Settlement Measures Discarding Humanitarian Organizations: Who Will Fill in the Gap?
Enab Baladi’s investigation team
Reham al Assaad | Dia Odeh | Mohamed Homos |Mourad Abdul Jalil
As the siege on the eastern Ghouta intensified in 2015, Ahmed Said, a resident of Hamouriyah town in the eastern Ghouta, faced difficulties in securing the basic life requirements for his family of seven, as his wife Hanadi confirmed to Enab Baladi.
Ahmed, who was an architect before the outbreak of the revolution, did not find work to support his family during the siege, while his health was deteriorating until he had a stroke during the same year which led to his death.
Hanadi has joined a list of 4398 widowed women in the eastern Ghouta, according to figures of the United Relief Office in the Eastern Ghouta, while her five daughters and her infant son have become orphans.
However, the family found those who alleviate their suffering. Hanadi said that an organization for the care of orphaned children provided each child with 25,000 Syrian pounds per month (about $ 50), as well as essential school materials and supply necessary for daily life.
At the beginning of al-Assad forces’ campaign on the eastern Ghouta, on February 18, Hanadi and her children left from the safe passage that Russia opened near their area on 15 March. She stayed in a shelter near Adra, east of Ghouta, for about a month before she went to live with her relatives in Damascus.
According to her, Hanadi could not afford to live in the capital because of high prices and shared housing with more than one family, amid the lack of income sources after the support of the organization, which had been providing support for her children, stopped.
Under that pressure, Hanadi returned to her city and was forced to rent a house near her neighborhood, and she was supported in paying rent by aid provided by some of her expatriate relatives.
“The aid that was provided to her in the current time was less than a quarter of that provided before the settlement,” Hanadi told Enab Baladi.
Fatima shares the same tragedy with “80 percent of Ghouta people who were dependent on the aid of organizations,” according to an official in a humanitarian organization, formerly active in Ghouta (refused to be named for security reasons).
The situation of the people of Ghouta is also very similar to the suffering of the Syrians in the areas that have been subject to settlements that led to the departure of the opposition factions and the control of the regime during the current year.
This investigation examines the impact of the decline in the work of relief and service organizations following the regime control in a number of Syrian areas, and highlights a new kind of suffering faced by thousands of Syrians.
Eastern Ghouta: A service setback
The regime forces control of the eastern Ghouta, at the beginning of this year, did not end the suffering of the people who lived under a suffocating siege. This suffering was exacerbated at several levels for those who did not leave their areas to the north under the settlement agreement.
During the period of the opposition factions’ control of the region between 2012 and 2017, the needs of the people increased along with the number of casualties and victims, and local organizations as well as international organizations’ agent organizations are working to fill the deficit caused by high unemployment with the absence of many professions, in addition to the citizen’s low purchasing power..
However, the regime was only able to partially compensate what these organizations did before the settlement agreement, since its control of the region.
According to the statistics of the “Relief Coordination Committee” formed by a group of organizations and institutions concerned with humanitarian relief to carry out the census of the population of Ghouta before the recent military campaign, the population of the region has reached about 325 thousand people during the opposition factions’ control.
After the settlement, around 144 thousand civilians left through the safe crossings opened by the Syrian regime to its areas of control under the auspices of Russia, according to the figures of the Russian Defense Ministry, while around 65 thousand people went to the north of Syria under the agreement, according to estimates of the “Response Coordinators in the North of Syria.”
Most of those who left through the safe crossings have returned to Ghouta during the past months, while the regime government rehabilitated the areas that it controlled before the campaign, such as the southern area of Ghouta, al-Marj and al-Malihah. At that time, the returnees felt a big gap at several levels.
Prior to the regime campaign, the number of people with permanent disabilities after the war, who received assistance as a result of their health status, reached 5258 injured, according to the United Relief Office in the Eastern Ghouta, while the number of injuries that caused temporary disability was about 4419, in addition to cases of malnutrition and daily care for patients who were provided free medical and medicinal services at the Centre and the relevant hospitals.
