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  • Aid groups worry new US anti-terror law could leave them liable

    A new US anti-terror law that has forced the majority of American-funded aid operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to grind to a halt may have even wider humanitarian consequences, leaving nonprofits around the world more vulnerable to litigation.

     

    While the 700-word bill appears to have been targeted at the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, experts say the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, or ATCA, is poorly crafted and could result in some non-governmental organisations and businesses being reluctant to take US funding or be associated with US-financed programmes.

     

    Signed in October last year and law as of 31 January, ATCA is an attempt by US lawmakers to make it easier for American courts to hear civil suits related to terrorist attacks abroad, specifically those involving authorities tied to the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

     

    Under ATCA, recipients of three kinds of aid – economic support funds (ESF), international narcotics and law enforcement (INCLE) funds, and financing earmarked for nonproliferation, anti-terrorism, and demining (NADR) – become subject to US “personal jurisdiction”.

     

    This means American citizens who have demonstrably suffered injury to “person, property or business” from international acts of terrorism can sue these recipients in US civil court. American NGOs that operate abroad were already subject to personal jurisdiction for such suits, but ATCA broadens this to any recipient.

    “There is a real risk that this could really cripple the US’ ability to find reliable foreign assistance partners in a lot of parts of the world where we really need them, particularly areas of conflict.”

    As a result of the law, the Palestinian Authority (PA) announced it would stop taking those forms of aid, leading the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to shut down its operations in the West Bank and Gaza in February. Other NGOs that receive funding via USAID and from the streams mentioned in ATCA followed suit.

     

    While the bill has so far only caused the shutdown of NGOs working in the West Bank and Gaza, there is no geographical limit in its wording. Experts, including Scott Anderson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively about the law and advised aid groups on its legal ramifications, say this means ATCA could have unintended and far-reaching consequences.

     

    “There is a real risk that this could really cripple the US’ ability to find reliable foreign assistance partners in a lot of parts of the world where we really need them, particularly areas of conflict,” he said.

     

    ATCA’s birth and immediate impact

     

    In 2015, a court awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to 10 families who were American victims or related to victims of terrorist attacks in the early 2000s. They argued that the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, both headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, had offered financial support to the attackers and their families, running afoul of the US Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).

    The ruling was overturned, in part because even though the victims and plaintiffs held American citizenship, a higher court said the PLO and the PA couldn’t be sued in the US court system for attacks planned and carried out “entirely outside” American borders.

     

    Sponsored by Senator Chuck Grassley, ATCA, which clarifies the ATA, was largely the result of a campaign by the plaintiffs and their lawyers to allow Americans to do just that. After the bill passed, Grassley cited the case against the PA and the PLO: “Carrying out or assisting an act of international terrorism that injures or kills Americans abroad should provide sufficient justification to subject defendants to US legal sanctions,” his office said in a statement.

     

    The Palestinian Authority has received all three types of ATCA-specified aid in recent years. Unwilling to risk liability under the new law and a possible reactivation of earlier lawsuits against it, the PA told the United States in December that it would stop taking US funds from the three streams. It also ordered any NGOs using such funding to end their work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Programming carried out by USAID-funded NGOs, including a planned rehabilitation of Gaza’s water system, have been halted.

     

    Eric Garduno, senior policy and legislative specialist at Catholic Relief Services, said all USAID-funded work on his organisation’s Envision Gaza 2020 programme – through which it provided food to more than 3,000 households – ended entirely when ATCA came into force.

     

    Garduno said 3,000 households was already well below their goal – due to previous US budget cuts and administration scrutiny – and added that he didn’t know how many people Catholic Relief Services would now be able to feed.

     

    “We are in sort of a limbo right now where we think at least some of the programmes that were closed on January 31 can be restarted if there is a change to ATCA, but I don’t know how quickly a change can happen now,” said Garduno. “We do know the longer this is delayed, the less likely any of these programmes will be restarted.”

     

    All of this comes at a sensitive time for NGOs working in the Palestinian territories, after a pro-Israel activist used another US law, the False Claims Act, to seek damages – successfully in at least one case – from nonprofits on the basis that their interaction with US terrorist-designated groups may amount to material support.

     

    Wider impact

     

    Overall, ESF, INCLE, and NADR funding totalled more than $6 billion in the last financial year and was received in more than 50 countries, including fragile humanitarian situations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and Yemen.

     

    The funds cover a wide range of activities, from sanitation to law enforcement. INCLE funds that have paid for security assistance in the West Bank have also been spent in countries like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Pakistan to combat the drug trade and finance other security measures.

    “Once people become aware of this, either they won’t want the US money, or they won’t want to do work in the rough and tumble neighbourhoods where we want them.”

    Courts will ultimately decide the breadth of the new law, but analysts say the lack of geographical specificity in ATCA means aid organisations or subcontractors that receive ESF, INCLE, or NADR funding – either directly or indirectly – could be left open to lawsuits if they implement programming in areas where US-designated groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or al-Qaeda affiliates like al-Shabaab operate. This may be true even if the only US funding they receive is for unconnected operations in a different country to the one where the ATCA and ATA-prohibited programming is being conducted.

     

    “There are partners that don’t have a US [base of some sort] that do get US foreign assistance on a pretty regular basis – usually subcontractors,” said Hady Amr, a former senior US diplomat who managed a $1.6 billion aid budget for the Middle East as deputy senior administrator at USAID. “Once people become aware of this, either they won’t want the US money, or they won’t want to do work in the rough and tumble neighbourhoods where we want them.”

     

    Kay Guinane, director of the Charity & Security Network, a group that coordinates nonprofits on regulatory issues, said foreign-based NGOs expressed concern in recent meetings that they may be vulnerable to lawsuits because of ATCA, and would not have the financial means to fight in court. She said the vagueness in US law over what constitutes material support for terrorist action, exacerbated by ATCA, had added to this anxiety.

     

    Few aid groups are willing to talk openly about the issue. “NGOs would be foolish to speak publicly about concerns with ATCA,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. “Doing so would be the equivalent of painting a bullseye on their backs at which lawyers and potential litigants looking for targets [could] take aim.”

     

    "It's a hypothetical for now, but it's not paranoid to see [ATCA] as a very real potential threat,” Friedman said. "The potential use of this as a [legal] tool is only limited by the number of cases of US citizens injured overseas and the creativity of lawyers who in finding NGOs to sue."

     

    Neither USAID nor the US State Department responded to questions about whether they were using language in contracts – or warning partners in any other way – about the new implications of receiving ESF, INCLE, and NADR funding.

     

    “The assumption within a large part of the NGO community is that this could have a chilling effect on non-US or local NGOs who are willing to accept US assistance,” said Joel Braunold, executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace.

     

    Clarification

     

    While the NGO community waits to see what the full impact of ATCA will be, there have been unsuccessful attempts on the US side to adjust the law’s wording, especially since the PA stopped taking funding for security coordination with Israel, which includes aid to Palestinian security forces working with Israel on counter-terrorism measures.

     

    “We learned that no one on Capitol Hill thought ATCA would be interpreted in a way that would force NGO programmes to close,” said Garduno of Catholic Relief Services.

     

    NGOs hoped Congress would deliver a fix in the spending package President Donald Trump signed last month, but this didn’t happen and legislators have so far failed to amend the law.

     

    That doesn’t necessarily mean a change of some sort isn’t on the cards. A spokesperson for Grassley told IRIN was still willing to further “clarify” the law his office drafted, but said the senator blamed the State Department for only raising concerns about US assistance after the legislation had passed. The State Department declined to comment.

     

    “A lot of people, including the Trump administration, recognise the real problems here,” said Anderson of Brookings. “The broader question is whether there is going to be a fix for the broader impact this will have outside the West Bank.”

     

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    “A lot of people, including the Trump administration, recognise the real problems here”
    Aid groups worry new US anti-terror law could leave them liable
  • The blame game over Syria’s winter fuel crisis

    Millions of Syrians haven’t had enough fuel to cook their food and heat their homes this winter.

     

    Syria’s severe fuel shortages have had far-reaching knock-on effects, including a rise in food prices, driven by higher transport costs and currency depreciation in government-run areas that had largely avoided such economic hardship. According to the UN, two thirds of Syrians live in “extreme poverty” and 90 percent spend at least half their income on food, so there’s limited ability to cope with these price hikes.

     

    As frustration over the state’s inability to solve the shortages mounts, so does discussion of who or what is to blame. Syrian authorities accuse Western nations of “economic warfare”, while US and EU diplomats say the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is responsible. Experts tend to point to a combination of economic malfunction, corruption, and Western sanctions.

     

    Over the past eight years of war, it has rarely been easy for Syrians to get the fuel that powers electricity plants, factories, hospitals, gas stoves, and home heaters. As Myriam Youssef, a Damascus-based researcher with the London School of Economics, wrote in February, “like many winters past, our days are drained by hours upon hours of waiting… we wait for fuel distribution vehicles to pass by our neighbourhood so that we buy a few litres, enough to warm the house for a couple of hours.”

     

    But in the last few months, the fuel shortages and related price hikes in parts of the country controlled by al-Assad have become unusually severe. As a cooking gas cylinder in Damascus hit 8,000 Syrian pounds ($15) in January on the black market – more than three times the official price – Baath Media, a news site run by al-Assad’s ruling political party, showed long lines of people waiting for gas in the southern city of Izraa.

     

    Even members of Syria’s rubber-stamp parliament, who have some leeway to discuss economic issues, complained about the gas crisis in their January session. Parliamentarians mostly blamed Western sanctions, but some also condemned corrupt officials – without naming names.

     

    Industry collapse, new sanctions

     

    Experts say this winter's scarcity is largely the result of new US sanctions, both related to President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and to targeted measures against Syria's oil trade.

     

    This hit at one of the main ways the Syrian government gets its oil, after domestic production was decimated by sanctions and war: Iranian shipments through the Red Sea, paid for with Iranian credits.

