Though it has not yet been publicly announced, sources with insights into United Nations operations in Syria have confirmed that the outgoing UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Damascus, Yacoub El Hillo, will be succeeded by Ali al-Zaatari of Jordan. Zaatari thereby becomes the top UN official in Syria, tasked with overseeing a massive aid apparatus, managing sensitive relations with Syrian officials and insurgent groups, and steering the UN aid efforts through a maze of moral traps.

A Sudanese veteran of the United Nations system who previously served as Middle East director for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Hillo has held the post as coordinator in Damascus since August 2013. On June 27, 2016, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon named him deputy special representative with the United Nations Mission in Liberia, UNMIL.

His successor, Ali al-Zaatari, is a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian background. Like Hillo, he is a longtime UN aid official who currently works for the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), and he was previously stationed in Sudan. He has held the job of resident coordinator in Damascus once before, between 2004 and 2007. Zaatari has considerable experience and is “considered solid, if not dynamic,” according to a non-Syrian NGO official based in Damascus. 

Syrian Government Influence Over UN Operations

After being selected over three other candidates for the job, Zaatari has reportedly been fast-tracked through the UN process to ensure a smooth handover from Hillo. His appointment was also swiftly approved by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which, as the representative of a sovereign member state in the world body, must sign off on UN operations in Syria.

The question of Syrian government influence over UN decisions has caused acrimonious internal debates in the organization and the diplomatic community. Authorities in Damascus often seek to steer aid toward areas under their own control, while banning UN convoys from opposition-held territory and towns besieged by the army. UN pleas for permission to send food supplies to towns in the midst of a humanitarian crisis are met by endless bureaucratic stalling. In 2015, almost 75 percent of all UN requests to deliver aid across the frontline went unanswered, and, in the end, only about one in ten such missions could be carried out. As a result, hundreds of deaths due to starvation have been reported in the past years. If diseases and other problems related to malnutrition are added to that figure, the true death toll may be far higher.

To be sure, many Syrian insurgent groups act in similar ways by routinely targeting civilians, seizing hostages, and preventing food and medicine from reaching besieged areas. Like the government, the rebels are known to block humanitarian convoys, steal deliveries, and impose political conditions on aid operations. But there is one major difference. Non-state actors may block roads, but they do not have the legal authority to stop an undesirable UN project by simply refusing to sign a paper, whereas the Syrian government has that power and exercises it liberally. For example, the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has refused to permit UN aid convoys from crossing into northern Syria from Turkey, despite the enormous suffering of local civilians. The UN’s relations with the government are thus particularly crucial and have come under special scrutiny.

The Security Council Imposes Cross-Border Access

For years, certain pro-opposition nations, including the United States and the United Kingdom, pressed hard for blanket humanitarian access to all communities in Syria. These demands were resisted by Russia and China, but eventually even Assad’s allies began to feel embarrassed by the Syrian government’s behavior.

In February 2014, the UN Security Council unanimously issued Resolution 2139, warning “that starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited by international humanitarian law.” Nothing changed and it was soon followed by Resolution 2165, which has since then been renewed annually. The resolution allowed UN aid convoys to use, at their own discretion, four border crossings (two from Turkey, one from Iraq, and one from Jordan) to reach areas outside of Syrian government control. The UN still has to notify Damascus in advance, but it is no longer forced seek permission for crossing the border.

It was a groundbreaking decision, which meant that the Security Council had officially stripped Assad of his sovereign right to control UN movements in and out of Syria. Since then, cross-border convoys have shipped food, medicine, blankets, tents, and other types of aid to millions of needy civilians in northern and southern Syria, with officials in Damascus unable to stop them.

The Debate Over UN Neutrality

The UN still faces major problems trying to send aid across front lines (so called cross-line aid) and to besieged cities. On a daily basis, UN agencies in Damascus are forced to negotiate and compromise with the government over when, where, and how the UN will be allowed operate—“If we don’t bring food to this town, can we please send medicine to that town?”

As head of UN operations, Hillo faced criticism from the Syrian opposition for allegedly failing to take a stance against such abuses. An advocacy group known as the Syria Campaign, which is supported by Syrian opposition groups, delivered a blistering assessment of his tenure in a recent report:

By choosing to prioritise cooperation with the Syrian government at all costs, the UN has enabled the distribution of billions of dollars of international aid to be directed by one side in the conflict. This has contributed to the deaths of thousands of civilians, either through starvation, malnutrition-related illness, or a lack of access to medical aid.

Critics insist that Hillo and other UN officials in Damascus were parroting government talking points and seemed to be suffering from a sort of “Stockholm syndrome” that led them to prioritize their relationship with the authorities over all other concerns. They note that some UN agencies in Damascus even argued against Security Council Resolution 2165, apparently after Syrian officials warned them that they would be expelled from Syria if the resolution was adopted. In the end, the government did not follow through on its threat.

But Hillo also has defenders, who point out that he repeatedly criticized the manipulation of humanitarian aid, such as when he publicly described and condemned the starvation imposed by the Syrian army and Hezbollah on Madaya in 2015-2016, which Syrian authorities had until then dismissed as rebel propaganda. They also stress that many local employees of the UN in Syria have been arrested by the security forces and that the situation is dangerous for all involved.

“Criticism of El Hillo was unfair and came from people who did not know the Syrian context or how UN humanitarian agencies operate,” says the Damascus-based NGO official:

The goal of the UN humanitarian agencies is to help Syrians, not overthrow the government. Most Syrians live in government-held areas, most Syrians in need are in government-held areas, and most besieged areas can only be reached through government-held areas. The UN country team in Damascus has struggled to reach all Syrians including those outside of government-held areas. They have conducted cross-line operations at great risk. But Syria is a member state of the UN and the humanitarian agencies are guests of the government. They feed millions of people and of course they must cooperate with government agencies if they are to help clean water, grow food, educate children, and shelter the displaced.