Nonetheless, the medical sector in Ghouta is suffering from a major deterioration in the absence of a functional hospital. All hospitals and medical centers have been closed because they were damaged by the shelling and the regime has not restored them yet. The residents are forced to go to Damascus for the necessary treatment, facing difficulties and security restrictions.
According to a former relief officer in the town of Kafr Batna in the eastern Ghouta (who refused to be named for security concerns), the Syrian Red Crescent is providing mobile clinics, from time to time, to the towns and villages of Ghouta. “However, they are not enough to cover medical needs, and they provide primary services only.”
The educational sector is also in no better conditions today compared to the pre-settlement period. According to statistics of the Unified Relief Office in the Eastern Ghouta, issued in October 2017, that is, during the control of the opposition factions, the number of students in the eastern Ghouta reached 52 thousand, ranging from the ages of 7 to 18. The Directorate of Education in eastern Ghouta and some education-focused organizations were concerned with them.
However, Ghouta is currently suffering from poor educational services, according to the relief officer who that most schools in the eastern Ghouta were damaged during the recent military operation of the Syrian regime. Today, there is a shortage of personnel and textbooks, as well as lack of water, electricity, doors, windows, and fuel.
In its latest report, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) noted that only 20 schools operate in the towns and villages of Eastern Ghouta, which resulted in overcrowding and poor services.
The relief sector does not seem to be doing better than the education and medical sectors. According to an official from a humanitarian organization formerly active in Ghouta, who refused to be identified for security reasons, the system covers only 25 percent of the area’s needs.
The number of poor families in the region receiving assistance before the settlement accord was estimated at 7810, distributed among 4440 local families and 3570 displaced families, according to the Unified Relief Office in Eastern Ghouta.
The countryside of Homs: Blocked Projects and jobless youth
While the Syrian opposition took control of the countryside of Homs between 2013 and 2018, the region attracted several relief and development organizations, which attempted to implement relief, medical as well as agricultural projects, and to provide citizens with their needs of bread and financial aid on a daily basis.
The most prominent among these associations were Ihsan Relief and Development, Emesa, Ataa Humanitarian Relief, Syria Relief, and Albonian Almarsos Humanitarian Organization.
After signing the settlement agreement between the regime and the opposition factions, last May, these organizations stopped working in the area. Thus, Enab Baladi attempted to depict the impact of such rupture on the region.
At the agricultural level, all agricultural projects were frozen. Hence, the Agricultural Cooperative Bank, owned by the Syrian government, did not take any practical steps to redeem the situation, especially with regard to loans provided by the agricultural associations in order to buy fertilizers and seeds or fulfill the financial payments which are necessary to complete the agricultural process.
Among the agricultural projects provided by the NGOs in the countryside of Homs was the Food Security Project, which covered most of the towns and villages in the region, and contributed to the provision of seeds to farmers, as well as fuel and beneficial loans during the period when the opposition factions were in charge of the zone; in addition to the ACU projects.
The situation of the service sector is similar to other sectors. The settlement agreement led to the cessation of bread supplies and water pumping projects, which the NGOs used to offer free of charge.
The Syrian regime has currently reemployed water and electricity bills. As such, Enab Baladi’s correspondent in the countryside of Homs indicated that an hour of access to water costs 17 thousand Syrian pounds.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent said that, since the return of the Syrian regime to the northern countryside of Homs, the Syrian Red Crescent has distributed one proportion of aid despite the fact that roads leading to the region are entirely open after being blocked during the siege.
Relief convoys did not cease entering the northern countryside of Homs since the UN Resolution 2254 was issued. Despite the attempts consecrated by al-Assad forces for more than 70 days earlier this year to obstruct the arrival of these convoys that continued arriving on time or a few days late in other cases.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, an administrative officer at the Syrian Red Crescent branch in Homs, who asked not to be named, stated that despite the reports by the Red Crescent’s branches in the northern countryside of Homs about the difficult living conditions in the area, the central branch’s administration refuses to send a relief convoy to the region in need.