     

    The United States and the European Union both banned the purchase of Syrian oil after al-Assad began a violent crackdown on protesters in 2011, while also sanctioning regime-linked individuals. The EU had taken in 95 percent of Syria’s crude exports before the outset of the war, so its September 2011 embargo hit the country’s oil industry hard, and much of what remained collapsed in subsequent years due to conflict, looting, and a breakdown in maintenance.

    David Butter, a Middle East energy expert with the Chatham House think tank, told IRIN that according to official figures, Syria’s crude production has tumbled from a pre-war output of 385,000 barrels per day to around 24,000 today. With local consumption in government-held Syria at an estimated 125,000 barrels per day, that leaves a shortfall of more than than 100,000 barrels daily.

     

    The 5 November re-imposition of sanctions on Iranian energy and shipping assets meant that Iranian oil tankers could no longer buy insurance on the international market. They were followed by a 20 November warning from the US Treasury Department that it would “aggressively target” shipping companies if they continued to carry oil for the Syrian government.

     

    According to Butter, the 20 November notice, which targeted “the entire supply chain for fuel sales to Syria,” had an instant impact. Many of the oil tankers that serve Syrian ports appear to have responded by pulling out of the trade altogether.

     

    Jihad Yazigi, a Syrian economist and editor-in-chief of The Syria Report, also told IRIN the warning was “the main factor behind the recent shortages,” but added that it was important to take into account that demand for energy and oil products has been high because of the winter season.

     

    Even after the loss of much of the tanker trade, there is still some oil coming in on trucks from the Kurdish-held northeast. This supply is organised by regime-linked middlemen who have bargained for access to oil wells controlled – at various times – by Western-backed rebels, the so-called Islamic State, and US-backed Kurdish fighters.

     

    Butter estimates that this trade makes up around 20-30,000 barrels per day of crude oil – much less than the country needs.

     

    Oil and the economy

     

    The oil and gas shortages have hit both individuals and the wider Syrian economy.

     

    Idriss Jazairy, the UN Human Rights Council’s rapporteur on sanctions, reported last year that the US and EU oil embargoes had “dramatically raised the cost of fuel oil for heating, cooking, and lighting,” noting that the state’s gradual reduction of subsidies since 2011 had further impoverished Syrians, and that fuel shortages have second-order effects on the wider economy.

     

    “Iranian oil supplies to Syria play an important role not only in the sense that they supply oil products to the Syrian economy,” Yazigi explained. “They are also a major source, if not the main source of revenue for the Syrian government.”

     

    Since Damascus purchases oil from Iran on credit, the state gains from sales to citizens even when prices are subsidised. That makes oil an important revenue source, which, Yazigi said, “both enables the government to fund its war effort, if you want, but also government and public services.”

     

    Despite this trickle down impact on citizens who live under government control, European diplomats defend the sanctions. They told IRIN the Syrian oil sector is sanctioned because the government uses fuel for military purposes, such as to run helicopters that drop barrel bombs, and point out that there are exemptions for humanitarian purposes.

     

    They reject the suggestion that EU sanctions are responsible for civilian suffering.

     

    “It’s a much broader political economy that has caused those fuel shortages, or that determines who is having shortages and who doesn’t”, said one European diplomat, who spoke to IRIN on condition of anonymity.

     

    “There are people in Syria who have got plenty of access to what they need”, the diplomat said, pointing to the fact that people close to the regime do not appear to have been impacted by the shortages. “The EU can only control what it can control.”

     

    A diplomat from another EU member state insisted al-Assad’s government only has itself to blame for Syria’s predicament this winter.

     

    “The regime takes every opportunity to paint the picture that the EU and the ‘West’ is responsible for the suffering of the Syrian people”, this diplomat said. “However, the regime continues to wage war on its own population, adding to the massive suffering it has already caused.”

     

    An EU spokesperson told IRIN the sanctions, both on regime-linked individuals and on oil, are “a clear signal that the repressive policies of the al-Assad regime against the civilian population of Syria, including the expropriation of land for political purposes, as well as the production and use of chemical weapons, are considered unacceptable by the EU.”

     

    The spokesperson said the al-Assad regime must “change its behaviour and contribute to a lasting settlement of the conflict.”

     

    The US State Department did not respond to IRIN’s requests for comment.

     

    What next?

     

    Syrian authorities have repeatedly promised that the crisis is about to be resolved, advertising a series of high-level meetings, police raids, and emergency measures to combat waste and corruption. That may be easier said than done given the involvement of top regime figures in the illicit economy.

     

    A new rationing system allows citizens to buy their allotted 450 litres of subsidised gasoline using a “smart card” that keeps track of purchases. But the rollout has been marred by problems, adding to the frustration of Syrians forced to wait in lines for fuel.

     

    In January,  a Damascus official announced that an old, parallel distribution network for public sector employees would be shut down. In a hint at government corruption, he said it had incentivised officials to request “large quantities” that were distributed in an “unclear” manner. The following month, the government also ended a decades-old state monopoly on cooking gas imports.

     

    Fuel needs will soon be reduced with warmer spring weather, but as the US Congress discusses more comprehensive sanctions, Syria’s oil and gas shortages are unlikely to go away any time soon.

    (TOP PHOTO: Ghada, 12, lights a fire to cook at her home in Aleppo this January. Khudr Al-Issa/UNICEF)

     

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

     

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    The blame game over Syria’s winter fuel crisis
  • Briefing: Months after a massacre in Congo, little aid but plenty of fear

    Yumbi, a small farming and fishing town on the banks of the Congo River, is now mostly deserted.

     

    Days before the Democratic Republic of Congo’s long-delayed December elections, chaos erupted – a massacre left at least 535 people dead over 48 hours and caused 30,000 people from the town and the surrounding villages of Bongende and Nkolo to flee.

     

    Some 12,000 people who took refuge on river islands remain displaced in the territories of Yumbi and Lukolela. Another 16,000 crossed the river into neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville and are now living as refugees, mostly in the Makotimpoko and Gamboma districts.

    In photos: Congo massacre survivors tell of canoe escapes and being left for dead

    More than two months later, most people say they are still afraid to return home.

     

    Shelter, food, and mental health services for traumatised survivors are all in urgent demand. Assistance has so far been minimal. The remote location of Yumbi complicates the response as it takes three days to arrive by land from Kinshasa, or one day by boat up the Congo River.  

    Médecins Sans Frontières, currently the only aid organisation on the ground, said the situation may worsen with the coming rainy season, which is also likely to bring infectious diseases including cholera, measles, and malaria.

     

    Initial reports characterised the violence as intercommunal – Batende perpetrating attacks against minority Banunu – but subsequent reports from the UN and others have noted its “organised and planned” nature. Some witnesses have alleged local officials were involved.

     

    Violent disputes and occasional clashes had been reported between the Batende and Banunu over land and resources in previous years, but never before had it reached anything like the scale of the 16 and 17 December massacre.

     

    What are the immediate needs?

     

    MSF, which responded within the first week of the violence in Yumbi, said it arrived to find that medics had fled and health facilities were damaged. The UN reported that homes and public buildings were also destroyed.

     

    Fabrizio Andriolo, MSF’s emergency team coordinator, told IRIN that the rainy season – more specifically rising water levels of the Congo River – poses a serious threat to the thousands displaced on the islands.

     

    Not only will meagre shelters be destroyed if the islands flood, but cholera may reappear – MSF responded to an epidemic in Yumbi in March and April 2018. There are fears also of a measles outbreak, which could spread quickly in such precarious living conditions. The rainy months are also notorious for malaria, currently the main health concern.

     

    Food is also desperately needed. People are unable to access markets or return to their fields and fishing equipment. Andriolo said his team had already treated 120 cases of child malnutrition – a number he expected to rise in the ongoing absence of aid.

     

    Since no assistance has been provided to help rebuild damaged infrastructure and supply food in the towns or villages, the population has not yet begun to return. Many also refuse to return out of fear they may be attacked again.

     

    What are the long-term needs?

     

    Andriolo stressed the importance of long-term healthcare solutions in the region for when people do start to return, including support for mental health, since the brutality and subsequent trauma of the attacks is likely to have lasting effects.  

     

    “A lot of the population is extremely traumatised by the events, exhibiting insomnia, lack of hunger, and general lack of energy,” the MSF coordinator said. “Going back will reopen the trauma from seeing the places where the violence occurred.”

     

    Communities have also been cut off from their livelihoods: the river where they fish, the fields where they farm, and the market where they trade. Many tools of trade and supplies were also destroyed in the violence. Homes and buildings will also need to be rebuilt. In total, 17 schools and 967 houses were destroyed, leaving many without a place to live.

     

    What caused the violence?

     

    Most sources say the violence was provoked by the burial of Banunu chief Mantuma Fedor on land the Batende claim as theirs.

     

    The UN said the attacks “were conducted in a very organised manner and were most likely planned”. Witnesses claimed the attackers were positioned strategically at the entrances of villages during the massacre – which could indicate previous training or planning.

     

    ☰ Read more: Witnesses describe how the massacre unfolded

     

    Early on 16 December, a young Banunu man travelled from the village of Bongende to a Batende village a few kilometres away. Upon arrival, he was killed. The Batende sent a messenger back to the other Banunu, warning: “we will come back to attack you”.

     

    That afternoon in Yumbi, the attacks began, and continued for nearly three hours.

     

    “I saw a team of visibly armed men coming from Yumbi’s centre… they began to massacre the population with guns and knives (machetes),” recalled Jule Bango Bobongo, a teacher at Kasobongala secondary school in Yumbi.

     

    In an attempt to escape, many braved the waters of the Congo River, only to drown or be shot dead as they swam. “I was scared to die in the river,” Bobongo continued, “so I fled with others to the Yumbi hospital where we took temporary refuge.”

     

    When the sound of gunfire stopped, they left the hospital only to find their homes burnt and corpses sprawled on the ground. “We began picking up the wounded to bring them back to the hospital,” Bobongo recalled. “I told myself that ordinary civilians could not organise such an operation on their own… we went home with death in our souls.”

