The complications of dispersing aid in Syria

Aid is ultimately dictated by the host government’s willingness to grant international access to a country. Martin Armstrong speaks to those who are trying to cope.

Martin Armstrong
29 March 2013

Sitting in a modest, third floor office in the Karagoz district of Gaziantep, Turkey, Yasser Mousa, 37, a lawyer and native from Azaz, Syria paces back and forth, mobile phone in hand, a look of concern on his face. As his conversation comes to a close, he puts down his phone and sighs.

“We cannot go today,” says Moussa in a gentle, high-pitched voice. “It is too dangerous.”

Mousa is director of The Syrian Youth Association for Relief a small charity that distributes basic aid items, including food, medicine, blankets, and clothing in the region around Aleppo, Syria. Operating from its base in Gaziantep across the border in Turkey, Mousa says that the organisation reaches around 25,000 families in the war-torn region. That day, the organisation’s latest aid mission has been postponed by unconfirmed reports that chemical weapons had been deployed in Aleppo.

“We will see if we can go tomorrow,” says Mousa, striking a determined note.

The Syrian Youth Association for Relief was founded in Gaziantep in September 2012 by Syrian students at the University of Gaziantep. It initially focused on providing humanitarian relief and medical, social, and cultural services to Syrian refugees in the area. Mousa joined the charity in October 2012 and began to focus his attention on providing aid for those in the wider Aleppo district in northern Syria.

According to Medecins Sans Frontiers, by the end of January 2013 over 60 countries had expressed a commitment to providing $1.5 billion in aid to the Syrian population. However such substantial figures, in reality, amount to much less. The urge to donate and distribute humanitarian aid is complicated by the complex international laws and bureaucratic labyrinths, and ultimately dictated by the host government’s willingness to grant international access to a country. Those few international organizations (less than 10) given permission to enter Syria face extreme difficulties in moving between government and rebel controlled areas. These realities and the Assad regime’s continued shelling of hospitals and bakeries merely add to the growing humanitarian crisis. Accordingly, international aid organizations are often forced to rely on third parties within Syria to disperse aid.

Mousa travels to Syria on a weekly basis to distribute aid often in the form of flour, rice, lentils, pasta, sugar and oil, in addition to clothing and basic medicines. The journey is often fraught with danger. “In November and December the government was shelling Aleppo and the surrounding countryside on a daily basis. We are incredibly lucky that no one has died during one of the aid convoys,” says Mousa.

Intermittent Internet and mobile networks further hinder the co-ordination of aid efforts. “We need to know when the situation in the areas we distribute aid is unstable so that we know when to and when not to send aid. If we are unable to communicate with our sources inside the country then this is incredibly difficult,” says Mohammad Ayoub, a former practitioner of law in Aleppo before the civil conflict forced him to re-locate to Gaziantep 9 months ago.

“We have faced problems with people taking portions of the aid when we travel through checkpoints,” says Ayoub without drawing explicit reference to the FSA, “and with ‘shabiha’ (civilian militias under the Assad regime payroll) disrupting aid convoys. Two months ago a convoy was intercepted. Two days later we received a video of shabiha slicing open parcels containing flour and pouring it into a river.”

“For many of us it is impossible to travel into Syria. The Assad regime knows we are here and co-ordinate with the Free Syrian Army in distributing aid to the people.”

Such is the case for Ahmad Razzouk, 28, from the Azzami’a district of Aleppo and the charity’s chief registrar. A soldier stationed in Damascus at the outbreak of Syria’s conflict, Razzouk defected in August 2012 before making his way to Gaziantep with the help of a counterfeit ID.

Razzouk explains that the opportunism of a minority has at times affected the distribution of aid.

“The majority of the time the aid is distributed effectively however sometimes the recipients of the aid resell it for their own profit,” says Razzouk. “For example 1 kilo of pasta costs 20 Turkish lira, sometimes people take this pasta and re-sell it at a lower price in Syria, say 5 Turkish lira, to make a small personal profit. This is something that is impossible for us to regulate.”

In a small factory in an industrial sector of Aleppo that doubles as a safe house for those who accompany the aid from Turkey into Syria Youssef (an alias), the factory’s manager oversees the day’s production line. The factory distributes some of its produce for free to schoolchildren in the wider Aleppo region, working in union with the Syrian Youth Association for Relief. The charity not only relies on benevolent donations from inside Syria but also receives aid from Turkish NGO’s such as the Bulbulzade Institute, the Syrian diaspora and further afield.

Youssef explains that production has been detrimentally affected by the lack of electricity supply in the area, forcing the factory to operate on a generator, and the difficulty in acquiring the raw materials necessary for the manufacture of the final product. As conflict has spread throughout the country profits have plummeted, forcing the company to rely on capital accumulated before the uprising began. This capital is quickly running out.

“The potatoes we use come from the south of the country in the Damascus region, and the paper for packaging from the Aleppo region,” explains Youssef. “There are often lengthy delays caused by the transportation of the produce from government to opposition controlled areas”. In addition, two of the factory’s 25 employees died as a result of government shelling in Aleppo in the last year.

Outside the factory Mohamad Sead stands in the setting sun. Sead, who fought against Ghaddafi forces in his native Libya during the 2011 uprising, explains that he accompanied the day’s aid shipment closely to obtain a better understanding of the situation on the ground in Syria before deciding on the best way to make his own contribution to the Syrian Youth Association for Relief’s aid effort.

“The Syrian people are the real victims of this conflict. With no work opportunities, poverty is increasing and the lack of food is a major problem. People are just drinking tea to keep going, such is the lack of food."

Back in the third floor office in Gaziantep after another completed aid mission Mousa echoes the sentiment: “Thinking about what is happening in my country is incredibly painful. Often it feels like the outside world is turning a blind eye. Do the governments of the world need more people to die before they provide more aid? Are they waiting for the death toll to reach a specific number?” he says.

“We do not have much aid to give but we are doing what we can.”

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