounded by government-controlled territories, meaning that unless there is a ceasefire to allow aid in, there is no access route neither via cross-border nor from within Syria.
As a result, the conditions within these besieged locations are incredibly dire. Prior to the first humanitarian convoy to Madaya in October 2015, inhabitants reported that many essential food items were either unavailable or unaffordable; wheatflour, a Syrian staple, was simply not available, while rice and other commodities were sold at over USD 200 per kg. And the population of these areas are not even able to grow their own crops considering the heavily mined agricultural fields. In a situation such as this, those besieged need to adopt mechanisms to cope with the lack of assistance. In Madaya, for example, families report to have been eating grass and water mixed with spices in view of the lack of food.
Thankfully, the UN Security Council has the political power to push for ceasefires that allow for humanitarian convoys into the area to reach those in need. In mid-January, an inter-agency joint convoy delivered assistance to the four besieged towns of Madaya, Zabadani (Rural Damascus), Foah and Kefraya (Idleb). At the beginning of this month the UN received approval to deliver additional supplies to the four towns to complement the assistance sent in January. However, the window of hope that national ceasefires create for Syrians fleeing and displaced from conflict that are in dire need for basic services and shelter come too infrequently and at a great cost. If people living in besieged territories are to be expected to wait until a political solution is found before a ceasefire takes place and humanitarian convoy is allowed into the area, not only will it mark the true politicization of aid, but most importantly, a great many lives will be lost.