    By the evening, Dr. Bodo Molenga at Yumbi General Hospital had received a total of 133 wounded patients, 17 of whom died while receiving medical care. “It was really awful,” he said. “I saw some seriously injured people and some died in my arms.”

     

    The next morning, on 17 December, the villages of Bongende and Nkolo came under attack; the slaughter lasted seven hours, according to witnesses. “I found more than 300 bodies in complete decay,” said Nestor Longota, a priest who returned to Bongende from Kinshasa after the attack. “It was horrible, I saw bodies of children, mutilated women young and old who littered the earth for a whole week.”

     

    Dr. Molenga organised with the local Red Cross committee to bury the bodies. “In Bongende we dug four mass graves for 400 visible corpses,” he said. “But even today other corpses remain stuck between the walls of crushed homes and other bodies.”  

     

    The UN Joint Human Rights Office, or UNJHRO, would later find 59 mass burial sites and 40 individual graves in Yumbi.

     

    With more burial sites possibly still to be discovered, the eventual death toll could be as high as 800 – excluding an unknown number of people (estimated to be dozens) who drowned in the river while escaping and whose bodies will likely never be recovered.

     

    There are allegations that Congolese armed forces, police, or local authorities may have somehow been involved, but there are several competing theories and no clear evidence to implicate any official actors.

     

    Nestor Longota, a priest in Bongende, said he spoke to a Congolese naval officer who recognised some of his navy colleagues and police officers among the attackers. “How can a village like Yumbi, the largest one in the territory, be attacked for two days with no defense or military intervention?” Longota asked.

     

    One Batende man, who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons, told IRIN that the security services and local administration were “in agreement” with the attackers. He and many other survivors pointed the finger at the Bana Mura, Joseph Kabila’s presidential guard.

    yumbi_alexis_huguet1_1920.jpg

    Alexis Huguet/IRIN

    To some, the alleged involvement of the military and police suggested voter suppression ahead of the elections that finally took place on 30 December, as the Banunu generally support the opposition and the Batende back Kabila.

    Opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi’s victory in the election marked Congo’s first orderly transfer of power since independence in 1960. However, independent vote monitors found Martin Fayulu, another opposition candidate, to be the winner, and there are allegations – denied by both parties – that Tshisekedi and Kabila struck some kind of deal.

     

    What might happen next?

     

    Due to the violence, Congo’s government postponed the vote in Yumbi from December until 31 March, a delay also imposed on the Ebola-affected cities of Beni and Butembo in the east.

     

    While the fighting has ceased in the months following the massacre, tensions between the two communities remain, and the Banunu who continue to live in Yumbi talk of sleepless nights, dreading that their attackers may return.  

     

    Those interviewed by IRIN nearly all stressed the importance of reconciliation among the two communities.  

     

    The Batende man who spoke to IRIN said: “Many of us [Batende] did not want this tragedy to happen and denounce it as barbarism… we want justice to be served and the perpetrators to be punished. The truth must be known after the investigations, and the two communities must come to terms [with it].”

     

    Local authorities, in conjunction with the Congolese military, are now urging people to return in time to vote later this month. But the date hardly seems feasible given that thousands remain displaced, many of them far away and some in neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville.

     

    “The government should first investigate the situation and respond to emergencies in Yumbi… and elections can come in two to three months,” said Jule Bango Bobongo, a teacher at Kasobongala secondary school in Yumbi.

     

    “Who is left to vote?” asked Priest Longota, “Everyone has been killed or displaced.”

    (TOP PHOTO: An MSF nurse provides care to displaced people now living Moniende island, in the middle of the Congo River, after they fled the massacre in Yumbi in December. CREDIT: Alexis Huguet/IRIN)

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    “Who is left to vote? Everyone has been killed or displaced”
    Briefing: Months after a massacre in Congo, little aid but plenty of fear
    First in a two-part series on the 16 and 17 December massacre in Yumbi. The accompanying <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/photo-feature/2019/03/07/congo-massacre-survivors-tell-canoe-escapes-and-being-left-dead">photo essay</a> includes personal accounts from survivors.
  • Power shift creates new tensions and Tigrayan fears in Ethiopia

    Disagreements over land and resources between the 80 different ethnic groups in Ethiopia have often led to violence and mass displacement, but a fast and unprecedented shift of power led by reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is causing new strains, experts say.

     

    “Ethnic tensions are the biggest problem for Ethiopia right now,” Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy group that played a significant role in lobbying the US government to censor the former regime. “You’ve got millions of people displaced – it’s a humanitarian crisis, and it could get out of control.”

     

    During the first half of 2018, Ethiopia’s rate of 1.4 million new internally displaced people exceeded Syria’s. By the end of last year, the IDP population had mushroomed to nearly 2.4 million.

     

    Tigrayans comprise just six percent of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million people but are perceived as a powerful minority because of their ethnic affinity with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The TPLF wielded almost unlimited power for more than two decades until reforms within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front last year.

     

    Since coming to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy – from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest – has brought major changes to the politics of the country, including an unprecedented redistribution of power within the EPRDF and away from the TPLF.

     

    The politics of ethnic tensions

     

    Despite the conflicting interests and disagreements between ethnic groups, the Ethiopian government has managed to keep the peace on a national scale. But that juggling act has shown signs of strain in recent years.

    “You’ve got millions of people displaced – it’s a humanitarian crisis, and it could get out of control.”

    In 2017, an escalation in ethnic clashes in the Oromia and the Somali regions led to a spike in IDPs. This continued into 2018, when clashes between the Oromo and Gedeo ethnic groups displaced approximately 970,000 people in the West Guji and Gedeo zones of neighbouring Oromia and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region.

     

    “The pace and scale of the change happening in Ethiopia is quite unbelievable,” said Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow with the Africa Programme at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

     

    “The impact of inter-communal tensions and ethnic violence presents a serious challenge for the new leadership – in Tigray and elsewhere. Abiy's aggressive reform agenda has won praise, but shaking up Ethiopia's government risks exacerbating several long-simmering ethnic rivalries.”

     

    Although clashes are sometimes fuelled by other disagreements, such as land or resources, people affected often claim that politicians across the spectrum use ethnic tensions as a means of divide and rule, or to consolidate their position as a perceived bulwark against further trouble.

     

    “Sadly [around Ethiopia] ethnic bias and violence is affecting many people at the local level,” said a foreign humanitarian worker with an international organisation helping Ethiopian IDPs, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue. This includes fuelling the displacement crisis and worsening the humanitarian situation.

     

    “The main humanitarian concern is that new displacements are occurring by the day, that due to the wide geographic scope, coordination and response in all locations is practically impossible,” the aid worker said.

     

    “I would like to see more transparency as to what actions the government is taking to hold regional and zonal governments responsible for addressing conflict, for supporting reconciliation, and supporting humanitarian response.”

     

    Tigray fears

     

    Although Tigrayans constitute a relatively small part of overall IDP numbers so far, some Tigrayans fear the power shift in Addis Ababa away from the TPLF leaves them more vulnerable and exposed.

     

    Already simmering anti-Tigrayan sentiments have led to violence, people told IRIN, from barricading roads and forcibly stopping traffic to looting and attacks on Tigrayan homes and businesses in the Amhara and Oromia regions.

    5b_1920.jpg

    James Jeffrey/IRIN

    In the Tigray region’s capital of Mekelle, more than 750 kilometers north of the political changes taking place in Addis Ababa, many Tigrayans feel increasingly isolated from fellow Ethiopians.

     

    “The rest of the country hates us,” Weyanay Gebremedhn, 25, told IRIN. Despite the reforms, Tigrayans say what hasn’t changed is the narrative that they are responsible by association for the ills of the TPLF.

     

    Although he now struggles to find work, 35-year-old Huey Berhe, who does mostly odd jobs to pay the bills, said he felt safer living among his own community in Mekelle.

     

    Huey said he had been a student at Jimma University in western Ethiopia, until growing ethnic tensions sparked fights on campus and led to Tigrayans being targeted. “I left my studies at Jimma after the trouble there,” he said. “It was bad – it’s not something I like to discuss.”

     

    ‘A better evil’

     

    “There is a lot of [lies] and propaganda, and the TPLF has been made the scapegoat for all vice,” said Gebre Weleslase, a Tigrayan law professor at Mekelle University. He criticised Abiy for not condemning ethnic attacks, which he said had contributed to tens of thousands of Tigrayans leaving Amhara for Tigray in recent years.

    But Amhara Association of America’s Tewodrose said the feeling of “hate” that Ethiopians have toward the TPLF “doesn’t extend to Tigrayans”.

     

    “There is resentment toward them when other Ethiopians hear of rallies in Tigray supporting the TPLF, because that seems like they aren’t supporting reform efforts,” he said. “But that doesn’t lead to them being targeted, otherwise there would have been more displacements.”

    ☰ Read more: The complex Tigray evolution

     

    Although the TPLF is credited with spearheading the 1991 overthrow of Ethiopia’s military Derg dictatorship, it is hated for usurping power from, and using it against, Ethiopia’s two main ethnic groups – the Oromo and Amhara – who represent 35 percent and 27 percent of the country’s population, respectively.

     

    Brewing animosity over its misgovernance erupted after a plan emerged in 2014 to increase the size of Addis Ababa into Oromia. Oromo protests gathered steam in 2015, joined by Amhara protests in 2016, and did not let up for three years.

    A unified Oromo-Amhara opposition is a source of numerical dread for the TPLF and for many Tigrayans given the Amhara region borders Tigray to the south (clashes have already occurred over the inter-regional border).

    When anti-government protests rocked the Amhara city of Gondar in July 2016, hundreds of ethnic Tigrayans living there had to flee. They reported their homes and businesses were attacked because of their ethnic association and perceived affiliation with the government.

