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Why international food aid can actually make conditions worse for starving Syrians

Aid convoys carrying food, medicine and blankets, leave the Syrian capital, Damascus, as they head to the besieged town of Madaya on Jan. 11. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

On Jan. 11, a U.N. aid convoy finally reached the besieged Syrian city of Madaya. Images of starvation had galvanized international attention in the week preceding the convoy’s arrival. The assistance helped alleviate the immediate suffering. But in fact, emergency food aid has played a key role in facilitating the blockade on Madaya and dozens of others places in Syria.

Emergency food aid is most frequently portrayed as the benevolent response of the international community to natural disasters and “complex emergencies.” Humanitarian relief efforts are depicted as benign forms of assistance that seek to improve the lot of individuals in need. However, this focus on neutrality — and the regulations, practices and actions seeking to uphold this principle — perversely enables starvation as a weapon of war.

In a recent article published in the January issue of International Affairs, the Chatham House journal, we examine this seeming paradox. Humanitarian organizations fed nearly 7 million Syrians inside the country during 2015, nearly half of the estimated population of 16.6 million. Between 2013 and 2015, we conducted more than 100 in-depth interviews with humanitarian workers, local volunteers and Syrian stakeholders to investigate the role of emergency food aid in the Syrian conflict.

We found that the vast majority of food aid distributed in Syria between 2012 and 2015 has been underpinned by what we call the “frame of neutrality.” While seemingly innocuous, this way of framing the distribution of food aid shapes the calculus behind who gets aid and when.

Neutrality, humanity, impartiality and independence are the four key principles undergirding humanitarian action in Syria. For the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), neutrality means that, “humanitarian actors must not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.” While understandings of neutrality do differ among humanitarian actors — the International Committee of the Red Crescent (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent operate under separate legal mandates — most aid organizations espouse positions broadly in line with the U.N.’s definitions. Humanitarian groups operating according to this principle present themselves and their efforts as external to politics, bereft of power and ethically unencumbered.

Aid workers we interviewed consistently distinguished political intent, which was overwhelmingly criticized, from political impact, which they admitted to hesitatingly, if at all. Although humanitarians operating in Syria tacitly acknowledged the politically charged environments in which their efforts were embedded, their analyses remained obfuscated by the frame used to discuss their impact.

Our observations suggest that proceeding as if emergency food aid has no impact on political or military dynamics has had grave consequences in Syria.

One key outcome of the neutrality frame is that it obscures the impact of emergency food aid on sovereign power relations. Political scientists are accustomed to thinking of sovereignty as a static property accomplished (or not) by states. Most frameworks adopt a binary between state-sanctioned order and anarchy. However, an array of recent scholarship has demonstrated that new configurations of political order frequently emerge when the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force ceases to exist. In Syria’s conflict, humanitarian groups have become implicated in these shifting political orders, despite their efforts to the contrary.

Through their ability to create the categories of people in need of aid and their (in)capacity to move supplies to certain places — swayed as they may be by international law, on-the-ground constraints and individual organizational mandates — humanitarian organizations take part in decisions over human survival. The U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP), for example, has a rigorous process to determine what groups of people are “at risk,” a category defined by uncertain boundaries, often subject to external considerations.

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad understands well the reluctance of most international organizations to forsake their “neutral” aspirations and thus has channeled the bulk of emergency food aid to areas it controls. This is no small sum. Crucial to Assad’s success has been the leverage his government exerts over U.N. agencies, which are largely unwilling to bypass the regime’s de jure sovereignty. One external evaluation of the WFP’s efforts in Syria concluded that the organization’s management “judged that its interests in delivering food to the maximum number of people in need are best served by maintaining close relations with the Syrian government and negotiating behind the scenes over access.”

Assad’s tactics have also been boosted by the regime’s close ties with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), the largest in-country partner for international humanitarian organizations. Aid workers we interviewed in Syria overwhelmingly indicated that Assad’s ties to SARC’s top echelon have allowed the regime to exert unrivaled influence when deciding which areas get what aid and when.

Why does this matter? Significant leverage over emergency food aid deliveries helps the government exacerbate differences in food security within the country. By limiting access to basic necessities in rebel-held areas, the Assad regime disorders the fabric of society in territories outside its control. This undermines local councils and armed factions hoping to consolidate their rule. Unsurprisingly, many civilians have fled to territories controlled by Assad despite their opposition to the regime’s policies, because this is frequently their only option for survival.

The cooptation of emergency food aid and the deliberate targeting of food production in opposition territory have helped the Assad regime present itself as the only viable governing order capable of ruling the country. It has used this advantage to coax besieged pro-opposition towns into favorable truces, especially in areas surrounding the capital, Damascus.

Deliveries to starving towns such as Madaya do little to alter the conditions that foster Assad’s siege-based successes. Unsurprisingly, the United Nations continues to downplay the severity of sieges and emergency food aid’s impact on the conflict’s development.

Partly as a result of the Assad regime’s incorporation of emergency aid into its military calculus, food provision in Syria has been stripped of its apolitical veneer over the past 12 months. The United States, Qatar and other international players have partially shifted their strategies, expanding funding for partners distributing basic necessities inside opposition-controlled parts of the country. For the large part, these efforts are guided by implicitly or explicitly political goals. Most foreign actors are beginning to realize a crucial fact that the Assad regime has long known and that aid organizations continue to misunderstand: In times of conflict, food is not neutral, nor can it ever be.

Humanitarian organizations have undoubtedly alleviated suffering and saved countless lives in Syria. However, when they frame their interventions in terms of neutrality, emergency food distributors attempt to carve out a space for their work above the messy world of politics, even as Syrians on the ground contest the claims made on their behalf. As a result, they overlook the precise ways emergency food aid refashions sovereign relations and reshapes politics. In Syria, neutral humanitarianism has tangibly changed the course of the conflict, affecting the lives of millions. War has a way of dirtying everyone’s hands, even those doing their best to keep them clean.

José Ciro Martínez is a Ph.D. candidate in politics and a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge. Brent Eng is an independent analyst based in Amman.