The administrative officer pointed out that “sectarian reasons” may be behind this deficiency in providing relief, as the allocation of aid to some areas has been undergone on a regular basis, despite the fact that these particular regions have enough support to maintain daily life. This can indicate that the security services are in control of the decision- making process in the organization.
According to statistics published by the Response Coordination Group in the north of Syria, 32,383 Syrians left the northern countryside of Homs as well as the northern and the southern countryside of Hama since the signing of the exit agreement. Hence, those who left headed to the northern countryside of Aleppo and Idlib governorate.
In addition to the paralysis of the aforementioned sectors, the cessation of the NGOs’ activities has caused great harm to about 5000 orphans in the region. In the past, these kids were sponsored by humanitarian organizations which granted them financial support. However, after completely cancelling the financial grants, the orphans in the area are currently without sponsors.
The average financial grant provided by the NGOs to orphans during the control of the opposition factions was 25,000 Syrian pounds per month. The humanitarian organizations also provided food baskets for the poor and the families of the detainees through the implementation of collective kitchens and providing continuous financial support.
The decline of these organizations’ efforts in the area also affected some young Syrians who had been provided with jobs previously. The average salary was 350 dollars per month for each employee, i.e. 190 thousand Syrian pounds, according to Enab Baladi’s reporter.
In an earlier report last September, Enab Baladi has revealed that 2,500 government employees in the countryside of Homs had not resumed their positions in governmental departments and institutions until today, despite the fact that their return was part of the opposition’s exit agreement to the north.
Daraa: Shortage of aid and the transformation of the medical and education sectors
Since the regime’s takeover of Daraa last August, the Syrian Red Crescent has been announcing relief convoys entering various areas within the governorate. These convoys were limited to distributing food baskets sponsored by the World Food Programme (WFP).
According to the report published on the official website of the Syrian Red Crescent, Enab Baladi noted that the relief convoys have entered the villages and towns of the Yarmouk basin and the eastern and western countryside of the Daraa 11 times only; , which means that the rest of the areas did not receive any aid. Thus, these convoys have been present only one time or two in areas which have been recently covered by the relief program.
According to Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Daraa, the Syrian Red Crescent has not been able to fill the loopholes left by the absence of humanitarian organizations which had been active in the area before the settlement agreement. He noted that the aid was periodically provided from the Jordanian territories via the Tal Shehab border crossing and the Naseeb humanitarian border crossing backed by the sponsorship of the WFP and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
He added that the food basket was richer in materials and was sufficient for much longer time, and was often accompanied by a basket of medicines , as opposed to the current situation, in which aid is only limited to food.
As regard to education, Enab Baladi correspondent reported that the educational process is improving after the “settlement”. Many of the schools that were out of service in Daraa have been renovated and reopened. He also pointed out that the return of the displaced to their cities and towns has alleviated pressure on the services rendered, especially the schools that were already overcrowded with students.
However, in a report issued on 13 December, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) highlighted that 500 out of 1000 schools in Daraa need rehabilitation.
At the medical level, the governorate of Daraa has witnessed an improvement at the level of health and medical services provided, despite the closure of many clinics, which were active before the settlement, due to the Syrian regime’s inability to provide these clinics with the necessary stuff. The number of primary health-care centers that were damaged and closed after the settlement amounted to about 50 centers, according to the latest report released by UNICEF .
However, the major shift was rather at the level of quality rather than quantity, according to the Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Daraa, who pointed out that the organizations were previously unable to provide high-technology medical devices.
These equipments are now available at the National Hospital in Daraa, which now owns a CT scan and MRI. People are now able to go to Damascus for treatment, which was not previously permissible because the regime prevented them from leaving Daraa when it was held by opposition factions .