     

    “In Gondar, the Tigrayans suffered because decades of mistrust, decades of grievances, and perceptions and even aspirations from other communities came to the fore, which was hammered into people’s minds through organised and persistent propaganda for two decades by domestic and diaspora media and political groupings,” said Daniel Berhane, founder of the online magazine Horn Affairs, one of few media to regularly cover attacks against Tigrayans.

     

    “The violence against Tigrayans because of their ethnic association marked a turning point,” journalist Abdi Latif Dahir wrote in an article for Quartz Africa following the Gondar attacks. “Ethiopia, a bastion of stability in a tumultuous region, had for years proved to be resilient and achieved impressive economic growth. But the attacks highlighted how historically, the struggle for political space in Ethiopia has always folded into a battle over land, religion, language, demography, and yes, ethnicity.”

     

    Tigrayans, however, aren’t as reassured. Despite the vast majority enduring years of poverty and struggle under the TPLF, which should give them as many reasons as most Ethiopians to feel betrayed, even those Tigrayans who dislike the TPLF now say that turning to its patronage may be their only means of seeking protection.

     

    “The TPLF political machinery extended everywhere in the country – into the judiciary, the universities… it became like something out of George Orwell’s ‘1984’,” Huey said. “But the fact is now the TPLF may represent a better evil as we are being made to feel so unsafe – they seem our only ally as we are threatened by the rest of the country.”

     

    Others note that Abiy has a delicate balance to strike, especially for the sake of Tigrayans.

     

    “The prime minister needs to be careful not to allow his targeting of anti-reform elements within the TPLF, to become an attack on the people of Tigray,” said Soliman.

     

    “The region has a history of resolute peoples and will have to be included with all other regions, in order for Abiy to accomplish his goals of reconciliation, socio-political integration and regional development, as well as long-term peace with Eritrea.”

     

    Although the government has a big role to play, some Ethiopians told IRIN it is essential for the general population to also face up to the inherent prejudices and problems that lie at the core of their society.

     

    “It’s about the people being willing and taking individual responsibility – the government can’t do everything,” Weyanay said. “People need to read more and challenge their assumptions and get new perspectives.”

     

    jj/si/ag

    “Shaking up Ethiopia's government risks exacerbating several long-simmering ethnic rivalries”
    Power shift creates new tensions and Tigrayan fears in Ethiopia
  • Briefing: How the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh is changing

    Aid groups and authorities in Bangladesh are preparing to ask for more than $900 million in donor funding to help Rohingya refugees in the sprawling refugee settlements of southern Bangladesh.

     

    But nearly 18 months after 700,000 Rohingya fled a violent military crackdown in Myanmar in August 2017, the aid sector finds itself shifting from emergency response to dealing with a protracted crisis.

     

    The camps are now home to nearly one million Rohingya, including previous generations of refugees who fled their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

     

    “This is like a major city,” said Rachel Wolff, response director for World Vision, one of more than 100 NGOs, UN agencies, and government bodies now working in Cox’s Bazar.

     

    There are slim prospects of a quick return home: the UN says Rakhine State is not yet safe for the Rohingya, who have faced generations of marginalisation and disenfranchisement, and most of the refugees say they won’t go back until their rights are guaranteed.

    A generation of young Rohingya have spent another year without formal schooling or ways to earn a living.

    The dimensions of the response are changing as the months pass: medical operations focused on saving lives in 2017 must now also think of everyday illnesses and healthcare needs; a generation of young Rohingya have spent another year without formal schooling or ways to earn a living; women reported sexual violence at the hands of Myanmar's military, but today the violence happens within the cramped confines of the camps.

     

    Here are some of the biggest issues coming up in delivering aid in city-sized camps, as the crisis continues to evolve and pushes toward a second full year:

     

    Healthcare: from bullet wounds to diabetes

     

    Healthcare workers responding in the early days of the 2017 refugee outflow treated traumatic injuries like bullet and knife wounds, and rushed to implement mass vaccination campaigns and ensure access to safe water.

     

    But as the refugee crisis prolongs, longer-term health needs also become a pressing concern.

     

    “You go through this emergency response and then you say, OK, we don’t know when or if the situation for these refugees will improve, so we need to start addressing things like diabetes… and high blood pressure,” said Jessica Patti, medical coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières, which runs four field hospitals and several clinics in the camps.

     

    Read more: A new normal in humanitarian aid: treating middle-class diseases

     

    Major gaps in health services have emerged in the crowded camps: treatment for chronic diseases, care for sexual violence survivors, and mental health and psychiatric services for a population stuck in limbo.

     

    The Inter Sector Coordination Group, the UN-led body coordinating aid efforts in the camps, says treatment for non-communicable diseases, as well as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV is “insufficient”, and that health facilities are unevenly distributed – services are bunched close together in some areas, while refugees in more distant settlements may go without.

    “Congestion is the recipe for all disaster.”

    “After an emergency, everybody sort of comes in, responds, sets up,” Patti said. “But I think we’re at a point now where people need to take a step back and say, OK, maybe some of these services are redundant and need to consider closing, re-evaluating, or moving where we are, to allow for more space in the camps for people to live.”

     

    Overcrowding

     

    The extreme lack of space in the camps cuts through the entire response: health risks from poor hygiene and sanitation soar if latrine standards are inadequate. There’s not enough room for classrooms, nor for storm shelters or comprehensive evacuation plans for the upcoming cyclone and monsoon season.

     

    “Congestion is the recipe for all disaster,” said Rezaul Chowdhury, who leads COAST, a local NGO based in Cox’s Bazar.

     

    The majority of the refugees now live in massive Kutupalong camp, carved out of undulating, flood-prone land.

     

    The amount of useable space available per person – less than 10 square metres in some areas – falls far below minimum international standards for refugee camps.

     

    Needs of women and girls

     

    This severe congestion also adds to the risks faced by women and girls, whose health and protection needs are already “critically underserved” in the camps, according to the Inter-agency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises, a coalition of aid organisations.

     

    “The fact that it's such a crowded camp, who's the most affected? It's women and girls,” Wolff said.

     

    “They don't have a space and, being from a culture where, not all, but some portion of males, husbands, and community leaders, are pressuring them to stay in their homes – we're talking about homes that are actually glorified hovels; stay in your plastic shelter – it’s just beyond what I think a human woman could tolerate.”

     

    Schools and livelihoods: a lost generation

     

    There are more than half a million school-age children and young adults in the camps and surrounding areas, but for the past 18 months few have been able to access formal education.

     

    Worried that Rohingya children educated in Bangladesh will integrate into local society and not return home, Bangladesh’s government has placed strict limits on formal education – Rohingya students are not permitted to study using the Bangladeshi curriculum.

     

    Instead, education services are largely limited to informal classrooms run by a range of NGOs and community groups. But aid groups have been slow to finalise an alternative curriculum, and some Rohingya parents have criticised the quality of education on offer. Aid groups say this informal schooling is available to only half of children 14 years old and younger.

     

    At the same time, only primary-level education is allowed, meaning there are few opportunities for Rohingya who are 15 and older. Fewer than 5,000 adolescents have any access to schooling or life-skills training, out of more than 117,000 who may need it, according to aid groups.

    "You are developing a young generation with a lot of frustration.”

    “Without formal education, without skills-building, things to do actively, and preparing for their futures, how do they start to think about where their life is going?” said Wolff. “I think all of us really hope to move a bit faster and get into more self-reliance activities for the refugees, especially the youth.”

     

    Critics say there has been a lack of long-term planning on education, including coordinated advocacy to convince the government to change its rules.

     

    “The Rohingya are getting older. They are growing,” said Chowdhury. “If you don’t have education, then you are developing a young generation with a lot of frustration.”

     

    Host communities: rising tensions

     

    The massive influxes of refugees – and the aid groups that followed them – have raised tensions among Bangladeshis in Cox’s Bazar. Some say they’ve seen their income plummet as they compete for increasingly scarce resources or services.

     

    A January survey by Ground Truth Solutions, which researches the views of people in crises, pointed to rising tensions among the host communities: “Their attitudes have shifted from the start of the crisis, where they felt much more supportive and welcoming of Rohingya but now are much less so, feeling that Rohingya have ‘been here too long’.”

     

    Aid groups and the government also warn of a “potential deterioration” of relations between Rohingya and the local communities. The upcoming response plan is expected to place a greater emphasis on building social cohesion and on development projects to improve education and access to water and food in host communities. Some of these projects were started last year, but the UN coordination body said a “severe funding gap” put a limit on this assistance.

     

    Planning for the future

     

    The upcoming appeal – north of $900 million – represents one of the largest humanitarian appeals for a crisis this year. But the 2018 Rohingya appeal went underfunded through much of the year, which aid groups said had a direct impact on the quality of services available.

     

    Chowdhury said the aid community continues to concentrate on short-term goals, without planning for a future when funding will wane. He said local NGOs and aid workers have effectively been left out of planning, while international aid groups have done little to build skills among the local organisations that call Bangladesh home.

     

    “When the funds dry out, when UN agencies and all the experts fly out, there should not be a burden on the local people,” Chowdhury said. “There should be an opportunity for the local people.”

     

    At the same time, the future of the Rohingya in Bangladesh is inextricably tied to the government itself, which is in charge of the humanitarian response but also says the refugees must one day return home.

     

    Highly criticised plans to begin refugee returns to Myanmar last year were called off when Rohingya refused to go. The government has also floated plans to resettle some Rohingya on Bhasan Char, a disaster-prone island that rights groups say would be even more precarious than the refugees’ current camp shelters.

    (TOP PHOTO: Young Rohingya refugees play at Balukhali refugee camp in Ukhia on 4 February 2019. CREDIT: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP)

    il/ag

    Briefing: How the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh is changing
  • Briefing: Nigerians seek safety in Cameroon as Boko Haram crisis escalates

    A wave of increasingly sophisticated militant attacks in northeastern Nigeria has forced almost 60,000 people to flee since November, the largest number for more than two years, raising fears from the UN and aid groups of a renewed Boko Haram crisis.

