WASHINGTON -- Humanitarian groups are lobbying hard against a proposal by several U.S. senators that would turn over the delivery of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to a Syrian opposition council that’s criticized as too weak and too political to handle the responsibility.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is leading the charge to require the Obama administration to give the Syrian Opposition Coalition responsibility for aid delivery. The proposal was made after a bipartisan Senate delegation visited the region last month and heard firsthand Syrians’ frustrations with the pace and scope of U.S. and other foreign assistance.
The senators recommended that the Obama administration step up its support for the coalition so that the body “can visibly play a meaningful role in delivery of U.S. humanitarian aid.”
Executives from leading international aid groups are urging Congress to reject the recommendation. They say the proposal risks the traditional neutrality of aid missions and would place delivery of aid in the hands of an organization with no network for delivering it.
“The issue is whether or not we start turning aid into a political tool for the West,” said one humanitarian aid executive who met with members of Congress in recent days to discuss the issue. “Aid should be impartial, aid should be neutral, and aid, frankly, should be delivered with organizations that have the capacity to be accountable as well as able to get it there in the most efficient manner.”
The executive was one of three humanitarian aid officials from different agencies who met with McClatchy to discuss the issue on condition of anonymity because of the security and political sensitivities of their work in Syria.
In late January, the Obama administration announced that it would contribute another $155 million to aid Syrians displaced by the conflict in their country, bringing to $365 million the U.S. commitment to date.
The tug-of-war over how that aid is delivered – and by whom – is just one facet of a complex and worsening humanitarian crisis that affects millions of Syrians – many of whom are living in areas of the country that are difficult to reach.
The aid executives acknowledge that they have been able to reach only a fraction of the Syrians in need. But they warn that conditions could be far worse should Congress legislate the handover of aid delivery to opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Many members of the opposition coalition, the aid officials said, hail from the political elite that ruled Syria before or in the early days of the Assad dynasty. With their loyalties to disparate religious sects, political ideologies and regions of the country, the leaders could hardly be described as neutral. The main concern among aid workers is that the opposition would create a patronage system, steering goods to their own factions and stripping the veneer of neutrality from the process.
“I’m not calling into question their integrity,” one of the humanitarian officials said of the opposition leaders, “but how much can they resist the temptation of directing aid toward different agenda items?”
“We’re worried about a situation where decisions about aid are not based on vulnerability, but are being based on other factors, patronage and so on,” added another. “From a humanitarian perspective, that’s a dangerous road.”
In addition, the officials said, the council simply lacks the ability to navigate the tangled logistics of getting aid such as flour, blankets and food into an active war zone.
As it stands, many international aid agencies are following a two-track system, distributing aid through official channels in Damascus – for which they are criticized by some opposition figures – but also through independent, cross-border pipelines, trucking it in through Jordan and Turkey to opposition-controlled areas inside Syria. A third cross-border aid pipeline, via the northern Kurdish region in Iraq, is expected to open soon, the executives said.
The State Department appears loath to change that delivery process, which took no small amount of diplomacy to set up with contacts on the ground in Syria, as well as the governments in Ankara and Amman. Beside, U.S. officials have said, distributing aid via a shadow, unrecognized governing body would be virtually unprecedented; most everywhere else, U.S. assistance is doled out via the United Nations or partner nongovernmental organizations.
Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, made it clear in a recent phone call with journalists that while the Syrian opposition council is valuable in providing contacts and assessing what places need aid, there were no plans to use it as a delivery mechanism.
“Aid is supposed to be delivered not based on one’s political beliefs or which side one’s picking in a war or which faction one belongs to, but instead based on need,” Richard said. “So their assessment, their networks are very important to us, so we want to work with them. But right now, they’re not built as an organization to deliver aid.”
McCain and other members of the congressional delegation that met with the opposition leadership are more confident that the council is up to the task, pointing out that the council has now established a wing that focuses on aid.
“Having built an assistance component of the council, we strongly believe that it is time to empower the council to deliver humanitarian aid with sufficient vetting to ensure aid reaches the people of Syria,” the delegation wrote.
But the humanitarian aid executives said the opposition’s “assistance component” is just two people. They point out that their own agencies are still struggling to meet demand even with large staffs, longstanding ties to U.S. government agencies and operations in Syria and several of its neighbors.
What McCain and the others really want to do, the aid executives said, is to “stand up a Syrian opposition through humanitarian aid.” They noted that the coalition is already receiving $50 million in State Department funds to turn itself into a legitimate, credible government in waiting that’s poised to take charge should Assad’s regime crumble.
“I don’t think it’s a question of the administration not helping the Syrian opposition,” one of the humanitarian officials said. “But we would draw a line with the senators’ conclusion that all aid or most aid needs to be funneled now through the Syrian opposition, where there’s just no capacity to provide that.”
The dispute over humanitarian aid comes as the Obama administration also is being criticized for refusing to provide military aid to the opposition. President Barack Obama vetoed a proposal for military assistance to the rebels that had the backing of four senior advisers, including Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, then the CIA director, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The White House explained that rejection last week by saying lethal aid to the rebels would endanger the Syrian people, Israel and the United States – an apparent reference to the al Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, a rebel faction that has become its leading military arm but that was added to the State Department’s list of international terrorist groups in December.
New Secretary of State John Kerry has indicated that stance isn’t softening, voicing concern on several recent occasions over the involvement of the Nusra Front in the rebel movement.
The opposition coalition’s president, Sheik Mouaz Khatib, has criticized the State Department’s designation of Nusra as a terrorist organization.