Syrian activists say opposition groups are manipulating humanitarian aid for political and security gains, after similar accusations were levelled against the Syrian government last week.
With over 2.5 million people in need of assistance in Syria, committees of volunteers are providing food and medical assistance in areas not reached by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), international aid agencies and local charities.
The committees collect monetary donations and aid from local businesses and overseas donors. But activists close to the operations say partisan interests affect the flow of aid and who it reaches.
“Everyone supports their own people, in order to increase the strength of those people's loyalty,” said Mahmoud*, an activist from Aleppo, who worked with the Arabic-Kurdish Relief Committee until fleeing to Turkey in October.
“The Syrian opposition in exile should be the link between donors and Syrians inside the country,” he said. “But sadly, each faction has a group of supporters inside Syria, and they don't help anyone except their own group.”
Delivery itself is part of the problem. In areas where fighting is continuing, the committees are forced to rely on Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters to get assistance to where it is needed, defying the humanitarian principle of neutrality: that humanitarian actors not be engaged in the conflict.
“We depend on them a lot,” said Mahmoud. “There are many areas the aid committees can't get into, because the fighting is still ongoing. For example, in Salah Al-Din [a neighbourhood of Aleppo], only fighters can deliver aid.”
Daoud Suleyman, an FSA fighter from Ma'rat Al-Nu'man, denied that FSA militias distribute aid on a partisan basis.
“In the battle of Ma'arat Nu'man, 70,000 people were displaced. Among them were children of `shabiha’ [pro-regime gangs] and people who were with the regime,” he told IRIN.
“We gave them food as we gave it to the children of the revolutionaries. We took their injured and treated them in field hospitals in liberated areas,” he said. His claims could not be independently verified.
Donors say it is hard to track where the aid goes once it is in the hands of militias. Oubay Akil, a Syrian who runs a medical equipment company in Texas, has been sending orthopaedic kits into Syria through Turkey since August. He told IRIN he gets partners on the ground to provide video evidence of their deliveries.
Akil agreed that politics were playing a role in aid distribution.
“A lot of people use aid to get political loyalties. We've heard stories that some groups send aid only to people who are backing their ideologies.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, one of the main movements within the Syrian opposition, has been the target of similar accusations.
“There are too many rumours against us and against members of the Muslim Brotherhood that they are doing this for their future political careers,” said Mulham Al Daroubi, a Brotherhood spokesperson.
“We try to avoid that. We know the sensitivity of this. Any help that we provide to anyone is unconditional, and only for people to defend themselves, defend their families and change the regime in Syria,” he told IRIN.
He mentioned cases where the Brotherhood had tried members in an internal “court” after they were accused of tying aid to political support.
The UN estimates that 1.2 million people are displaced within Syria, many living in schools and other public buildings and vulnerable to the coming winter. UN agencies are delivering tents, blankets, medicine and food, with the World Food Programme (WFP) reaching 1.5 million people every month and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) set to reach about 750,000 people by the end of the year.
Doubts over aid to SARC
But international agencies admit their reach is limited, hindered by heavy fighting and logistical and bureaucratic hurdles. They must coordinate their work with the government, and mostly distribute aid through SARC.
Sadly, each faction has a group of supporters inside Syria, and they don't help anyone except their own group
Last week, the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM), an umbrella relief group in Geneva, accused the regime of confiscating almost all the aid sent to SARC.
“Ninety, even 95 percent of everything that is sent to Syrian Red Crescent headquarters in Damascus goes to support the Syrian regime, especially the soldiers,” Tawfik Chamaa, UOSSM's spokesman, told journalists.
In a press release issued on 11 November, SARC said it was “very hurt” by the “wrongful, uncertified and politicized accusations” made by Chamaa, adding that it has been helping “the most vulnerable people in a transparent and impartial method”, with the day to day involvement and observation of donors. SARC said the comments were dangerous in an already politicized context in which the Red Crescent “is struggling to have equal distance from all parties.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and WFP have also denied the accusations and praised the courage and hard work of SARC volunteers.
But Chamaa is not alone in his skepticism. Early on in the conflict, civilians at times rejected assistance from SARC, due to a lack of trust in its neutrality. Rula*, a member of a Kurdish women's organization in Aleppo Governorate, also accused SARC of limiting its aid to people loyal to the regime. She said SARC only delivers aid to regime supporters, and that its ambulances regularly transport government soldiers - a claim SARC, which has lost several volunteers during the conflict, strongly denies.
A partner nevertheless
UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told IRIN that SARC had been an important partner for aid agencies since the influx into Syria of hundreds of thousands of refugees after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"Agencies have worked with the Syrian Red Crescent for a long time, and they have volunteers across the country. That's the network that exists, and they have for a long time been our partner. That's the existing structure and that's who we work with," he said.
"We're operating in an insecure environment where even logistics are difficult."
SARC is highly decentralized: the direction of its operations has become dependent on each branch’s individual leadership and the willingness of its volunteers, with some branches said to be neutral and highly effective; others considered partial to the regime; and rumours of a “free SARC” in Aleppo.
Last week, ICRC President Peter Maurer told journalists in Geneva that his organization had a "relationship of confidence" with SARC, according to Reuters, but that its headquarters in Damascus may be closer to the government than other branches.
UOSSM's Chamaa told IRIN that international organizations such as the ICRC should be taking aid directly to displaced Syrians in both regime and opposition-controlled areas. Aid agencies say they are trying to walk a fine line with the Syrian government, bound to follow its restrictions so as not to jeopardize their ability to help those they are currently reaching.
“The international organizations haven't set up a mechanism for direct coordination with the local coordination councils in areas that are no longer under regime control,” Chamaa said. “It's now time, from a humanitarian angle, [to do so].”
In rebel-held areas, a myriad of international aid agencies (not registered with the government), Syrian diaspora groups and local activists have been trying to provide for those in need, under much less scrutiny.
*not a real name