     

    More than half of those who fled escaped a series of Boko Haram attacks in the remote town of Rann, near the border with Cameroon, in January. The violence – which killed dozens of people – sparked two large waves of displacement across the border. Thousands of the Nigerian refugees were forcibly returned by the Cameroonian authorities.

     

    Since Boko Haram’s insurgency began in 2009, at least 35,000 people have been killed. Attacks across the wider Lake Chad region – which encompasses parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria – have seen some 2.5 million people displaced, including 1.9 million internally in Nigeria and some 250,000 Nigerian refugees.

     

    Although the Nigerian government has regularly made claims that the jihadist threat has been minimised, evidence on the ground suggests otherwise, and there are concerns that Nigeria’s general elections on 16 February may make the situation worse.

     

    What happened in Rann?

     

    Boko Haram launched a 14 January attack that reportedly killed 14 people in Rann. Homes and buildings were destroyed, including Médecins Sans Frontières and UNICEF clinics, as well as compounds belonging to the International Organisation for Migration, the World Health Organisation, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

     

    Regional troops fighting Boko Haram worked to secure the town, but when they withdrew more than 9,000 people fled, on foot, towards Bodo in Cameroon. About 1,800 of them – mostly women and children – managed to remain with host families in villages near Makary and Fotokol, according to David Manan, Cameroon director for the Norwegian Refugee Council. But the majority were forced out of Cameroon, with little choice but to return to Rann.

     

    About a week later, another 35,000 people fled Rann for Cameroon, fearing another militant attack. Most now reside in a makeshift settlement in the Cameroonian village of Goura, UN News reported, saying the refugees are safe and haven’t – for now – been asked to leave.

    msf258651high.jpg

    Zara Abicho/MSF

    On 28 January, Rann residents’ worst fears were confirmed when at least 60 people were killed in the deadliest attack yet on the town by Boko Haram, who also destroyed hundreds of shelters for displaced people.

     

    Is Cameroon forcibly returning refugees?

     

    Cameroon, which hosts more than 370,000 refugees – 100,000 from Nigeria – turned back the first wave of refugees from Rann, in a move reminiscent of previous actions that saw tens of thousands of Nigerians forcibly returned between 2015 and 2017.

     

    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, expressed immediate alarm, saying it was “gravely concerned” about the safety and living conditions of people who were returned last month. “This action was totally unexpected and puts lives of thousands of refugees at risk,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

     

    Speaking to IRIN in Cameroon last week, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Türk was more diplomatic. “When a country receives 35,000 people just in a couple of days, you would have a big crisis in the country,” he said. “Sometimes the situations are very difficult, but it is very important for us to find the bridge between the true security interests of a country and the protection of civilians.”

     

    Cameroon fears infiltration by Boko Haram, who have mounted scores of attacks since 2014 in the country’s Far North Region – typically suicide bombings. Cameroon’s military has recently reported a resurgence in Boko Haram activity along its border with Nigeria and said there were five attacks in the region in January alone.

     

    After the second wave of 35,000 people fled Rann, aid groups, including the NRC, urged Cameroon to keep its borders open, emphasising the need to assist those fleeing. So far it appears that the Cameroonian authorities have kept the border open and no more forcible returns have been reported.

    Isa Sadiq Bwala/MSF
    A burnt market in Rann, Nigeria.

     

    “The situation in the northeast [of Nigeria] remains volatile and forced return is exposing these people to harm,” said Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development, a policy and advocacy think-tank covering West Africa.

     

    What are the humanitarian needs?

     

    Across Nigeria’s northeastern Borno State and in neighbouring countries, existing camp facilities are overstretched. Having thousands flock to the same locations leaves people in dire need of shelter, food, and water, and can lead to unsanitary conditions and greater risk of disease outbreaks, Hassan told IRIN.

     

    Because of the “spike in attacks” and displacements in Borno State since November, NRC expressed concern about the resulting humanitarian crisis.

    "More than 100,000 people have been forced to flee, many for the second time," Eric Batonon, Nigeria director for NRC, said in a statement. “By denying assistance and protection to those fleeing, needs are exacerbated.”

     

    In Cameroon’s Bodo, MSF said it was assisting new arrivals with food, water, and medical care. In Goura, the UN and its partners responded to the sudden influx by providing basic services, including shelter and protection, in the makeshift settlement.

     

    UNHCR’s Türk said the priority was to “save the life of everybody who was able to escape”.

     

    “I have personally met Nigerian refugees in Cameroon,” he said. “Those people are traumatised. Things are happening in a very complex security context. So what we are trying to do is to marry the protection of people whose lives need to be saved... and identification of security needs that are legitimate.”

     

    Türk said while immediate emergency assistance is the main focus, it’s also essential to support vulnerable host communities and refugees who have been in camps for a long time – assisting them with access to education, health facilities, and social protection.

     

    How much of a threat is Boko Haram?

     

    Many of the attacks in recent months have been attributed to fighters from Islamic State West Africa Province, or ISWAP, a faction of Boko Haram that broke off in 2016.

     

    “Generally, there has been an upsurge in direct military confrontations since mid-2018, around the same time there was a leadership change within ISWAP,” explained Omar S. Mahmood, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, or ISS. “Since then, the group has been on the offensive, pushing back military units across much of northern Borno.”

     

    The Nigerian government is quick to downplay the potency of the militants, but renewed attacks on military outposts, aid workers, and civilians suggest they have grown more aggressive, and possibly also in number and strength. At least 100 soldiers have been killed since late December, according to a report seen by Reuters. IOM also noted the “increased sophistication” of the attackers.

     

    Matthew T. Page, a former US State Department official and associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank, said Nigeria’s political and security leaders were unable or unwilling to devise a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. “Their piecemeal approach is not commensurate with the seriousness and complexity of the threat,” he said.

     

    In a war where cooperation between neighbouring countries is essential, the forced return of refugees could also hinder the battle to stave off threats from jihadists. “Many times we only see the military activity and issues of insecurity,” Türk said. “We should never forget that civilians are directly affected as they are caught in the crossfire, caught between the rock and the hard place when it comes to fighting and violence.”

     

    What next?

     

    International aid organisations are stepping up their response. A new $135 million humanitarian appeal was launched last week to assist Nigerian refugees and host communities in the three other Lake Chad countries, but last year only 42 percent of a similar appeal for $157 million was funded.

     

    UNHCR, which is coordinating the response plan, says recent violence has pushed people into “crowded camps or in towns in Borno State where they are surviving in tough living conditions”.

     

    But the threat of new attacks remains. And there are additional security concerns in light of the upcoming elections. Boko Haram ramped up attacks in the weeks leading up to the 2015 elections and may be doing likewise this time. Meanwhile, insecurity across northeastern Nigeria means the possibility of everyone voting in affected towns remains slim.

     

    Mahmood from the ISS think tank said a lot would depend on the outcome of the Nigerian elections and how seriously any new administration is about tackling the Boko Haram threat.

     

    “When President Muhammadu Buhari was first elected in 2015, he prioritised the Boko Haram conflict and made substantial gains,” he said. “Some of those have elapsed now, especially as the political season has taken over.”

     

    Central to stemming any recent losses would be coordination with neighbours like Cameroon, Mahmood said, adding: “The insecurity clearly has regional implications and does not adhere to political boundaries.”

     

    (Additional reporting by Mbom Sixtus in Yaoundé, Cameroon)

    (TOP PHOTO: After Boko Haram attacked Rann on 14 January, more than 9,000 people fled towards Bodo in Cameroon. Most were turned back by Cameroonian authorities. CREDIT: Silas Adamou/MSF)

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    Briefing: Nigerians seek safety in Cameroon as Boko Haram crisis escalates
  • Whatever happened to the ceasefire deal in Yemen?

    Yemen’s warring parties agreed a UN-brokered ceasefire for the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah back in December but, seven weeks on, deadlines have come and gone and much of the accord has still not taken hold.

     

    The deal prompted hope that the parties might keep meeting and eventually find a negotiated way out of the war, providing respite to Yemenis, who the UN now says are “more vulnerable and hungrier than at any time” in a conflict marked by repeated warnings of famine.

     

    That there was a deal at all represented progress. There hadn’t been much expectation that the Houthi rebels and the internationally recognised (but mostly exiled) government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi would find common ground at the talks at a castle outside Stockholm, if their representatives showed up at all.

     

    In the end they did shake hands on – although not sign – a deal that has become known as the Stockholm Agreement. It included a ceasefire in Hodeidah, a “mechanism” for a prisoner exchange, and a “statement of understanding” on Taiz – a city and province that has seen some of the most sustained fighting in a war that has gone on for 46 months and killed tens of thousands of people.

     

    The Hodeidah deal has garnered the most attention, largely because humanitarians have been warning that a battle in the city would be catastrophic for a country that is so dependent on imports – especially as the port is in the north, where some 70 percent of Yemenis live.

    The wording of the Stockholm Agreement is vague. That lack of clarity is either a design flaw or a feature, depending who you ask: it has allowed the parties to haggle over details and delay the process, but it may also have been the best that the UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, could get out of two sides who have been fighting each other for years.

     

    Griffiths defended the Hodeidah agreement last week as “generally holding”, saying “initial timelines were rather ambitious” given the “complex situation on the ground”. But with headlines describing the accord as “shaky”, “fragile”, even as “failing”, here’s a deeper look at what was agreed, what has happened since, and what to expect.

     

    An agreement in stages

     

    The first step outlined in the Hodeidah agreement was an immediate ceasefire in the city and around the port of Hodeidah, as well as around two other nearby ports and oil terminals.

     

    While there has been a decrease in fighting – and an all-out assault on Hodeidah has been put on pause – both sides have accused the other of multiple violations of the ceasefire. A monitoring mission the UN Security Council approved on 16 January is still not fully in place to verify these claims.

