The U.N. humanitarian mission in Syria is constantly scrutinized by the rebels and the regime.
By Nour Samaha
It is considered one of the most controversial United Nations’ missions in recent history, and over the last year it has come under the fire and scrutiny of opposition supporters, who claim it is no longer acting impartially, and is under the influence of the Syrian government.
These accusations have sparked a huge debate, both in the public sphere and within the corridors of the U.N. headquarters in New York, over its role in Damascus, and whether or not it has shed its cloak of neutrality in order to pander to the demands of the Syrian government.
At the heart of the issue is Yacoub Hillo, the U.N. Resident Coordinator, Humanitarian Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative who served in Damascus from August 2013 until last month. It is rumored that he will be replaced by Ali Al Zaatari, although the latter’s candidacy is yet to be confirmed. Hillo became a controversial figure early on in his tenure as U.N. Resident Coordinator, given his candid and outspoken stance against both the governments’ tactics regarding the ongoing sieges, as well as the opposition and its external allies and their role in perpetuating human suffering in the conflict.
But for many within the opposition camp, simply being based in Damascus made Hillo complicit in the Syrian government’s actions, and they have accused him of not pushing back hard enough when the government refuses to comply with approving aid shipment to besieged or opposition-held areas in Syria.
Countless campaigns have been mounted recently over his role, and the voices have only grown louder in their demands for the mission to withdraw completely from Damascus.
Yet, the U.N. staff based in Damascus point out that the complexities on the ground tend to be overlooked by those outside the country, who are keen on pushing forward an agenda of regime-change.
“Those who oppose the Syrian government want us to pull out of Syria. They are essentially trying to use the U.N. and us, in the process, to instigate regime change,” said one U.N. official in Damascus who wished to remain anonymous. “The problem with that is that it would essentially mean punishing millions of Syrians inside Syria in the process.”
Hillo himself has refused to bow to the international campaign that was mounted against him. “For the U.N. mission to leave Syria would mean to starve 13.5 million people who are in need of humanitarian assistance,” Hillo tells Newsweek Middle East in Damascus. “This amounts to collective punishment. And for what? To pass on a message?”
U.N. employees charge back that a large number of the displaced who need aid live in government-controlled areas, and the aid convoys also cross to opposition areas from government areas.
According to recent figures provided by U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in September 2016, the U.N. reached over 1.2 million people in hard to access, besieged, and cross border areas, many of them more than once. Aid has been delivered by every means feasible; whether it is over land, via air drop, or in the case of the refugees stuck between the Syrian and Jordanian border, via crane drop. Of the 401,650 people living in besieged areas, 68 per cent of them were given aid. Of the 817,100 people living in areas difficult to access, 16.7 per cent were reached. In 2016 alone, the U.N. has conducted 90 air-lifts, 126 air drops, and 119 convoys.
Under Hillo, the 18 areas that were under siege (now 17 after a local ceasefire saw the end of the siege in Daraya last month) were all given aid. In 2015, he pushed for, and managed to get, both the U.N.’s and the Syrian government’s approval of the ‘Whole of Syria’ strategy, which meant a coordinated effort—including cross-border aid delivery with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in neighboring countries—to deliver aid in all areas of Syria.
“This is where we have failed,” says Hillo. “We have failed through public advocacy to get all the sieges lifted. We have failed to convince the parties and their partners involved in the war to lift their sieges.”
According to the outgoing chief of mission, “The ultimate goal for us is the people, and to alleviate their suffering.” And one of the most crippling methods of collective punishments on the Syrian people, according to Hillo, has been the imposition of the U.S. and EU sanctions.
“We don’t question why they were imposed, but what we question is that after so many years, and so many Syrians have suffered as a result, are they working?” he says.
In the midst of all of this on the ground, the U.N. has also had to deal with the continual accusations and investigations into their dealings with the government. The most recent revelation accused the U.N. of favoring local NGOs affiliated with President Bashar Al Assad’s family, consequentially putting the ‘Whole of Syria’ initiative into jeopardy. Last month, over 70 mostly-local NGOs, predominantly based in Turkey, announced a suspension on information-sharing with the U.N. mission based in Damascus, effectively putting an end to the initiative.
In an open letter, the 73 signatories announced “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 U.N. agencies and other humanitarian actors based in Damascus.”
According to Mohamad Katoub, advocacy manager for SAMS (one of the signatories of the letter) in Turkey, “In Damascus the political influence plays hand in hand with the inaction of the U.N. agencies,” he says. “They are not taking concrete steps to stop this influence, and to work respecting the impartiality and neutrality of their response. And the aid is being used in a political way—blocking aid in besieged areas while allowing it in other others.”
Katoub adds that they have found that the information they are sharing is being consulted with the Syrian government and that they have a say in every step of the humanitarian response.”
