More than 70 humanitarian organizations working on the ground in embattled Syria announced Thursday that they are withdrawing from the United Nations (UN) aid information-sharing program because, they say, the global organization's relief efforts are being controlled and "manipulated" by the Syrian government.
In a stinging open letter (pdf), published exclusively by The Guardian, the 73 organizations announced their decision to withdraw from the Whole of Syria program due to concerns that UN agencies based in the Syrian capital of Damascus, as well as their partners, particularly the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), are operating and distributing aid "under the substantial influence" of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Namely, the groups say, humanitarian programs are being implemented in government areas while besieged areas are being deprived of those same services.
"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," states the letter, which was sent to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
"This deliberate manipulation by the Syrian government and the complacency of the UN have played hand-in-hand," it continues. "The people of Syria have suffered ever more as a result."
"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."
Indeed, the situation on the ground in Syria has grown increasingly dire. Though estimates vary, roughly half a million people have been killed as a result of the Syrian civil war. Meanwhile, 13.5 million Syrians are currently in need of humanitarian assistance while 14.8 million are refugees, half of which are children, according to aid group World Vision.
The letter points out two instances—the case of conjoined twins born in east Ghouta, who eventually perished waiting for treatment, and 65 people from Madaya who died of starvation—where cooperation and evacuations could have saved lives, but were not permitted.
On Wednesday it was also reported that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs containing chlorine on a rebel-held neighborhood in eastern Aleppo, causing as many as 80 cases of suffocation.
"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 Daraya and Homs," the letter continues. "We have little hope that the UN-coordinated humanitarian response might operate independently of the political priorities of the Syrian government."
Consequently, the groups say they are withdrawing from participation in the Whole of Syria information-sharing mechanism until the process is revised with "no political influence in any aspect of it," as well as new protocols for medical evaluations "not subject to the political negotiations or influence of parties on the ground."
Combined, the 73 NGOs deliver assistance to more than 6 million Syrians in the nation and nearly a million more in neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey in sectors including health, education, food security, shelter, hygiene, protection, and livelihood.
Further, the groups are requesting a transparent investigation into the UN performance in Damascus and the installation of an oversight body for the humanitarian coordination, as well as a probe into the aforementioned deaths.
According to Guardian reporters Nick Hopkins and Emma Beals, who last week broke the story that the UN has awarded tens of millions in contracts to people closely associated with Assad, the announcement will have a significant impact on the UN's monitoring of the situation.
"The decision to withdraw from the Whole of Syria program, in which organizations share information to help the delivery of aid, means in practice the UN will lose sight of what is happening throughout the north of Syria and in opposition-held areas of the country, where the NGOs do most of their work," they report.