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EXCLUSIVE: UN backtracks on Syria aid reshuffle

‘It’s good for now. The whole war is unstable, and we need more stability.’

Children shelter from the sun at northeastern Syria's al-Hol camp in May. The camp is now home to nearly 69,000 people.
Children shelter from the sun at northeastern Syria's al-Hol camp in May. The camp is now home to nearly 69,000 people. (Ali Yousef/ICRC)

The UN has paused plans for an overhaul of aid operations in Syria that critics said would have handed too much clout to President Bashar al-Assad. It will not abolish a senior position in Jordan, or transfer more decision-making to Damascus, despite signals earlier in the year.

In a 13 December email to senior aid bosses seen by The New Humanitarian, Mark Lowcock, head of the UN’s emergency aid body, OCHA, nominated “Kevin Kennedy as Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, effective immediately upon his deployment”.

As TNH reported in April, the position of regional humanitarian coordinator, based in Amman and managed directly by UN headquarters in New York, had been on the chopping block, as Lowcock looked to alter the complicated system used to ensure aid is delivered on the basis of need to both government- and rebel-held territories.

Read more → Outcry at UN plans to consolidate Syria aid operations in Damascus

Known as the “Whole of Syria” approach, the current structure – in place for the last four and a half years – has two officials of equal seniority running the UN’s Syria aid operation. One, in Damascus, coordinates aid to areas held by al-Assad’s government (Imran Riza took up this role in October 2019). The second, based in Amman, deals with aid across Syria’s borders to parts of the country al-Assad does not control, including the rebel-held northwest and Kurdish-run northeast. Until recently, the latter job was held by Panos Moumtzis.

The UN says it needs $3.3 billion to help an estimated nine million Syrians in 2020, including more than six million people who have been forced to flee violence and remain internally displaced.

Major donor countries and Syrian NGOs argued that the Amman job – at an equal rank – offered an important counterbalance to the control al-Assad’s government exercises over aid delivered from Damascus.

In a joint April letter to Lowcock, some of the UN’s biggest donors said the planned change “would undermine provision of principled humanitarian action”.

But Lowcock argued in a letter later that month that the complex Whole of Syria structure needed a review to “ensure maximum operational efficiency and effectiveness”, while attempting to reassure NGOs that “strong and distinct leadership” would remain for aid both from inside Damascus and across the borders of Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey.

Syria is OCHA’s most expensive country operation, costing about $19 million in 2019, and includes a set of aid agency working groups so complicated one official deemed it “byzantine”.

Behind the change

A spokesperson for Lowcock and OCHA confirmed the contents of the 13 December email but declined to comment further. Several UN and NGO officials – all insisted on anonymity to preserve professional relationships – believed several factors had gone into the change.

After the news spread earlier this year that OCHA was considering changes, a group of aid agencies and NGOs working on Syria looked at a range of scenarios, including slimming down or merging parts of the Whole of Syria apparatus.

The review, commissioned by OCHA, ultimately recommended sticking with the status quo of dual leadership, according to an aid official familiar with the exercise.

According to a source familiar with the discussions, a meeting in June of the Strategic Steering Group – the body at the apex of the Whole of Syria structure – was told that Lowcock had accepted the group’s recommendations and decided to press pause on the leadership changes.

As these discussions had been taking place, the parts of the country not controlled by al-Assad – and that receive cross-border aid through Iraq and Turkey, coordinated by the Amman-based official – had also become increasingly volatile.

Since May, the Syrian government and its Russian allies have been bombing the northwest in a campaign to retake rebel-held Idlib province, which has caused an estimated 790,000 people to flee their homes.

And the October Turkish incursion into the Kurdish-held northeast also caused as many as 200,000 people to take flight, although many have since returned to their homes.

Adding to this, the Security Council is due to vote as soon as this week on a resolution that allows UN agencies to bring aid across Syria’s borders without the government’s permission. Some aid insiders pointed out that downgrading a top official who oversees the convoys at the same time as pushing for the renewal would have risked sending mixed signals.

Read more → Diplomats battle over key Syria aid resolution

Uncertainty remains

The move had a last-minute flavour, according to several aid officials familiar with the situation, and even now UN staffers do not know how long Kennedy’s appointment is for or when he will report for duty.

But the appointment of the OCHA veteran, who previously held the Amman job from 2015 to 2017, was welcomed by several sources, including NGOs who had lobbied to keep the post.

One aid worker in the northwest said Kennedy’s appointment was a positive, especially considering that the UN had not presented an alternative to the Whole of Syria structure and many Syrians are still in desperate need of help.

“It is a non-stop war and you cannot just keep [the position] vacant… unless you have another option,” they said. “It’s good for now. The whole war is unstable, and we need more stability [in the humanitarian system].”

A senior humanitarian official warned that there were wider issues at stake, including how to work with al-Assad’s government without making unethical compromises, the international attitude to post-war reconstruction, and the future of cross-border aid.

“The bigger picture stuff is not on the nomination, but how ‘pragmatism’ may be [used] at the cost of principled humanitarian action in the months to come,” they added.

Additional reporting by Annie Slemrod.

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