     

    Humanitarian sources on the ground told IRIN that while airstrikes on the city have stopped, fighting hasn’t decreased enough to allow aid delivery to take place unhindered or to make Hodeidah safe for aid workers or civilians.

     

    “So far the agreement hasn’t translated to the level of access and impact that we would want in terms of addressing the massive needs, not just in Hodeidah, but across other parts of the country.”

    The World Food Programme says it hasn’t been able to assess the damage to grain silos reportedly hit by shelling at the port earlier this month – or to get to the location of those stores since September.

     

    Karl Schembri, regional media advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN from Hodeidah that services in the city are still very limited and that the main hospital is damaged and inaccessible because it is on a front line. “Electricity is only commercially available and very expensive,” he said. “Medical facilities are basic; some hospitals can deal with minor surgeries.”

     

    The next step in the agreement is a “mutual redeployment of forces” from the area, with security in the city becoming the responsibility of “local security forces”.

     

    However, the sides disagree on who those “local security forces” should be. Griffiths and his team have been shuttling between countries and capitals since the December handshake trying to find common ground on this and other points of contention.

     

    The withdrawal, which hasn’t happened yet, has been overseen by a UN-chaired Redeployment Coordination Committee set up by Dutch general Patrick Cammaert. The committee has so far met only three times, most recently on Sunday on a ship moored off the Red Sea – neutral territory.

     

    Danish general Michael Anker Lollesgaard is now set to take over from Cammaert, who the UN says only planned to be in the post for one month. Further steps are envisaged under the Hodeidah agreement, but full redeployment – which was supposed to happen within 21 days – is the hurdle that needs to be crossed first.

     

    Sultana Begum, advocacy manager for the NRC in Yemen, said there needed to be a lot more progress on the ground despite a “glimmer of hope in the past few days”, including the meeting on the boat.

     

    “The political talks have yet to deliver,” Begum said. “So far the agreement hasn’t translated to the level of access and impact that we would want in terms of addressing the massive needs, not just in Hodeidah, but across other parts of the country.”

     

    Prisoner exchange ‘hanging in the balance’

     

    There was talk of a prisoner swap before Stockholm – Griffiths told the UN Security Council he was “about to conclude” an agreement on the matter in November, before the talks were even a sure thing. Then the prisoner swap became part of the Stockholm accord, which says the parties agreed an “executive mechanism on activating the prisoner exchange agreement”.

     

    While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said it is ready to facilitate the swap, which it originally expected to be completed by the end of January, the parties have disagreed since Stockholm on the lists of names.

     

    On 29 and 30 January, one Saudi prisoner was returned from Sana’a to Riyadh and seven Yemenis were sent in the opposite direction (A Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates, is fighting on the side of Hadi’s government).

     

    But the hoped-for main trade, which ICRC director of operations Dominik Stillhart described on Monday as “hanging in the balance”, is much larger. Each side currently has a list of up to 8,000 names, but Stillhart said some of those people cannot be accounted for. “What we now see on both sides [is that] they don't have [all the prisoners] because a lot of them, they probably died during the conflict,” he said.

     

    The two sides began meetings about the swap on Tuesday in the Jordanian capital, Amman. Griffiths said the discussions were to finalise the lists, adding that “success in this regard is not only of huge importance for those who will be released and returned to their families, but also for the broader political process in which we are engaged together.”

     

    Osama al-Fakih of Mwatana for Human Rights – a Yemeni rights watchdog that documented at least 624 civilian cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture in 2018 – noted that civilians, including journalists, are expected to be included in the exchange.

     

    “The prisoner exchange deal matters a lot to Yemenis,” he told IRIN. “A large number of families have suffered very much from losing their loved ones as arbitrary detainees or forcibly disappeared, let alone those who were tortured or died due to torture.”

     

    Future risks

     

    If the Stockholm Agreement – particularly the Hodeidah deal – falls apart, it could precipitate the sort of large-scale battle humanitarians have warned could lead to massive civilian casualties, including a possible siege on the city and the destruction of Hodeidah’s vital port.

    "The prisoner exchange deal matters a lot to Yemenis. A large number of families have suffered very much from losing their loved ones."

    IRIN could not independently confirm reports from several sources that Houthi rebels are taking advantage of the current lull in fighting to mine parts of the city, but elsewhere in Hodeidah province the rebels have left behind landmines as coalition troops advanced.

     

    Médecins Sans Frontières says one in every three emergency surgeries it performs in a Taiz hospital set up for treating landmine victims is on a child. “The principal victims of these lethal hazards have been civilians, many of whom have been killed or maimed for life after unwittingly stepping on an explosive device,” the organisation said in a January statement.

     

    Away from Hodeidah, fighting, shelling, and airstrikes continue, including in the provinces of Saada and Taiz, where the “statement of understanding” appears to have yielded nothing. There has also been an uptick in fighting just north of Hodeidah in Hajjah province, where eight people were killed and 30 wounded on 26 January in the shelling of a displacement camp – Saudi Arabia’s aid body blamed the attack on Houthis.

     

    In a sign that patience could be wearing thin with alleged Houthi violations, Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash tweeted last week that the coalition had struck 10 Houthi training camps outside the province and was “prepared to use more calibrated force to prod Houthi compliance with [the] Stockholm Agreement”.

     

    Whether or not the offensive on Hodeidah resumes, aid workers stress that the deal was meant to be a first step towards eventual peace in Yemen. Humanitarian needs endure, in and outside of Hodeidah. At the end of this month, donors will convene in Geneva as the UN asks for $4 billion to aid Yemen in 2019, a record amount for one country.

     

    “The needs are going up, not down,” said the NRC’s Begum. “And the Hodeidah agreement hasn’t had any significant effect on the overall humanitarian situation in Yemen. Hodeidah is one piece of the puzzle – we need the agreement to stick – but so far, even there, it will take much more to transform a very dire humanitarian situation.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A displaced Yemeni girl sits next to an armoured military vehicle at a camp in the Khokha district of the western province of Hodeidah, on 21 January 2019. CREDIT: Saleh al-Obeidi/AFP)

    as/ag

    Whatever happened to the ceasefire deal in Yemen?
    “The needs are going up, not down”
  • What effect did the US shutdown have on foreign aid?

    The US government shutdown may be over, but the uncertainty it caused for the aid and development community isn’t going anywhere.

     

    Humanitarian groups say the record 35-day halt to the funding of routine government activity stopped short of causing massive disruptions: NGOs including Save the Children and Mercy Corps, as well as the UN’s World Food Programme, said the shutdown hadn’t impacted their operations.

     

    It was a slightly different story at USAID. The US government agency responsible for administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance reported that as of January 23 (two days before the shutdown ended) just over half of non-contractor “direct hire employees” (1,706 out of 3,311) had been furloughed, meaning they were instructed not to report for work, nor were they working remotely.

     

    Though proportionally fewer staff were furloughed overseas, the cash freeze appeared to be felt most strongly on humanitarian and diplomatic operations outside the United States – activities budgeted at some $39 billion per year. During the shutdown, the US government said it would provide $20 million in humanitarian aid for Venezuela, but its aid delivery department was hampered by the government shutdown.

    “Funding uncertainty is the worst enemy of development practitioners… who have to deal with every other imaginable uncertainty on a daily basis.”

    “If I'm an implementer or a strategic planner at USAID, the threat of a shutdown will at the very least have a dampening effect on my ability to do the long-term planning that is so critical for USAID (and its partners) and without which appropriated funds won't be contracted out in time, thus putting sequestration back on the possibility list,” said Erol Yayboke, deputy director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C. think tank.

     

    The longer-term impact may be difficult to gauge, but US grantees and analysts say the shutdown at the very least caused delays in aid approvals and stalled ongoing dialogue. And should another shutdown occur – as the White House hasn’t ruled out – it is now more likely that projects will be disrupted and delayed, compounding backlogs and continuing to put relationships with local partners at risk.

     

    “Humanitarian partners are on the front lines of delivering lifesaving services to the most vulnerable around the world,” Congresswoman Nita Lowey of New York, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, told IRIN, shortly before the shutdown ended. “Disruptions in US funding compromise their ability to plan and manage operations and put at risk the lives of many.”

     

    Jane Gotiangco, a spokeswoman for Chemonics, a large development and humanitarian aid contractor, said that while its own operations enjoyed “some degree of flexibility” during the shutdown, it was more challenging for “small businesses and indigenous organisations… since they do not have large enough diversity of projects to ensure continuity of all their operations.”

     

    As of the middle of January, about a quarter of the US foreign ministry and diplomatic service staff – the State Department’s direct hire employees based overseas – were furloughed, while 42 percent of those based in the United States were sent home.

     

    Because of the timing of the shutdown, which began just before the Christmas holiday, effects on State Department functions like the resettlement of refugees – which is halted anyway for several weeks around the end of the calendar year – were more difficult to measure. But diplomatic work and engagement with foreign interlocutors and international organisations clearly took a hit.

     

    USAID does rely heavily on contractors, and the funding for some of those contractors may already be in place for months or longer.

     

    Tom Babington, a spokesman for USAID, said that offices affected by the shutdown would not make “new obligations or grants and contracts” except for in exceptional cases. In early January, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont provided one example in Vietnam, saying that “key employees at our embassy and USAID mission in Hanoi were furloughed,” an instance that was likely replicated across continents.

     

    Yayboke described funding issues resulting from the US shutdown as “essentially unforced errors or self-inflicted wounds”, adding: “funding uncertainty is the worst enemy of development practitioners… who have to deal with every other imaginable uncertainty on a daily basis.”

     

    so/ag

    What effect did the US shutdown have on foreign aid?
    “Funding uncertainty is the worst enemy of development practitioners”
  • Briefing: What the fuel protests mean for Zimbabweans

    Zimbabweans had been hoping for a fresh start when Robert Mugabe’s 38-year rule came to an end in November 2017. But 14 months on, a brutal crackdown on fuel protests, which has left up to a dozen people dead, has the country on edge and is likely to make existing food and health problems even worse.

