A chemical bomb was dropped on the top floor of an apartment building. It killed 49 people, including 11 children, according to a leaked UN report draft on President Bashar al-Assad’s recapture of eastern Ghouta.

The Syrian Civil War is one of the most famous humanitarian crises in the world, not only because of the substantial amount of refugees, but because of the brutality carried out by the Syrian government. President Bashar al-Assad has promoted a mechanism of terrorizing and abusing innocent civilians as a new weapon of war.

Helping other innocent civilians has now become a political tool to gain power. By not allowing citizens to leave but also not providing them with enough resources to live, Syria is starving out its people and forcing them to lose a battle they never intended to be in. Though the chemical attacks and bombings are the most familiar sources of war crimes, blocking humanitarian aid through violence from those suffering from his and other sources of attacks is becoming one of the primary ways Assad is gaining control from the war.

Attacks on humanitarian groups in Syria have been on the rise, and they will not stop unless there is action taken against the government that commits these war crimes. These humanitarian groups will not be granted access to region if they don’t have permission from the regime, so there needs to be a formal discussion between multiple parties to ensure that the civilians who are in need of basic resources are being addressed. In addition, there must be a focus from the UN on de-emphasizing western authority in humanitarian aid as it is a major cause regarding the distrust of these humanitarian groups among foreign governments and civilians in the first place, which can be done by localizing their influence through the creation of offices and hiring of civilians living in that region. 

Complexity of Syrian War

The Syrian War began in 2011 during the Arab Spring period as shots were fired by Assad’s army during a peaceful protest. In 2012, the fighting spread to Aleppo: one of the most populous cities in Syria and a commercial hub. Without Aleppo, the rebels are not threatening to Assad’s regime as they do not have the center for financial and industrial growth. Geographically, Aleppo is in close proximity to Turkey, an ally of the rebels. Having control of this area provides them with the opportunity to receive more support and easier access to the Turkish government.

In July of 2012, Obama stated that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would impact the U.S.’s point of view on intervening in the war. Once it was discovered that chemical weapons were in fact being utilized against civilians, the UN ordered Syria to destroy them in 2013. However, the government continued their attacks. In 2017, the U.S. government fired a cruise missile in retaliation of the use of chemical weapons, which killed 58 people. 

Multiple powers involved themselves in the war, the most powerful being the support of the Assad regime by Russia. With their support, Russia killed about 2,000 civilians within six months through their airstrikes on markets, hospitals, schools, and homes. The importance of the Syrian War for them is the access to the Middle East, which gives them a larger voice regarding world events. After the removal of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Russia had to search for new relations to form in the region, and because of the former USSR connections to Syria, it was the ideal location to connect with. Other powers involved are Turkey, fighting against the Kurds in Syria as they have been persecuted by Tukey for decades because of their goal for an independent state, and Israel, which is launching strikes in the south of Syria against the Assad regime since they want to prevent Iran—who is sided with Assad—from gaining more power in the Middle East. There is also the Islamic State group, expanding their territory through the instability of the conflict. The Syrian War is much more than a simple two-sided fight as many global powers have a reason to intervene in the fight.

Figure 1: A map showing the land claims in Syria as of 2019
Source: Liveuamap, Turkish Presidency

Western Influence on Humanitarian Relief

After WWII, there was a shift in the belief of who needed the humanitarian aid. Although it was originally most used by Europe, the process of decolonization changed the focus towards countries located in the global south, which believed the reason for the instability in their countries was due to the lack of development. They argued that international attention and help was needed to solve their crises. The creation of 200 NGOs within the span of 1945 and 1949 promoted the growth of economic and humanitarian relief during the Cold War. However, most of these organizations were created in the U.S.. 

In addition, humanitarian groups became tied with Cold War policies in the different global state of affairs. During the Vietnam War, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) delivered food aid to the US-allied Popular Forces militia. The U.S. promoted the expansion of refugee camps during the USSR’s fights for occupation in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. During the Bosnian Genocide, the cost of aid to the Balkans was more than $1m per day. Humanitarian action was the way major powers exerted their influence to help alleviate the pain of the situation without having an actual solution. 

Humanitarian Groups in Syria

Syria is now considered as one of the most dangerous places for humanitarian workers to be in. Since January 2018, 76 aid workers have been killed, and 42 of those deaths were in Syria. In September 2016, Russia was accused of bombing a UN aid convoy that killed at least 12 people; however, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement said that around 20 civilians including one Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) staff member were killed with much of the aid being destroyed. Within the past six years of the war, 54 staff members and volunteers of SARC have lost their lives while doing their job.

