Aid Inside Syria: Too Little, But Not Too Late

Article  •  Publié sur Souria Houria le 9 mai 2013

Aid Inside Syria: Too Little, But Not Too Late

Two years after the Syrian revolution began, there is much wider recognition of the dire humanitarian needs inside the country, and support for expanding cross-border aid activities is increasing. The United Nations, a handful of international non-governmental organizations, and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent all have humanitarian operations inside Syria. The Syrian regime, however, significantly restricts their ability to conduct these operations. As a result, relatively little humanitarian aid is available in Syria. Broader aid distribution is urgently needed. This will require donors to develop means of assistance that rely less on traditional agencies and actors, such as supporting the networks of local Syrian groups and activists which have successfully delivered aid. With the modest resources currently available for distributing aid in a challenging environment, innovative methods to efficiently identify and meet the needs of those inside of Syria must be developed, tested, funded, and expanded appropriately.


In the early days of the Syrian revolution, it was difficult to ascertain the scope of the devastation inside the country. But as Syrians themselves sent information around the world and refugees fled with their experiences of what was happening inside, the extent of the crisis became clearer. The needs facing displaced people inside Syria are acute. In response, aid groups run by Syrian refugees and expatriates have begun finding ways to get meaningful levels of assistance into the country.

To date, international donors have not partnered with Syrian aid organizations in any significant way, nor have they sought to develop those organizations’ capacity to deliver aid. Many of these organizations are inexperienced with humanitarian aid and the international standards guiding its provision. This leaves both donors and humanitarian actors worried about whether assistance will be provided without discrimination or political objectives – two principles required by the international standards on aid provision.

Delivering more aid inside of Syria would mean that fewer Syrians would be forced to flee, thus easing the burden on neighboring countries such as Turkey. In Turkey, many of the government-run camps are of a high standard. However, these camps are at capacity, and new camps currently under construction will only be able to host a small percentage of the refugees who continue to cross the border. These refugees will be forced to join a growing population of Syrians who live outside of camps and have no access to the kinds of services available inside the camps.

Supporting Turkey’s Response to Syrians in Need

The government of Turkey estimates that 400,000 Syrian refugees now live within its borders. The quality of Turkey’s response to this influx has been impressive on a number of fronts, but providing for so many people has become a financial strain. Seventeen camps for Syrians are spread across the southeast of the country, and it reportedly costs more than $2 million per camp per month to keep these sites running well. At over $400 million annually, this is stretching the Turkish government’s resources and limiting its ability to provide assistance to hundreds of thousands of Syrian living outside of camp complexes. As the camps can no longer accommodate new arrivals, services for non-camp Syrians (such as food and rent assistance, medical care, and education) are now taking on greater importance. The Syria Regional Response Plan (RRP) has so far provided about $22 million to Turkey in 2013 – less than one month of operating costs for the current camps.

Turkish authorities have initiated registration programs and opened access to the national health care system for non-camp refugees in some urban locations with large Syrian populations. But Syrian refugees live in many other areas where provision of services has not yet begun. Those in particularly desperate conditions are often willing to move into camps. At least five new camps are planned, but they will take time to build and can host only a small number of people in need. In addition, thousands of displaced Syrians are waiting just beyond the Turkish border, hoping to cross into safety once these same camps are built. Turkey possesses considerable know-how and experience in responding to emergencies, and does so efficiently. But if Turkey is to keep its borders open to Syrians, it will need international support to finance some portion of the operational costs of its camps. Additional funds will be required to help expand services to non-camp refugees.

Importantly, the so-called “zero-point” aid originating from Turkey could get a boost if the government were able to direct more resources toward its system for delivering aid inside Syria. Turkey was the first country to initiate work with Syrian aid groups operating inside Syria. At the zero-point on the Turkey-Syria border, supplies sent by Turkey are driven to the no man’s land, where they are unloaded and transferred to the Syrian side. Much of this assistance is received by Syrian aid groups, which then distribute it inside the country.