While he is against the withdrawal of the U.N. mission from Damascus, Katoub insists that “there are people there who need and deserve this aid.” He adds that the suspension will continue until there is an independent investigation into the matter.
Accusations that the Damascus-based mission is prioritizing local organizations affiliated with Assad and his family are strongly refuted by the U.N. as baseless, as well as by the organizations in question.
“Anyone bidding for grants or funding from the United Nations have to adhere to the rules and standards of the United Nations, which are applied across the world… and exceptions cannot and are not ever made,” explains the OCHA source.
“We have access to areas within opposition-held towns that even the United Nations struggles to get to,” says an official with the NGO Syria Trust, adding that they have “established” their own relationship with some of the opposition groups. “They trust us, and we deliver aid to those areas. Should we not be doing that?”
That is not to say the U.N. has not faced difficulty from the government in Damascus. According to sources close to Hillo, on many occasions Hillo and his team have clashed with the government regarding shipment of aid, especially when it comes to the products/equipment within the aid packages.
“The government has removed certain items, especially anything regarding surgical equipment, maternity-related items, and anesthesia, drugs that treat nerve gas, drugs for epilepsy,” a staff member with OCHA tells Newsweek Middle East. “And the team has fought back on these, yes sometimes unsuccessfully.”
Up until the last couple of years, the U.N. has predominantly operated behind fortified compounds across the Arab and Muslim world, scarred by tragic incidents that have seen their staff members attacked and killed. This changed under Hillo, who insists on being very present on the ground, especially among the opposition groups.
“We have made it our policy to engage with everyone inside Syria,” says Hillo. “We are not here to promote an agenda, but rather to deal with the human aspect, so therefore we can talk to anyone and everyone.”
“We would talk with Daesh if they were willing to talk to us,” he adds.
In February 2014, Hillo essentially changed the face of the game. He was able to convince the Syrian government to allow him to deliver aid to opposition fighters and affiliated civilians in the besieged area of old Homs.
On a particularly cold morning, he led a convoy of U.N. and Red Crescent vehicles past government forces into opposition-held neighborhoods. Suddenly, mortars and machine gun fire rained down on them as pro-government National Defense Forces opened fire on the convoy. Hillo’s convoy was targeted directly. They had to hide in between the vehicles as they slowly inched their way out of the area, rolling without lights on and with flat tires. Hillo described it as “a day from hell.”
In the days that followed, Hillo managed to evacuate hundreds of civilians and opposition fighters.
Hillo also insisted on visiting the only hospital operating in one area, used by the local fighters to patch up their wounds from fierce clashes against the government.
“It really was a place where someone went to die,” Hillo recalls, describing the horrific condition the hospital was in.
But the successful result of the mission enabled Hillo to broker similar evacuations from other besieged areas in the months to follow, and preventing civilians from being arrested by the government in the aftermath of such deals.
His protection of the fighters and the civilians also created a trusting relationship with many of the local commanders on the ground within opposition-held areas.
In Homs, for example, he encountered Abu Abbas, a local commander for Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Nusra Front (which recently rebranded to Jabhat Fatah Al Sham). Hillo insisted Abu Abbas remove his suicide belt before their meeting, and the latter complied. He was then safely evacuated, and as a result, Abu Abbas put his trust in Hillo. Months later, a U.N. humanitarian convoy was returning from delivering aid to opposition-held Rastan in northern Homs, when a local group linked to Daesh ambushed them and kidnapped the staff. Frantic phone calls were made to secure their release, which only came about after they reached out to Abu Abbas, who sent his own fighters to rescue them.
Hillo has also faced off with the Syrian regime’s allies. Following the complex negotiations of the so-called Four Towns agreement (Madaya and Zabadani, which are besieged by Hezbollah, and Fuaa and Kefraya, which are besieged by opposition groups led by Ahrar Al Sham), Hillo was presented with a deal he had not been involved in but was ordered to implement.
He attended numerous lengthy meetings with the head of Syria’s national security apparatus, Ali Mamluk, and a representative of the Iranian government who had conducted the negotiations with Ahrar Al Sham and other Islamist groups in Turkey. Hillo clashed repeatedly with the Iranian representative, who was attempting to dictate the terms of the aid delivery, according to sources close to those meetings.
“I don’t answer to you, I am here on the invitation of the government, and therefore I deal with the government,” Hillo reportedly snapped at the Iranian envoy known as ‘Hajj.’
“Twice, Yacoub lost his temper over the Iranian’s arrogance,” according to the source.
“The war in Syria is no longer a Syrian affair only,” he says. “There are currently 90 nationalities fighting, and they are being sponsored by numerous states who are spoiling the peace efforts… It has become a theatre for regional and global disagreements to play out,” and the casualties “are the Syrians.”