     

    The Southern African country already faces a range of humanitarian concerns, with the UN and international aid groups filling gaps in food security, health and HIV care, water and sanitation, and social protection for vulnerable civilians.

     

    Ongoing outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever have killed more than 80 people since September, and some 2.4 million Zimbabweans, more than a quarter of the rural population, require food assistance this January-March lean season.

     

    The new unrest, coupled with growing economic and political uncertainty under the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, is raising fears that the humanitarian situation may deteriorate further, threatening the health and livelihoods of millions of people and leading more Zimbabweans to flee to neighbouring countries.

    What are the underlying economic issues?

    Zimbabwe, which is under international sanctions, has battled two decades of unemployment, rising costs, a currency crisis, and nearly collapsed public services. Inflation rates have surged, and about 80 percent of those with work are employed in an informal sector marked by poor and unpredictable working conditions.

     

    The country abandoned its national currency in 2009 in favour of a multi-currency system, and has since suffered from a decade-long currency crisis. This has led to instability in the price of goods and services – an instability compounded by the new unrest.

    “The political problems are actually stronger than the economic problems.”

    “The current problems in Zimbabwe are both political and economic,” said Michael Tichareva, an independent financial expert based between Harare and Johannesburg. He attributed the roots of the current crisis to a combination of corruption and gross mismanagement of public institutions by the long-ruling ZANU-PF party.

     

    “The political problems are actually stronger than the economic problems,” he said. “Once the major political parties have a common purpose of developing Zimbabwe, and engage in a nation-building dialogue in order to bring unity, then the economic problems will most likely disappear.”

     

    Why are there food and fuel shortages?

     

    The country’s agro-based economy is crippled – largely due to droughts, poorly integrated climate risk management policies, and a lack of state support for small-scale farmers who grow most of the country’s food.

     

    FEWS NET, a US-funded food security and malnutrition watchdog, says economic challenges and below-average rainfall this season will directly affect livelihoods and food security in large parts of the country – mostly for poor households, but also for some who are better off. Shortages of basic food commodities include cooking oil, sugar, flour, and bread.

     

    Zimbabwe has to import nearly all its fuel. Stocks are heavily dependent on foreign currency exchange, and even when foreign currency is released it can take a long time to get fuel from depots out to affected areas. Severe fuel shortages have plagued the country for the last two months.

     

    A week after the protests, people could only get petrol or diesel if they waited in kilometres-long queues or if they had friends with connections. Supermarkets also struggled to stock their shelves, and medicine was scarce.

     

    The shortage of goods and fuel has sent prices skyrocketing.

     

    A loaf of bread, which cost between 70 cents and one dollar (or Zimbabwean bond note) in December is now 1.50 in the shops and five dollars in the streets, following the protests. Fresh milk, which was 1.20 in December, is now four dollars; maize meal that was 4.50 is now 8.20; and cooking oil that was 3.20 is now nine dollars.

    img_9798-1296x864.jpg

    Farai Mudzingwa/IRIN

    What sparked the current crisis?

    On 12 January, Mnangagwa’s announced a 150 percent increase in the price of fuel – an attempt to stabilise supplies as Zimbabwe struggles with what is its worst shortage in a decade. This led to calls for a nationwide stay-away, which then escalated into mass street protests in the main towns and cities across the country, and a deadly crackdown by police and the military.

    Between eight and 12 people were reportedly killed, 78 people were injured from gunshots, and several hundred arrested. House raids, abductions, and incidents of systematic torture were reported, as well as allegations that some soldiers raped protesters.

    Mnangagwa, who was in Europe when the unrest began, cut his trip short, cancelling his attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and promised that the violence – which he blamed on “rogue” elements in the security forces – would be investigated.

     

    However, the ZANU-PF government then accused the opposition of orchestrating the protests, saying they were planned in advance and not triggered by the fuel price hike. The presidential spokesperson even went on to threaten more violence against the opposition. Reports of state-sponsored attacks continued even after protests died down, with allegations of soldiers patrolling suburbs, beating up residents, and abducting people.

     

    The hope for a new era that accompanied Mnangagwa’s election win last year is fast evaporating amid recriminations over a heavy-handed state response that has led to comparisons with his predecessor.

    What are the humanitarian implications?

    Nelson Chamisa, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, has said the people of Zimbabwe are facing an existential threat and warned of “a far worse humanitarian crisis with devastating consequences”.

    Last week, the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition also warned that if issues were not addressed it could trigger a regional humanitarian crisis, presumably speaking to fears of a new wave of outward migration.

    Such claims are hard to qualify, but some immediate effects on health access, and water and sanitation, have already been felt during the protests.

     

    Blessing Gorejena, executive director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, told IRIN that victims of violence were having difficulty accessing emergency medical care.

    “In some instances those victims have no idea where to go to seek medical attention,” she said. “In other instances, where they have been provided with support, the state is putting impediments that are obstructing these victims from accessing the healthcare facilities.” Gorejena said doctors were victimised and harassed, medical facilities were raided, and ambulances attacked.

    Consequences of prolonged stay-aways on the health system could also cause serious setbacks in treatment for HIV patients who need to access antiretroviral treatment in public hospitals. According to UNAIDS, Zimbabwe had 1,3 million people living with HIV in 2016, with 75 percent of these accessing daily antiretroviral therapy.

    “The public health issues come up when there are issues with governance, issues with political unrest, instability,” said a public health specialist at a local NGO that advises Zimbabwe’s health ministry, asking to remain nameless for fear of reprisals.

    “The stay-away also means that basic services [like those] at the city council are not being rendered,” the specialist said. Such services include the maintenance and repair of sewer lines and water pipes – critical to preventing contamination and ensuring hygiene standards in a country tackling a series of cholera, dysentery, and typhoid outbreaks.

    For cholera patients needing treatment, public unrest can also lead to delays in the sick reaching health centres. “Some doctors couldn’t make their way [to hospitals during the protests] because they feared for their safety,” the public health specialist added.

    What will happen next?

     

    Mnangagwa has called for a national dialogue to resolve the crisis. However the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition said the environment was not yet conducive to talks as “false accusations and charges” continue to be labelled against labour and civil society leaders, while violence by security forces has not ceased. The group warned of “greater chances of escalation of social unrest and instability” if this volatility is not addressed.

    “The mood is bleak. The hope from November 2017 is gone."

    Hundreds of activists and opposition figures are still in hiding, and some fear that the government crackdown could last for months. At the same time, the economic problems that caused the crisis persist.

    South Africa’s president said Zimbabwe’s crisis was a challenge for the whole of Africa, and called for international sanctions to be lifted as a means to ease the situation.

     

    Some reports say up to three million Zimbabweans already reside in South Africa, both as legal and undocumented residents. Amid concerns over a new  “influx”, South Africa’s main opposition party said officials along the border between the two countries told them as many as 130,000 people made the crossing from Zimbabwe in just one day last week.

    “I study migration in response to crisis, and Zimbabwe is my main case study,” Chipo Dendere, an assistant professor of political science at Amherst College, told IRIN. “People will want to leave, and they are already doing so.”

    “The mood is bleak. The hope from November 2017 is gone. The danger with this new type of hopelessness is that it opens doors for extremists,” she said. “Under Mugabe, people would say anyone is better – they held on to that. Now [Mnangagwa] has crushed that expectation of anything better. By increasing open militarisation of the state, [Mnangagwa] has failed to create the needed illusion that Zimbabwe is a civilian government, and that is scary for people.”

    (TOP PHOTO: People in Zimbabwe have battled two decades of unemployment, rising costs, and nearly collapsed public services. CREDIT: Zinyange Auntony/AFP)

    fm/si/ag

    “People will want to leave, and they are already doing so”
    Briefing: What the fuel protests mean for Zimbabweans
  • Trump pullout plan leaves aid groups in northeast Syria scrambling

    As the United States and Turkey trade barbs over the US withdrawal from Syria, humanitarians operating in the country’s northeast say the diplomatic chaos has thrown open a Pandora’s Box of unpredictable security risks that threaten their ability to deliver aid to civilians.

     

    Since 2015, US troops have lent military, financial, and political support to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia fighting the so-called Islamic State. The SDF has hostile relations with Turkey, a NATO member and US ally, and the prospect of major Turkey-SDF conflict is now at the heart of discussions over how and when any US withdrawal should proceed.

     

    Some two million civilians are thought to live in areas under SDF control, where relief operations provide support to the shattered city of Raqqa, aid to people fleeing conflict, and ongoing assistance to economically devastated resident communities.

     

    Northeastern Syria has a large Kurdish community, which has largely avoided conflict with Damascus, even as the SDF has carved out territory fighting off IS with international help from the air.

     

    A week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he might send troops into Syria “at any moment”, US President Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday that he was beginning to move his own military out, and threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if the country attacked Kurds in the region. An Erdogan-Trump phone call on Tuesday sought to reduce tensions and find common ground as the US continued to prepare its withdrawal.

     

    It has been nearly a month since Trump first announced he would remove his troops from Syria, but it’s unclear how the pullout will work. And with both Turkey and Syrian government authorities apparently counting the days until the Americans leave – leaving the SDF unprotected – working in the area has become a particularly risky prospect for an aid operation involving around 25 international NGOs, the UN, more than 150 local NGOs, and donors.

     

    Despite being an agriculturally productive region, conflict, displacement, economic collapse and poor harvests have left a significant part of the population in need of humanitarian help.

     

    “The last thing that northeast Syria needs is precipitate and unplanned moves,” David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary who now heads the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement shortly after Trump’s initial December announcement. “Relative stability could be replaced by chaos,” he warned.

     

    High humanitarian stakes

     

    The United States and its coalition allies have used airstrikes to target IS, but only maintain a limited ground force and civilian contractors in the northeast.

