PHOTO: A boy in besieged Darayya appeals to the UN in May — last month the Damascus suburb surrendered to the regime after a 45-month siege

More than 70 aid groups have suspended cooperation with the UN in Syria, demanding an immediate and transparent investigation into its operations in the country because of concerns that the Assad regime has gained “significant and substantial” influence over the relief effort.

The 73 groups wrote to the UN that they can no longer tolerate the “manipulation of humanitarian relief efforts by the political interests of the Syrian government that deprives other Syrians in besieged areas from the services of those programmes”.

Last week, the Guardian of London revealed that the UN has awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to people and organizations closely associated with the regime, including President Assad’s wife Asma; his cousin, the tycoon Rami Makhlouf, and other businessmen whose companies are under US and European Union sanctions.

The non-governmental organisations informed the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) of their concerns at a meeting on Thursday afternoon in Gaziantep, Turkey.

The UN is now likely to be unable to monitor aid efforts throughout opposition-held areas of the country, particularly in northern Syria.

The Letter

We 73 NGOs working on humanitarian response to Syria and neighboring countries have signed the statement below to raise our concerns about the performance of UN agencies based in Damascus and their partners, particularly the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC).

It has become clear to many organizations that the Syrian government in Damascus has a significant and substantial influence on the performance of UN agencies based in Damascus as well as their partners SARC and other humanitarian actors. We are fully aware of the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people across Syria as well as in neighboring countries, and we are fully aware of the programs that UN agencies and partners including SARC are implementing in the governments areas, and we must express our concern over the manipulation of humanitarian relief efforts by the political interests of the Syrian government that deprives other Syrians in besieged areas from services of those programs.

The Syrian government has interfered with the delivery of humanitarian assistance in multiple instances, including the blocking of aid to besieged areas, the removal of medical aid from inter-agency convoys, the disregard for needs-assessments and information coming from humanitarian actors in Syria, and the marginalization of other humanitarian actors in the critical planning phases of crisis response. The whole of Syria information-sharing mechanism was created in order to prevent gaps in the response by including all humanitarian actors providing cross-border relief. Yet, UN agencies based in Damascus and their main partner, SARC, have been making the final decisions, shaped by the political influence of the Syrian government. The 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) is a very clear example of this.

We are not hopeful that UN agencies based in Damascus or SARC will take concrete action to respond to the violations of human rights in Syria in a way that might protect the Syrian people, or stop the forced evacuation from several areas including Darayya and Homs. We have little hope that the UN-coordinated humanitarian response might operate independently of the political priorities of the Syrian
government. We have lowered our expectations until our requests became as basic as the mere request for the evacuation of a child in a besieged area in need of lifesaving medical treatment– medical treatment he should never have been denied in the first place. We thought it might be reasonable to pressure the UN to assist in ending the use of starvation as a weapon of war by attaining sustained and sufficient humanitarian access to besieged areas. That too has failed. This deliberate manipulation by the Syrian government and the complacency of the UN have played hand-in-hand. The people of Syria have suffered ever more as a result.

The case of the conjoined twins, Moaz and Nawras (see separate feature), present a very clear example of non-cooperation by humanitarian actors in Damascus and the political influence of the Syrian government. The twins were born in besieged East Ghouta and after constant pressure from humanitarian actors, they were evacuated to Damascus, where they were trapped waiting for treatment. Syrian NGOs sent a complete proposal through UN OCHA to SARC offering to provide medical treatment. We received no response and were held on standby until we received news of their death. We believe that the inaction in this case summarizes the inefficacy and inertia of the humanitarian actors in Damascus, particularly SARC leadership.

Additionally, we reported the death of 65 people resulting from malnutrition in Madaya [see separate feature) between November 2015 and May 2016, where medical evacuations that could have saved patients’ lives were not permitted. Madaya is an example of over million Syrians remain under siege with extremely limited medical evacuations today.

We, the 73 NGOs working to provide humanitarian relief in Syria, announce in this position paper:

1. A full suspension of our participation in the Whole of Syria information-sharing mechanism as a first step in response to the political influence of the Syrian government and the inaction of UN agencies and other humanitarian actors based in Damascus, until we revise the WoS process to reach a new mechanism where there is no political influence in any aspect of it.

2. We officially request a transparent and visible investigation about the information mentioned in media articles criticizing UN performance in Damascus, the death of the twins, and the political influence of the Syrian government on humanitarian actors in Damascus. We call for the installation of a monitoring body to provide oversight for the humanitarian coordination in Damascus in a mechanism that includes the participation of humanitarian NGOs in order to ensure that all Syrians have sufficient and sustained access to aid and that international law is respected.

3. We request a revision to the medical evacuation processes in Syria, including the Four Towns agreement and others in besieged areas, to establish new protocols where the process of medical evacuations remains transparent to humanitarian actors and is not subject to the political negotiations or influence of parties on the ground.

The NGOs signed onto this paper provide humanitarian assistance to over 7 millions Syrians, over 6 millions in Syria and others in the 3 neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey in all humanitarian sectors: health , education, food security, shelter, wash, protection, livelihood, and many others.

1- Big Heart Foundation
2- Binaa Organization for Development
3- Ghiras Al Nahda
4- Ghiras Foundation for Child Care
5- Hand In Hand For Aid and Development
6- Human Appeal
7- Human Care Syria
8- Ihsan for Relief and Development
9- Masrat: The Syrian Establishment For Human Care & Enhancement
10- Orient
11- PAC (Physicians Across Continents)
12- Qatar Red Crescent
13- Syrian American Medical Society
14- Social Development International
15- Syrian Expatriate Medical Association
16- Sham Humanitarian Foundation
17- Syria Relief
18- Syria Relief and Development
19- Takaful Alsham Organization
20- Union of Relief and Medical Care Organizations (UOSSM)
21- Abrar Halap Association for Relief and Development
22- Ahl Horan
23- Al Seeraj For Development and Healthcare
24- Amrha
25- Attaa for Relief and Development
26- Attaa Association
27- Balad Syria Organization
28- Basmet Amal Charity
29- Bihar Relief Organization –
30- Bonyan
31- Damascene House Foundation for Society Development
32- Deir Elzzor United Association (FURAT)
33- Education Without Borders (MIDAD)
34- Enjaz Development Foundation
35- Ghiath Matar Foundation
36- Ghiras Syria
37- Help 4 Syria
38- Insan for Psychosocial Support
39- Humanitarian Relief Association (IYD)
40- International Supporting Woman Association
41- Irtiqaa Foundation
42- Maram Foundation for Relief & Development
43- The Syrian Establishment for Human Care & Enhancement (MASRRAT)
44- Mountain Foundation
45- Najda Now
46- Nasaem Khair
47- Qitaf Al Khair Relief Association
48- Saed Charity Association
49- Save A Soul
50- Sedra Association For Charity
51- Shama Association
52- Snabel Al Khayr
53- Space Of Hope
54- Syrian Orphans Organization
55- Syria Charity
56- Syria Relief Organization
57- Syrian Education Commission
58- Syrian Engineers For Construction and Development Organization
59- Syrian Medical Mission
60- Tuba Dernegi
61- Unified Revolutionary Medical Bureau in East Ghouta
62- Union Of Syrians Abroad
63- White Hands – Beyazeller
64- Emaar AL Sham Humanitarian Association
65- International Humanitarian Relief
66- Basmeh &Zeitooneh
67- Emissa
68- Kesh Malek
69- Local Development & Small Project Support .
70- Olive Branch
71- Women Now for Development.
72- Syrian Civil Defense ( White Helmets )
73- Independent Doctors Association IDA