PHOTO: Red Cross and Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicles in the besieged town of Madaya, northwest of Damascus, January 2016

The Syria Campaign, a pro-opposition advocacy group, has published a 50-page report criticizing the UN’s efforts in the Syrian conflict.

Detailing the failure to lift sieges and provide assistance to opposition-held areas, the Campaign argues that the UN is effectively abetting the Assad regime.

The study is based on more than 50 interviews with Syrian and international humanitarian workers, UN officials, evaluators of UN agencies, and Syrians living under siege who have worked on humanitarian relief.

The Executive Summary of the report:

Executive Summary

The United Nations in Syria is in serious breach of the humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence and neutrality.

By choosing to prioritize cooperation with the Syrian government at all costs, the UN has enabled the distribution of billions of dollars of international aid to be directed by one side in the conflict. This has contributed to the deaths of thousands of civilians, either through starvation, malnutrition-related illness, or a lack of access to medical aid. It has also led to the accusation that this misshapen UN aid operation is affecting – perhaps prolonging – the course of the conflict itself.

The United Nations in Syria is in serious breach of the humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence and neutrality.


This report documents a departure from humanitarian principles beginning with the UN’s failure to deliver aid to the government-besieged town of Daraa at the very start of the crisis in 2011. The government of Syria used the explicit threat of removing the UN’s permission to operate within Syria and withdrawing visas for its non-Syrian staff to keep humanitarians from delivering aid to Daraa. The Syrian government has used this threat consistently since then to manipulate where, how and to whom the UN has been able to deliver humanitarian aid.

Facing this attack on their humanitarian principles, UN agencies did not unite or set out red lines or conditions for their cooperation with the Syrian government. Rather, they chose to accept the government’s constraints on their operation. As a result, a culture of compliance was born. UN agencies were unwilling to push hard for access to areas outside of government control. In the words of one recent evaluation by the UN itself, agencies were
“simply not willing to jeopardize their operations in Syria by taking a tougher stance with the government. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this evaluation, but will surely be scrutinized unfavorably at a later point.”

That point is now. This report scrutinizes not only the UN’s reasons for failing to take a tougher stance with the government, but also the impact of this failure upon Syrian civilians and the conflict itself.


The UN has provided the Syrian government with an effective veto over aid deliveries to areas outside of government control, enabling its use of sieges as a weapon of war. While there are people in need all over Syria, by putting the Syrian government in charge of humanitarian aid this way, the UN has beleaguered its ability to deliver aid to those who need it most. To date the UN has not undertaken a single aid delivery inside the country without government consent, despite multiple Security Council resolutions sanctioning this.

The UN has allowed the Syrian government to direct aid from Damascus almost exclusively into its territories. In April 2016, 88% of food aid delivered from Damascus went into government-controlled territory. 12% went into territories outside the government’s control.2 Some months provide an even starker illustration of the government’s use of UN aid to further its own agenda. In August 2015, the government directed over 99% of UN aid from Damascus to its territories. In 2015, less than 1% of people in besieged areas received UN food assistance each month.

Aid deliveries from Damascus are determined through UN negotiation with the Syrian government. However the UN’s failure to set red lines for its Syria operation has undermined its negotiating power. The Syrian government knows there is no sanction for denying access to territories it does not control. It will continue to receive billions of dollars in UN aid regardless. This is the main reason why UN negotiations with the Syrian government almost always fail to gain access. In the whole of 2015, almost 75% of UN requests were not even responded to by the government.

Early attempts to bypass government control of aid by distributing across the borders from neighboring countries were actively opposed by parts of the UN. Even now with the cross-border operation in place, the UN has not fully capitalised on the opportunity for fear of damaging its relationship with the government.


Safety of humanitarian staff is not the primary determinant of aid access in Syria, although UN aid chiefs often cite security concerns to deflect criticism of partial aid delivery. The UN has driven through besieged towns which have not received aid in months in order to deliver aid to other towns. They did not stop and offload because of the lack of permission, not the lack of security. A study of UN evaluations agreed that aid deliveries were limited “more for internal political and strategic reasons than for security ones”.

Aid deliveries on the ground from inside Syria are implemented and overseen by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. At the branch level, SARC volunteers maintain a reputation for self-sacrifice and integrity – many have been killed by the government for attempting to deliver aid to those most in need. However, at the senior levels where the organisation is controlled, SARC is an auxiliary of the government. This puts the UN’s independence in serious jeopardy.

The UN’s acquiescence to the dominant role of the government in drafting key strategy documents, the UN’s support for controversial local truces following sieges and the UN’s systematic failure to recognize and classify besieged areas all contribute to further weakening of its humanitarian principles.

Signatories to this report recommend that the UN immediately define a set of public conditions under which the UN humanitarian agencies could continue to cooperate with the Syrian government and still maintain impartiality, independence and neutrality. If these conditions are not met, the UN should suspend cooperation with the Syrian government. A UN operation that violates its humanitarian principles becomes party to the conflict and stands accused of doing harm.

Read full report….