L'afflux des Syriens au camps de Domeez

Syria: Breaking the De Facto Humanitarian Embargo against Rebel-Held Areas

Fabrice Weissman

Graduated from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, Fabrice Weissman joined MSF in 1995. He spent several years as logistician and head of mission in Sub-Saharian Africa (Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, etc.), Kosovo, Sri Lanka and more recently Syria. He has published several articles and books on humanitarian action, including "In the Shadow of Just Wars. Violence, Politics and Humanitarian Action" (ed., London, Hurst & Co., 2004), "Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed. The MSF Experience" (ed., Oxford University Press, 2011) and "Saving Lives and Staying Alive. Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management" (ed., London, Hurst & Co, 2016).


Former Director of Operations of Médecins Sans Frontières, based in Paris

Date de publication

While European Union members are debating the lifting of arms embargo on Syria, populations living in opposition held territories continue to be severed from desperately needed humanitarian aid. Yet, there is a controversy among aid agencies on the best ways to scale up relief activities in Syria.

In a recent opinion piece , Pierre Krähenbühl, Director of Operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), took it out on aid organisations, describing the humanitarian effort in Syria as imbalanced and failing the populations living in opposition-held areas. Acknowledging however that more assistance is needed for civilians in rebel territories, he insisted that distributing assistance from Damascus was the only way to reach populations most in need. Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders believes to the contrary that only a massive cross-border aid operations from neighboring countries could cope with shortages of food, fuel, shelter, water, drugs affecting millions of people trapped in the war zone in the north of the country.

Since July 2012, the opposition has consolidated its control over large swathes of the rural areas in the northern and eastern parts of the country as well as most of the border crossings with Turkey. 4.5 million people, including 1.1 million displaced people , are estimated to live under the opposition administration in the six northern governorates of the country.

This population is currently excluded from the international aid effort deployed from the Syrian capital by the ICRC and the United Nations. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), which is the mandatory partner of all international aid agencies, is under heavy pressure from a government that has imprisoned a dozen of its officials. The Red Crescent does not have the trust of armed groups or of the population, to whom it appears above all as an auxiliary of the authorities responsible for their suffering. As a result, fewer than ten SARC aid convoys have managed to cross the frontlines to supply the insurgent populations in the northern and eastern areas of the country - though these populations are directly accessible from Turkey, making it possible to circumvent the dangerous frontlines (where seven SARC and eight UN employees have already lost their lives).

In practice, only a large-scale cross-border supply operation by road can meet the needs resulting from fighting, widespread destruction, population displacement, the collapse of public services, and worsening shortages in the rebellious north. This is unambiguously recognised by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), whose Operational Director stated late January that "cross-line access from within Syria, while vital, is just not enough to reach everyone, everywhere," and that cross-border access is necessary to "reach the vast majority who are in need in the opposition-held areas there". However, OCHA, as the ICRC, considers the government's agreement as a prerequisite to deploying such an operation.

The ICRC must certainly handle its relationships with the government of Syria carefully, if only to continue to assist the population living in government-held areas and to get access to the detention centres. Likewise, the cooperation of Damascus is critical to delivering aid to rebel territories in the centre and south of Syria, which are currently inaccessible from neighbouring countries. However, the need to increase aid deliveries from Damascus cannot justify ignoring the lack of assistance for millions of people living in the rebel-held areas in the north of the country.

As the leading international aid actors in Syria, the ICRC and the UN should adapt their approach to the de facto partition of the country. If they cannot negotiate with the government an agreement to cross borders into opposition held areas, they should go ahead without its permission. For such an effort to have any chance of success, all humanitarian actors, rather than minimizing the aid imbalance and overstating the capacity of the SARC convoys, should try to mobilize the international community of states to support cross line and cross border access.


To cite this content :
Fabrice Weissman, Marie-Noëlle Rodrigue, “Syria: Breaking the De Facto Humanitarian Embargo against Rebel-Held Areas”, 19 mars 2013, URL : https://msf-crash.org/en/war-and-humanitarianism/syria-breaking-de-facto-humanitarian-embargo-against-rebel-held-areas

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