The UN has presented a multi-million dollar plan to respond to humanitarian needs in Syria, but still lacks government approval to implement it.
The director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, John Ging, presented the plan to governments, NGOs and regional organizations at a meeting of the Syria Humanitarian Forum, the international platform used to discuss humanitarian concerns in Syria, on 20 April.
"Syria has recognized there are serious humanitarian needs and that urgent action is required," Ging said. "We now need to get agreement from the Syrian authorities to implement the Response Plan. In the meantime, we're mobilizing resources to make it happen."
The US$180 million plan includes dozens of projects to respond to the needs of one million people over six months, with the bulk of the money going towards food and health care, but also for the repair of basic services and to support livelihoods to avoid a descent into poverty by many Syrians affected by a deteriorating economy.
What began as peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011 has become an increasingly violent conflict between an armed opposition and government security forces, resulting in a death toll of more than 9,000, according to Robert Serry, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, with many more injured or detained.
The head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has told IRIN there could be as many as 400,000 people displaced, and the International Committee of the Red Cross says there is a “continuous flow” of people leaving their homes in search of safety, some of them living in schools, mosques and churches.
The response plan comes after a nine-day government-led assessment in March of areas affected by the unrest. The government has not accepted the UN figure that one million people are in need in Syria.
"We don't have any crisis in Syria; it is not Somalia," Syria's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, told reporters after the 20 April meeting of the Syria Humanitarian Forum, according to Reuters. State media has often said there is no problem in Syria except for the “terrorists” it blames for the violence.
In recent days, however, the government has become increasingly willing to recognize humanitarian needs in the country, with al-Assad and his first lady appearing on state TV packing food parcels for distribution.
But the government insists the state should lead humanitarian assistance.
Syrian Arab Red Crescent
“The government is concerned about a number of things,” Valerie Amos, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told IRIN in an interview on 5 April. “They are keen that any help in country comes from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Their capacity is already stretched, and they need support. So getting additional supplies in, but also getting additional capacity on the ground, is critical.”
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) has been trying to shake off perceptions among some donors of partiality, and while international aid agencies have commended SARC for “outstanding” work in extremely difficult circumstances, they insist other agencies must be allowed in to help share the burden.
There were international aid agencies in Syria before the unrest, but their roles have largely been limited to helping Iraqi refugees and other developmental projects, unrelated to the current situation.
“We have put some very clear proposals,” Amos said. “The government has come back. They have said they want the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to take the lead. We are happy for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to take the lead, but we need additional capacity on the ground.”
The release of this response plan comes amid those negotiations with the government. The UN says they wanted to share the plan with donors so that there was no delay when approval for implementation is given.
Observers say going ahead with its release without government buy-in was a bit of a gamble: it could pressure Damascus to move more quickly to ensure humanitarian access; but could also backfire by raising the government’s defences.
Either way, the UN is well aware the plan’s success depends on the government’s consent, including its willingness to quickly issue visas to aid workers, clear shipments at customs and allow the UN to set up field offices.
Khaled Erksoussi, head of operations at SARC, told IRIN the Red Crescent has already been in discussions with UN agencies like the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme, to coordinate the implementation of the response plan, but said he did not have information about whether the government had agreed to it.
A separate $84 million plan by UNHCR to respond to the needs of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan has been funded at less than 20 percent since it was launched at the end of March.