Turkish national and local authorities operating near the Syrian border, in conjunction with new Syrian aid groups created and run by refugees, are developing networks and zero-point activities to supplement the modest amount of aid being delivered by larger international humanitarian organizations. Turkey supports this type of response with some of its own resources, but the benefits of increasing its abilities are twofold. First, the need for more and better humanitarian assistance inside Syria cannot be disputed. Large areas of the country cannot be reached by traditional humanitarian actors. However, small local organizations with extensive networks do not currently have the capacity to keep up with the needs. With more coordinated zero-point assistance from Turkey, more people would receive assistance from networks of actors they trust, lessening the severity of the humanitarian crisis by degrees.

Second, providing aid to Syrians inside the country would help lessen the flow of Syrian refugees across the region. While many areas of Syria are still mired in violence, others are less directly affected by the conflict and people are able to remain where they are, provided basic goods and services are available. RI’s team spoke with many Syrians who said they would prefer to stay in Syria even under difficult circumstances. The challenge in such places is making a living and having access to things like bread, medical care, and clean water. Providing these things inside of Syria would give more people a realistic opportunity to get by, and would let skilled Syrians assist their own communities and maintain the social fabric they fear is disintegrating under the strain of mass displacement.

To address these challenges, international donors should provide bilateral aid to Turkey, which would then free up resources for the Turkish government’s zero-point activities and lessen the pressure on camps at the border. Additional direct support for Syrian aid groups would help develop new service providers who would be able and willing to remain inside of Syria.

International, Local, and Syrian Partners

One of the most urgent projects right now is to get aid to people where they are, inside Syria, through means that enhance the ability of the conventional system to carry out its own work. Syrian organizations are quickly emerging as key players with important distribution and information networks that help get aid where it needs to go. However, even as they are likely to become increasingly important to future aid operations inside Syria, international donors and organizations are just beginning to tap them as essential partners.

The scale and duration of the humanitarian crisis created by the Syrian revolution are overwhelming all efforts to respond to the extreme level of need. However, one element of aid provision is outperforming expectations. The emergence of a dynamic array of small NGOs led and staffed by Syrian refugees and expatriates has developed into an invaluable – though to date underutilized – mechanism through which to deliver assistance inside Syria.

In January of this year, more than 100 new, small, Syrian-run NGOs focused exclusively on the crisis met in Istanbul to begin coordinating aid and improving their assistance delivery. In early March, at a conference in Washington, DC, another 20 Syrian aid groups met to raise awareness of their activities, form a coalition, and begin to coordinate assistance and improve the quality and transparency of their aid distributions. These groups have demonstrated both an incredible willingness to work with the international donor community and the initiative to create their own umbrella organization. International donors should actively pursue relationships with these new organizations and, as soon as possible, provide small grants to those groups that are willing and able to provide humanitarian aid in line with international standards.

During RI’s recent visit to the region, we met with several representatives of these new NGOs. They are highly varied both in their capacities and the types of assistance they offer. Some of these actors are one-man shows, acquiring materials at their personal expense in Turkey and driving them back to their home communities. Others have grown quite large and sophisticated, employing sizable staffs and working in a large number of cities or towns through extensive networks.

There are now Syrian aid groups working in nearly every sector of humanitarian response. They provide money or flour to bakeries; medical supplies to field clinics and hospitals; educational materials and operating funds to schools; cash for rent; and frequently non-food items such as blankets, fuel, and tents for a growing internally displaced population. A few of these Syrian groups have been able to partner with international NGOs to deliver supplies through their contacts on the ground, but these arrangements are rare.

Consistently, local NGOs told RI that they have the capacity to increase the amount of aid they deliver and expand the areas within which they operate. The greatest constraint on delivering more aid to more people has been the inability of these new NGOs to raise funds to acquire additional supplies. Nearly all Syrian-led organizations RI met with expressed a strong desire to work more collaboratively with one another to ensure better coverage of assistance. They stated that their information and distribution networks can give them real-time updates about where the greatest needs are, but they also highlighted the need for improved coordination.

Many local NGOs have developed highly innovative means of monitoring the delivery of assistance, tapping sources on the ground to document distribution. Nevertheless, they remain eager to improve their practices and adopt internationally accepted mechanisms for transparency and accountability. All of the local NGOs that RI met expressed a complete willingness to participate in workshops to improve aid delivery.