Pre-settlements and beyond…
Syrians in need of help
Since the beginning of 2018, the United Nations has been talking about more than 13 million people in Syria who need immediate humanitarian aid. Most of these people are congregated in areas which have witnessed military operations and suffered from siege and conflict imposed on the Syrians for seven years.
As 2018 is coming to an end, this reality has not changed, despite the changes which have occurred at the map of military control in favor of the Syrian regime during this year as well as the developments the political and humanitarian issues had witnessed.
The United Nations reiterated the talk about 13 million Syrians in need of immediate aid during a session of the Security Council held on Thursday, 13 December, which means that the needs have not changed with the decrease of the military operation. On the contrary, the situation has exacerbated with the absence of local organizations, which have been active in opposition held areas and which have been ignored by the Syrian regime after establishing control over them in the name of settlement.
Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll on its Facebook page and via its website about the possibility of filling the gap left by the suspension of activity of civil society organizations in the Syrian areas included within the settlement.
The poll revealed that the majority of the participants, which amounted to 500 participants, had a negative point of views toward this issue. 73 percent of the respondents considered that this shortage cannot be redeemed.
Russian Humanitarian operations… “What’s bred in the bone will come out in the flesh”
Russia continuously promotes for “humanitarian” operations on Syrian territory under the supervision of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, which is providing aid and food baskets to the “most unfortunate” groups in the Syrian regime held areas.
In January 2016, the General Staff announced the start of its “humanitarian” operations in Syria, under the pretext that international non-governmental organizations were distributing aid only in areas under the control of the opposition, leading to the occurrence of “extremists” in the Russian version.
According to statistics of the Russian Defense Ministry, released on its official website, Moscow has carried out more than 2000 “humanitarian” operations in Syria during the past three years, and the weight of in-kind aid amounted to about 3166 tons.
On 13 December, the ministry stated that it has managed to renovate and build 30,000 houses, 712 schools, 118 medical centers and repair 935 roads.
However, previous statistics may lack credibility, especially as they are issued by one party representing the voice of the Syrian regime only, and that the aforementioned projects are often implemented in areas that cannot be monitored and supervised by international organizations.
According to the website of the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Russian operations covered areas previously held by opposition and currently controlled by the Syrian regime. However, these operations remain unable to cover the humanitarian needs in areas that require a comprehensive international relief system.
The United Nations “qualitative” operation and the absence of exact figures
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced a humanitarian operation to deliver aid to the Syrians through the Nassib border crossing with Jordan.
In a statement issued on Sunday 9 December, the organization stated that the operation aims to deliver relief aid to 650,000 people through 369 trucks carrying more than 11,200 tons of aid.
The operation is scheduled to last for four months across Jordanian territory. It includes urgent needs for the Syrians, such as food, water, shelter, medical supplies, livelihoods and sanitation, according to the statement.
The organization has not identified the areas where aid will be distributed within Syrian territory, but it is expected to include camps for internally displaced people and “settlement” areas, particularly in Daraa.
Although the United Nations has tackled the existence of 13 million Syrians in need of humanitarian aid, the Advocacy Manager of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), Mohamad Katoub, believes that the effects brought by the withdrawal of organizations is the lack of specific data identifying the needs of the areas recently held by the regime.
He added in an interview with Enab Baladi that all the organizations in the opposition-controlled areas had been previously working to provide statistics and figures on the area’s problems with a view to bringing in a United Nations convoy as needed, while the regime is currently hiding statistics and preventing the UN from entering to carry out surveys inside Eastern Ghouta.
Katoub attributed this to the obscuring of the humanitarian and security scene in Ghouta, as the entering of the United Nations convoys through the Syrian Red Crescent, even though operating under the authority and control of the regime, leads to some kind of surveillance of the security situation and shedding the lights on the ongoing arbitrary arrests in the area, which the regime does not want, as he put it.
Security surveillance and legal framework: Constraints hindering organizations’ operations in regime-controlled areas
After the revolution, Syria has been witnessing a highly increasing number of civil society organizations providing relief, medical, educational, and other services. However, most of these organizations have been concentrated in opposition-controlled areas.