     

    Despite this small footprint, their presence has allowed at least some stability in the region, and by some measures the situation in northeast Syria has been improving over the past year. Displaced people are beginning to return home, particularly to Raqqa, despite the lack of infrastructure and services there.

     

    But many people still need help. Data compiled by the NGO Mercy Corps and made available to IRIN indicates that some 2.1 million Syrians live under SDF rule, including half a million who have already fled their homes at least once.

     

    That displacement continues even now, said Adnan Hezam, a Damascus-based spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross. He told IRIN that local sources recently counted 3,400 fresh arrivals from the Hajin area in eastern Deir Ezzor province, where the SDF is still fighting IS holdouts. Many had walked for days to reach camps where aid groups operate.

     

    “There is rain and cold temperatures, they have no water, they’re scared of the shelling, some have lost family members on the way to the camp,” Hezam said. “There is also a risk of explosives and landmines contaminating the area.”

     

    Winter storms and heavy rainfall recently flooded some camps, adding to the crisis.

     

    And now the area is heading into an unknown future.

     

    Who will fill the void?

     

    “US troops will obviously need to come home and should do so as early as possible,” Refugees International Vice President Hardin Lang, who visited SDF-held areas in 2018, told IRIN. “But their withdrawal should not create a power vacuum that leads to renewed fighting.”

     

    But even with the withdrawal set to begin, mixed messages continue to come out of Washington.

    “US troops will obviously need to come home and should do so as early as possible. But their withdrawal should not create a power vacuum that leads to renewed fighting.”

    Earlier in January, National Security Adviser John Bolton said the United States may keep a separate base at al-Tanf in southern Syria, and would not exit the northeast until IS has been fully defeated and Syrian Kurds were safe from persecution.

     

    This triggered a sharp response from Erdogan. “Elements of the US administration are saying different things,” he said, refusing to meet with Bolton when he visited Turkey last week hoping to negotiate a deal that would secure the safety of Kurdish fighters.

     

    US officials seem ready to hand SDF territory to Erdogan and his Syrian rebel allies, despite the extreme hostility between Turkey and the SDF’s Kurdish core group. That group is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has been waging a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government.

     

    “The presence of a [PKK-friendly] area next to our border is not good for the future of Turkey,” a Turkish official told IRIN in a December interview. “We will keep fighting against this idea.”

     

    Although Erdogan has told Trump he will intervene with the purpose of finally defeating IS in the region, Turkey views the US withdrawal primarily as a chance to demolish SDF-backed authorities that were previously shielded by the American presence.

     

    In his tweet, Trump spoke about a 20-mile “security zone” along Turkey’s border, but offered no detail. Erdogan has long said he will establish a Turkish-controlled security zone in Syria, and when he responded on Tuesday, he portrayed Trump’s comments as a green light to drive the SDF away from Turkey’s borders.

     

    “They are terrorists,” the Turkish president said. “Can we leave this area to the terrorists?”

     

    A 20-mile Turkish “security zone” would cover most of northeastern Syria’s Kurdish-populated areas, including the cities of Qamishli, Amoude, and Kobane. Mercy Corps population data indicates that, depending on its exact borders, the area sought by Erdogan could include almost half the population in SDF-held areas.

     

    However, military, humanitarian, and regional analysts tell IRIN the primary target of a Turkish intervention would likely be the Arab-majority region around Tel Abyad, north of Raqqa. Turkish forces could then head south to bisect SDF territories and take Ain Issa, a strategically located Arab town that functions as a local administrative centre, including for humanitarian affairs.

     

    Kurdish officials in northeastern Syria say a Turkish incursion would bring chaos. “Attacks on the area would bring destruction and displace hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians,” warned Hediye Yusuf, a senior official in the SDF-backed local authorities.

     

    Desperate to avoid Turkish attack, Kurdish leaders are turning to Damascus and Moscow.

     

    Kurdish leaders have said they want Russia to broker a return of SDF-ruled areas to central government control, while ensuring some form of local autonomy and a “fair distribution” of resources. They say SDF fighters should be integrated into al-Assad’s armed forces, and Russian and Syrian army troops should guard the border against Turkish incursions

     

    Soon after Trump’s announcement, SDF leaders invited a symbolic Syrian army contingent to the outskirts of the flashpoint city of Manbij, on the far western end of the Kurdish-controlled region.

     

    On 8 January, Russian military police also turned up in the area, apparently drawing a line in the sand to prevent Turkish intervention. In theory, Russian backing could allow President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to step in to fill the role the United States has up until now played as a bulwark against Turkey.

    Even as all involved seem to want to avoid chaos, there is no clear solution that will satisfy all sides, and there is little trust among the warring parties.

    “If the regime comes to an agreement with the Kurdish and Arab forces in the region, it would prevent the land from being divided and occupied by Turkey,” Yusuf, the Kurdish official, told IRIN.

     

    However, Russia is also in talks with Turkey, which distrusts al-Assad and fears that Kurdish groups could use an agreement with Damascus to ensconce themselves behind Russian and Syrian government lines.

     

    Even as all involved, including Turkey, seem to want to avoid chaos, there is no clear solution that will satisfy all sides, and there is little trust among the warring parties.

     

    “I think northeastern Syria will be resolved transitionally and piece by piece,” said Sinan Hatahet, a senior fellow with the Istanbul-based Syrian think tank Omran Studies.

     

    Complicating an already fragmented response

     

    Sources linked to northeastern Syrian aid operations, who requested anonymity, have told IRIN that the see-sawing US policy is making it hard to plan ahead and ensure the protection of staff and local civilians.

     

    Beyond the risk of violence and displacement, changes in territorial control will likely disrupt northeastern Syria’s complicated humanitarian architecture.

     

    Some 200 non-Syrian aid workers currently live in SDF-held Syria, working with around 25 international NGOs that deliver food, healthcare, water, and education to local communities.

     

    Most of these organisations are not registered with the Syrian government, which often refuses to let NGOs work both inside and outside its control – they have to choose.

     

    That means these organisations cannot officially partner with the UN, which is represented in the northeast by an office in the border town of Qamishli that reports back to the UN’s Syria headquarters in Damascus. Syrian government officials have a presence in Qamishli, though most of the city is under SDF control.

     

    Even as it bans aid from its territories to Turkish-held regions of Syria, al-Assad’s government has allowed UN convoys from Damascus and Aleppo to reach the SDF-held northeast.

    But government forces routinely remove medical equipment from UN convoys.

     

    To compensate, the UN brings in medical supplies through the SDF-held Yaaroubiyeh border crossing between Syria and Iraq, using a permission granted by the recently renewed UN Security Council Resolution 2165 to deliver cross-border aid without government pre-approval.

     

    Meanwhile, most NGOs bring supplies in through the Fish Khabour crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan, which is also used by US troops.

    Stabilisation aid

     

    In addition to UN and NGO relief, SDF areas are also bolstered by civilian contractors working on behalf of the US-led anti-IS coalition, with funding from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Denmark, and other US allies.

     

    Unlike humanitarian NGOs, which strive to maintain neutrality, the stabilisation contractors are explicitly tasked with reinforcing SDF governance against IS and al-Assad’s influence.

     

    In practice, however, much of their work takes the form of road repairs and the restoration of electricity, water, and sanitation – basic tasks that blend into the humanitarian effort and can often be a precondition for effective UN and NGO assistance.

     

    US officials have also supported the humanitarian community more directly by offering medical airlifts and pushing SDF officials to provide information and access for aid groups.

     

    Aid NGOs, which were mostly unwilling to speak on record, say their own work would suffer if the coalition stopped providing these basic services. They still take care not to be confused with coalition-funded contractors, in order to preserve neutrality, but for Damascus and Ankara the distinction is academic. Both governments regard NGOs that have chosen to work in SDF areas with suspicion, raising fears that local employees could be persecuted if the SDF loses control of the area.

     

    Planning for an uncertain future

     

    Even a non-violent shift in territorial control could hobble humanitarian operations in northeastern Syria. Although US authorities have stopped funding the stabilisation effort, an SDF official said the American presence remains the “nerve centre” of broader coalition efforts.

     

    If contractors working on water, electricity, and other basic services were to be withdrawn without a smooth handover to other capable actors, the humanitarian situation could deteriorate rapidly – especially if paired with violent conflict, new waves of displacement, border closures, and fragmenting local governance.

     

    Erdogan recently suggested Turkey could handle stabilisation and reconstruction efforts in the “security zone” through its urban development agency, TOKİ, but also hinted that it would require continued financial support from the anti-IS coalition. However, it seems unlikely that the coalition’s top stabilisation donors – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – would be willing to fund a Turkish presence in the area, given their frosty relationship with Erdogan’s government.

    There appear to be no inter-governmental talks to avoid sudden disruptions and gaps in humanitarian coverage after a US pullout.

    It is also unlikely that the Syrian government, which appears to have a very limited economic and institutional capacity in eastern Syria, could immediately take over stabilisation operations in SDF areas that fall under its own control.

     

    As it stands, there appear to be no inter-governmental talks to avoid sudden disruptions and gaps in humanitarian coverage after a US pullout.

     

    Aid actors themselves say they are busy with contingency planning, but sources informed about the planning told IRIN it’s a struggle given the lack of clarity about the future.

     

    Aid groups are simply faced with too many possible scenarios, sprouting from a host of unresolved questions, including the speed and scope of US withdrawal, the potential for Turkish-American, Turkish-Russian, or Damascus-SDF agreements, and the risk of an IS resurgence, to mention just a few.

     

    On a normal day, aid groups would be begging for funding and resources. But in Syria, they are now desperately demanding something else: information, coordination, and time to adapt.

    (TOP PHOTO: Some 10,000 internally displaced people currently live in northeast Syria's al-Areesha camp, which has been hit by heavy rains and flooding. CREDIT: Hisham Arafat/UNHCR)

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

    al/as/ag

    As Turkey threatens an offensive, thousands of civilians face disrupted assistance and new displacement
    Trump pullout plan leaves aid groups in northeast Syria scrambling

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