These local Syrian NGOs currently operate somewhat informally, and the ones working cross-border will have difficulty growing and formalizing their partnerships with international NGOs without some kind of registration in Turkey. The Turkish authorities currently have a process through which both Turkish and international NGOs can register their presence and activities in Turkey, but most potential registrants indicated that the process is cumbersome and slow. Turkey should consider providing expedited, short-term, or even temporary registrations for these Syrian groups. Several of these emergent Syrian NGOs operate out of one or more Turkish provinces, and they already collaborate informally with local Turkish authorities by providing data on needs and vulnerabilities inside Syria. The responsibility to accredit small, cross-border aid providers should therefore be given to those authorities who are already familiar with the groups and know what roles they play.

Several Turkish humanitarian NGOs have been actively supporting Syrian refugees and providing assistance that makes it across the Syrian border. International donors should also increase support to these organizations, and international NGOs should partner with them to expand aid delivery inside Syria. A representative from one experienced Turkish humanitarian NGO told RI that it had developed a proposal to build the capacity of new Syrian humanitarian NGOs and help these organizations meet international standards of aid provision. Regrettably, the proposal was not funded. This was a missed opportunity. International donors should immediately remedy this mistake by seeking to fund proposals of this sort.

In the course of numerous interviews, RI discovered that nascent Syrian aid groups recognize the importance of the humanitarian principles (including impartiality and independence) and donor requirements for effectiveness and efficiency. This mindset provides an excellent opportunity to begin cultivating a new network of aid providers that complements the more experienced international humanitarian NGOs. These organizations will need training, funding, and ongoing mentoring, so traditional donors like the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union should immediately support programs that will enhance the capacity of these emergent NGOs and ensure that the assistance they provide meets international standards.

The ACU as a Partner

Traditional donor governments have already supported the creation of the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s (SOC) Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), and they now pay for much of its operational budget. The ACU and its supporters view the group as a coordinating mechanism for providing humanitarian aid inside of Syria more efficiently, but it has yet to reach out to many Syrian aid groups. The ACU does not currently enjoy wide recognition among Syrians generally, but it does have connections with a number of international donors and NGOs, and it is working to build its capacity and define its role in humanitarian response.

Some U.S. policymakers have voiced concerns about the fact that the ACU is a part of the SOC. They worry that a politically-motivated entity will not operate in a manner consistent with humanitarian principles, and that it might distribute aid only to political supporters or as a means of building political support. However, the ACU’s role as an aid coordinator should not be ruled out. U.S. and European government agencies have regular meetings with the ACU. USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance supported the ACU as it assessed humanitarian conditions inside Syria¹ and determined its own aid priorities, and the head of the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration recently stated that the U.S., “…in addition to coordinating its response with other donor nations and the UN, is deepening its coordination with the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s Assistance Coordination Unit and is encouraging UN agencies and other partners to do the same.”

Given the number and nature of actors collaborating with the ACU as it evolves, it is reasonable to think it might serve as a coordinating body for the various Syrian aid groups that are handling the practicalities of getting aid inside Syria. As the ACU has not yet conducted effective outreach with new Syrian aid groups, doing so should be an urgent priority. Furthermore, the ACU would be well-served if it aggressively advocated with international donors to provide small grants to new Syrian aid providers.


Improving the humanitarian response inside Syria will require donors and aid agencies to think far more creatively about how to secure access to displaced populations and ensure impartial service provision. In particular, increasing zero-point aid at the Turkish border is a feasible option for saving Syrian lives.

A host of Syrian and Syrian-run organizations are successfully delivering medical supplies, food, clothing, and sometimes even cash. Each organization depends on its own network of trusted partners to deliver and distribute aid to the areas it knows well, and many are directly connected to local assistance councils. Collectively, these groups are covering an impressive amount of ground in Syria and using large amounts of private funding to accomplish the work that international NGOs simply cannot do right now. International donors and larger international NGOs should look to these providers as partners in lifesaving humanitarian response. While some of these Syrian and Syrian-run organizations may be untested, donors can provide useful support by helping to train, equip, fund, and mentor those organizations that are managing to provide for Syrians inside Syria.