Some find truth in both of these descriptions. “There is a problem in all parts of the UN organization with coordinating between Damascus and other offices, all of whom tend to see things in their own way,” I am told by a Western diplomat with extensive experience of the Syrian conflict. The diplomat continued:

People’s perspectives are colored by the environment that they’re in. That’s inevitable and it doesn’t only apply to the UN offices in Damascus, we also see it with the cross-border offices in Gaziantep and Amman. But the Damascus office was intended to cover the whole country. The cross-border offices came later as complements for opposition-held areas. They were never intended to deal with both sides and strike a balance.

The Damascus office has on many occasions acted defensively and did not encourage open debate about how the regime manipulates aid for political purposes, often phrasing this by saying humanitarian aid should not be politicized. In the case of Syria that is impossible, since everything is political. But it is in the end about making incredibly hard decisions—decisions that no human should have to make. That is exactly why it is so important to have a transparent debate, to avoid simply dumping these difficult questions on an office that is being extorted by the Syrian regime. Because of course that is what is happening.

Politicized Partners

Recently, many of these arguments returned when a debate flared over UN contracts with Syrian organizations that are run by Assad family members, as described in a report in The Guardian. To carry out their missions, UN agencies must partner with local organizations, which must first be approved by Syria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Critics argue that the UN has compromised the integrity of its aid program by partnering with organizations such as the Boustan Association, a charity foundation controlled by the president’s billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf that is known for funding pro-Assad paramilitary forces. “The Guardian’s revelations and my own findings show that the UN since 2012 systematically awarded highly lucrative procurement contracts to senior regime incumbents and their cronies, inadvertently throwing them a life line,” says Reinoud Leenders, a Syria specialist at King’s College, London, in an interview for this article, adding:

UN agencies also embraced regime-run charities, some of which are financing pro-regime militias, as “implementing partners.” As these revelations come against the backdrop of accumulating evidence of the UN’s surrender to regime manipulations, an investigatory panel into its performance is overdue—if only because such an investigation could restore some of the leverage the UN has toward the regime as it could cite scrutiny as a reason to no longer give in to the regime’s demands.

However, some with insight into aid operations in Damascus argue that this is simply how Syria works. The economy is dominated by individuals close to the Assad family and independent NGOs are not allowed, leaving few alternatives. Aid professionals must also maintain friendly contacts in the ruling elite to get anything done, since they would be unable to overcome the bureaucracy’s inertia and corruption without occasional prodding from above. Government-backed NGOs and companies are also often able to work deep inside opposition-held areas, whether directly or through intermediaries. The same is true of public institutions, such as the ministries of health or education, which often remain active under Sunni rebel, Kurdish, or Islamic State control even though they are funded and directed from Damascus. In other words, some of these organizations and institutions would be well placed to become implementing partners for the aid community, even if the ruling clique didn’t steer the UN towards favored family clients, which it does.

“People have to understand the context in which we operate,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told Canadian radio in response to The Guardian's article:

We work in Syria in a political and military situation that is not of our own making. When we work out of Damascus, we have to procure basic services, such as phone service or fuel. We put out lists and there is a limited number of vendors. That is the situation in which we work, we have no other options. The only other option is to stop working in Syria and if we did, millions would go without aid. The UN doesn't have the freedom that international NGOs have.

Leenders and other critics are not convinced, arguing that the problem has been made worse by the attitude of the UN office in Damascus and that the organization is not as transparent as it should be. “Establishing an investigatory panel to scrutinize the UN’s conduct and performance in Syria is the very least that the UN could do,” Leenders recently wrote.

This side of the argument gained further support on September 8, when a 73-member alliance of aid groups and NGOs working in rebel-held areas announced their withdrawal from a joint monitoring mechanism directed by the UN office in Damascus, in protest against what they described as the UN’s pro-Assad leanings. Most of these groups are linked to opposition groups or pro-opposition governments, and their letter of withdrawal was clearly a political signal. But they are important partners of the UN in Syria nonetheless, stating that they provide assistance to more than 7 million people there and in neighboring countries.

“The Turkey team, we are happy with them, but their bosses in Damascus don’t listen to them,” a representative of the aid groups told The Guardian. “We lost confidence in the way they operate and would like to see major changes to the way they work on the Syrian response.” According to the newspaper, the withdrawal of so many groups from the UN’s information-sharing system “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.”

Time for a Talk

All sides will agree that the humanitarian community is facing myriad economic, political, and moral gray areas in Syria. As long as the war goes on, Assad and his adversaries will continue to exploit aid, hunger, and civilian suffering to achieve their goals. The UN will continue to wobble between two unappealing extremes: either alienating the government to a point where it cancels life-saving aid programs, or allowing international aid to be used as a carrot to the Syrian army’s stick.

“It is really important that we have a debate about these issues, considering the enormity of the suffering,” says the Western diplomat.” You’ve got a harsh dictatorship, insane terror groups, and chaos, but the aid needs are so great that you simply have to do something. It will involve making some extremely difficult choices.”

Ali al-Zaatari comes to his new job with impeccable credentials, but he will have his work cut out for him, logistically as well as politically. To millions of Syrians suffering from this cruel war, the UN’s handling of these delicate issues could not be of greater importance.

Previously on Syria in Crisis:

The Failure to Stop Starvation Tactics in Syria (Mar. 31, 2014)
Let Them Eat Bombs: The Cost of Ignoring Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis (Oct. 17, 2014)
Will Darayya Normalize the Expulsion of Civilians? (Sep. 7, 2016)