A study entitled “Syrian Civil Society Organizations: Reality and Challenges”, published by Citizens for Syria Organization, estimates that only 14 percent of the total number of organizations in Syria are actually operating in the regime-controlled areas, compared to 44 percent in the opposition-controlled areas.
Since the study was published in 2017, this means that the number of civil society organizations in the opposition-controlled areas has significantly declined following the settlements measures that have led to the regime’s control over Eastern Ghouta, the northern countryside of Homs and Daraa. This decline is rendered to the organizations’ inability to continue their activities amid the regime’s control for security and legal considerations.
Since its control over the settlement areas, the Syrian regime has been pursuing some former civil society activists, as confirmed by an official of one of the organizations that had been operating in Eastern Ghouta. The official pointed out that the regime arrested more than 25 people who were working in his organization in the middle of the current year.
The official, who asked not to mention his name and his organization for the safety of the detained workers, said in an interview with Enab Baladi that “the regime prevents any party from providing aid to citizens outside its authority, because the organizations were considered an alternative to the government of the regime in the provision of services, and one of the reasons for the steadfastness of the citizens in their land, especially since the work efficiency and the quality of services that had been provided during the siege of Ghouta in all sectors, were better and more efficient than those provided by the regime even before 2011.”
The official considered that the regime is trying to pressure the citizens through the basic necessities of living to make them surrender. Therefore, the regime worked on arresting members of the organizations and preventing their activities, as they have been considered as one of the citizens’ pillars in the face of the siege and in support of their steadfastness and the continuation of defending their cause.
SAMS Organization Advocacy Manager Mohamad Katoub considered in an interview with Enab Baladi that the Syrian regime does not allow anyone to work in the humanitarian sector outside its authority, pointing out that over the past years, the regime has directed various accusations against organizations operating in the opposition-controlled areas, and has expressed hostility towards them in its affiliated media outlets.
Katoub added: “If an organization accepts the regime’s own terms and security procedures in order to obtain a license, the regime will then intervene in the distribution plan. The plan of action and the identification of the category of beneficiaries will not be based on the organization’s real assessment. The aids would rather be only distributed to areas that the regime allows, in accordance with the satisfaction of the security branches on them, while some areas are penalized by depriving them of services.”
Impossibility of providing a legal cover
No NGO can work in Syria without obtaining a license from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, under the Syrian Private Organizations and Institutions Act No. 93.
Although this law was issued in 1958, that is 60 years ago, its provisions are still in force. The People’s Council of Syria approved in 2015 a bill to amend the law. However, these amendments have not been approved yet.
According to the provisions in the text of the law, which Enab Baladi has checked, it is impossible for any organization operating in the opposition-controlled areas to obtain a license to operate in the regime-controlled areas unless it adheres to a set of criteria that these organizations find difficult to implement.
If an organization wishes to obtain a license, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor shall be fully informed of the financial statements in accordance with article 14 of Chapter I of the Act.
According to Article 21, Chapter I, “an organization shall not receive or obtain funds or sums of money from a person, association, body or club outside the Syrian Arab Republic, nor send anything from what that has been mentioned to persons or organizations abroad without the permission of the concerned administrative authority,” while most of the organizations operating in opposition-controlled areas receive funds and financial grants from cross-border organizations.
According to Article 3 of Chapter IV of the same Act, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor may dissolve any organization in the event of its participation in “sectarian, racist or political activity prejudicial to the integrity of the State,” which are accusations the regime has repeatedly directed against some of those working in civil society organizations.
The Act also prohibits Syrian organizations from cooperating with organizations outside Syria without the approval of the concerned ministry. The organization is also prohibited from being licensed in another country. This impedes the licensing of organizations that have been operating in the opposition-controlled areas, as most of them are licensed in Europe and neighboring countries, according to the study “Syrian Civil Society Organizations: Reality and Challenges”, issued by Citizens for Syria Organization.