The seven-year Syrian civil war has claimed the lives of approximately half a million people and displaced around eight million. The "human rights community," both nations and international organizations, have responded with humanitarian assistance. While offering promising solutions, such transnational activism has been riddled with unforeseen consequences, biases, and blind spots effectively extending the conflict. Many countries give aid to Syria, only do so to further their strategic interests. The dark side of humanitarianism has states translating suffering to local and specific concerns in order to gain legitimacy on the domestic front. The European Union gave over 3 billion euros to Turkey, the site of refugee camps on the northern border, to further increase its economic bond with a non-E.U. Member. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) gave 5.1 billion dollars to humanitarian organizations in Syria. USAID hoped that by adopting this strategy, they could control the situation in a more distant way, rather than the hands-on approach taken in Libya (Marks). Iran has been giving food, blankets, and water for the benefit of the Assad regime. The most unusual form of aid comes from the Israeli government through operation "Good Neighbor."
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At the onset of the civil war, Israel provided aid to Syrian civilians wounded near the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria. The aid consisted of medical supplies, water, electricity, education, or food. Over 200,000 Syrians have received such aid, and more than 4,000 of them were sent to Israeli hospitals, including combatants (Gross). The IDF has granted special permits for Syrians who were critically injured to enter Israel and obtain the necessary medical treatment with the IDF escorting them to and from the hospital. In September 2018, the Netanyahu government announced that it was ending the aid program (Gross).
This response to suffering is an example of foreign aid being politicized and used as a guise for diplomacy. Israel sought to improve its standing in the eyes of potentially hostile Syrian citizens by creating a positive bond between the Syrian populace and the Israeli government. However, "Operation Good Neighbor" serves more as a tool of defense as it discourages combatants from potentially raiding Israeli territory. It also serves as a way of maintaining Israeli control of the Golan Heights. Even the vocabulary of human rights can create winners and losers. The legal definition of refugee can both exclude some who are in need of protection and legitimate the engagement of the UN.The Syrian civil war also saw the use of "humanitarian bombing." In the early stages of the conflict, Syrian citizens were imploring the U.S. government to begin a bombing campaign in the name of human rights. Jessica Whyte notes, "Today, the line between human rights organizations and the militaries of Western states is blurred, and the human rights movement has "entered the thick of organized mass violence" (Aporia of Rights, 184). Humanitarian bombing in Syria is also used as a political tool as it gives Obama/Trump administrations the ability to intervene without risking the lives of Americans. It gives the American populace the moral justification they need to continue intervention in the area, without the feeling that they are sacrificing the lives of fellow Americans. The use of gas bombings by the Assad regime and the violation of the Geneva conventions is considered an acceptable reason to continue violence in Syria. Using this framework, issues of human rights are stripped of their aid component and are instead only tied to political matters. Compassion has been replaced by vengeance. The language of human rights is now a casus belli for Western Imperialism. Jessica Whyte writes "Ultimately, war itself has come to be viewed as a technical instrument for preventing the abuse of human rights."(Aporia of Rights, 196). The universal vocabulary of human rights has become a tool not only for NGOs, but also the Pentagon.
In Crisis Caravan, Linda Polman writes, "There are no rules, no limits, and no requirements to have any understanding of the local balance of power, or to coordinate with other parties involved, humanitarian agencies included. In fact, for reasons of competition and public relations, aid agencies often choose not to discuss details with their fellow organizations (Crisis Caravan, 99)." Within the context of Syria, this has lead to disastrous consequences.
Much of the aid given internationally has fallen into the hands of Bashar AlAssad. U.N. Agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have allowed the Assad regime to determine the use of a $30 billion international humanitarian response (Marks). The Syrian government has donor funds to skirt sanctions and subsidize the government's war effort. Most of the money is diverted funds from the very same Western governments that imposed sanctions on the Syrian government.
In April of 2018, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) debated centering aid for the Syrian Civil War in Damascus (Marks). While no formal decision has been made, aid organizations have protested the suggested action, which would make humanitarian aid no longer appear neutral. The current base in Amman allows for a consistent flow of cross border humanitarian aid. Humanitarian actors in civil conflicts across the globe increasingly find themselves caught between the competing political interests of regimes, complicating the implementation of relief actions.
The humanitarian response in Syria is sharply divided over the issue of neutrality via the Syrian government. Humanitarian organizations operating across borders in rebel-held areas do so without the state's consent. They hope that by doing this, they can both be providing aid and simultaneously reporting on regime violence against civilians. These actors are slowly disappearing from the stage as the Assad government regains and consolidates its military and administrative control. In response to how humanitarian actors deal with areas in conflict, Linda Polman writes,
"In war zones, there's no chance of fair competition.... warlords and army commanders hold onto power, having transformed themselves into members of the highest post-war business and political circles, with whom INGOs negotiate. So most of the houses and services INGOs need are provided by local war elites. Cousins, uncles, and close friends of those in power have the best chance of being chosen to supply goods to INGOs and to run the restaurants and clubs where the foreigners spend their evenings. Providers of cheaper goods and services suffer intimidation to deter then from taking part in the tendering process." (Crisis Caravan, 100). Neutrality, in terms of the material needs of humanitarian actors, can never be truly achieved as the reliance on one side over the other, generates perceived bias.
The proposal of a Damascus centralized humanitarian response is increasingly becoming the official international humanitarian presence in Syria. This new paradigm of aid facilitates government control and discretion over the distribution of services and aid. As a result, humanitarian actors who are now operating in Damascus, principally U.N. agencies and 31 other humanitarian groups, have become ingrained in the structure of the Syrian bureaucracy (Marks). This reality of providing aid in Syria has severely curtailed their ability to help citizens in need, regardless of political affiliation, and to implement programming and deliver aid effectively.
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A Damascus controlled U.N. humanitarian effort will remain subject to the complicated government bureaucracy and its recurring administrative and bureaucratic constraints to access and programming. Aid would be limited to governmentcontrolled areas and propagandized. Such a move would enable the Syrian government to increasingly centralize control over the Syrian humanitarian response, resulting in a humanitarian regime more acquiescent to the interests of the Syrian state or, at the least, silent to the violence employed against Syrian civilians throughout the war.
This paradigm of human rights is a fundamental weakness in our international system of aid. Getting around it is extremely difficult and requires a certain commitment foreign government and aid organizations mostly are not willing to make, which is to seize control, themselves, of the politics of the region.
Gross, Judah Ari. "Operation Good Neighbor: Israel Reveals Its Massive Humanitarian Aid to Syria." The Times of Israel, 19 July 2017, www.timesofisrael.com/operationgood-neighbor-israels-massive-humanitarian-aid-to-syria-revealed/.
Marks, Jesse. "Analysis | Humanitarian Aid in Syria Is Being Politicized - and Too Many Civilians in Need Aren't Getting It." The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 Aug. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/08/06/humanitarian-aid-syria-is-beingpoliticized-too-many-civilians-need-arent-getting-it/#comments-wrapper.
Polman, Linda, and Liz Waters. The Crisis Caravan: What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid? Picador, 2011.
Yeatman, Anna, and Peg Birmingham. The Aporia of Rights: Explorations in Citizenship in the Era of Human Rights. Bloomsbury Academic, An Imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Inc, 2016.
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