In Syria as of 2016, out of the 33 deliveries approved by the government, only six have made it into the region. As the Syrian government continued to seize greater control of the humanitarian aid reaching the civilians and making it more dangerous for groups to enter, 73 humanitarian groups decided to withdraw support in Syria. This included organizations like the Syrian American Medical Society and the Syrian Civil Defence, which has supported over 6 million civilians. With humanitarian groups fearing for their safety, there is a major reduction in the amount of help going towards the civilians that are in desperate need of these basic resources.

Figure 2: UN Relief and Works Agency workers stand by aid parcels in protest of Syria not granting access to aid in the region
Source: AP

Furthering UN Investigations

One of the main reasons it’s difficult to address the issue of attacks on humanitarian groups is due to the lack of research being conducted on why these attacks occur in the first place. The UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arabic Republic should spend more time documenting and investigating these crimes. There will be no way to protect the aid workers setting foot into the region if there is no information on the specific reasons regarding the distrust of them. It is still unknown as to whether the increase in violence towards humanitarian groups is due to a greater number of workers entering the region or if there is just a strong dislike of them. Although it is known that there are Western ties to these groups, the investigations conducted will help produce better solutions that could be implemented directly in Syria. 

There must also be more research on the impact of humanitarian groups’ influence in the region. Their released reports already state that their work has been tremendously beneficial for the civilian population, but there must be more groups involved in the aid process. However, there isn’t enough information to know how much is needed to help the entire population. Receiving more specific data on the aid required might make it easier to negotiate with the Syrian government on what is allowed to enter the region.

Lastly, there must be more funding directed towards the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for these investigations. There cannot be successful research on the problems occurring with humanitarian groups if there is not enough money to provide the committee conducting the investigation with the resources needed to successfully investigate. 

Reaching out to the Regime

Because the Assad government has the power to decide what aid can enter the region, there must be a formal conversation between the humanitarian groups wanting access, the regime, and another neutral party, such as Romania, to host the talks. Romania has remained impartial throughout the war, and the proximity to Syria makes it a prime location to discuss the end of the war.

A deal must be made with the Syrian government to grant access to humanitarian groups. One way this can be done is by lifting sanctions imposed on the government for entrance into the region. The EU has imposed travel bans and asset freezes on more than 120 individuals and 40 companies. The most impactful sanction is the EU’s oil ban. Before the sanctions were enforced, 90% of their oil exports went to the EU; however, after the sanctions were enforced, the Syrian government has had great difficulty trying to find a new trading partner. Creating a new agreement would allow both parties, the Syrian government and the humanitarian groups associated with the UN, to address the issues each side is concerned about.

Localizing Humanitarian Aid

In order to effectively gain the trust of the government and the civilians, there must be a strong emphasis on creating local ties between the humanitarian groups and those living in the areas in need of assistance. Because of the negative ties between western influence and humanitarian aid, the UN must take steps to create groups within the Middle Eastern region. The UN can create a new development fund specifically focusing on the formation of groups to help during the Syrian War and the rebuilding of it. The Assad regime might be more willing to allow these groups to provide help in regime and rebel-controlled regions since they are based in Syria. It would also improve his image as he is currently known as a dictator on the international scale. 

There also needs to be a focus on involving the civilians in the aid process. If humanitarian groups employ civilians in the area, it will be increasing the stability in the region by providing greater incomes for the people who do not have steady jobs. Since the war began, around 538,000 jobs per year were destroyed. Creating offices in the region would bring back some of these jobs and add more money into a failing economy. It will also create a stronger sense of trust between the aid workers and the civilians living there. By providing a sense of security to the UN aid convoys, it will bring back the groups that originally removed their services in 2016 and encourage new groups to come in. 

However, the UN must be wary about the amount of support it provides to aid groups. Because Assad has control over the region, he still chooses where this aid goes. If he decides to break the agreement between his government and the humanitarian groups involved, it can lead to more aid going to only government-controlled regions. This would be perpetuating a cycle boosting the regime while leaving those in rebel-controlled areas behind.


Millions will suffer if there are not enough resources for survival. The people living in Syria are dealing with one of the worst crimes against humanity in existence, and it is morally wrong to leave them behind. Without humanitarian groups providing their valuable services, the civilians living in rebel areas in Syria will have no other means of survival. 

If something is not done to protect humanitarian groups, this weaponization of humanitarian groups will become a common method of winning a war in the future. By starving out civilians and making it impossible for them to receive help, the governments implementing these policies show that there is no real significance of international law. This disruption of international order will put many innocent lives in jeopardy in future wars. 

Featured Image Source: (Baraa Al-Halabi / AFP / Getty Images)

3 thoughts on “The Weaponization of Humanitarian Aid in Syria”

  1. Very great post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that
    I’ve really enjoyed browsing your weblog posts.

    In any case I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope
    you write again soon!

    1. Thank you so much for subscribing to our feed and commenting on my story. I can’t tell you how much it made my day! We will be continuing our articles in the fall due to COVID-19. Hope you’re staying safe during this crazy time!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *