In response to the humanitarian disaster caused by Syria’s ongoing civil war, international aid has poured into the country, to the tune of over $40 billion since 2011. Yet 14.6 million people (out of a total Syrian population of approximately 18 million) remain in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. One of the main reasons that so many people remain in need is the Assad regime’s systematic co-optation and corrupt diversion of international aid. The regime has required that foreign donors partner with one of two local Syrian organizations—the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and Syria Trust for Development (founded and run by President Assad’s wife); these government-affiliated organizations can then deliver aid money “out of sight” of the international organizations that sent that money, thereby obstructing aid workers’ ability to ensure that aid is distributed based on need. The government also mandates that all international organizations in Damascus hire local personnel hand-selected by the regime who supervise all programming and select which beneficiaries receive aid. These tools enable the Assad regime to use aid for political purposes, and to corruptly divert tens of billions of aid to politically connected elites, many of whom are responsible for the human rights violations that made humanitarian aid necessary to begin with.
For those whose top priority is to help suffering Syrians, it may be tempting to ignore or downplay the corrupt diversion of humanitarian aid—to view it as the unpleasant but inevitable cost of doing relief work in a country ruled by a despot. But continuing with the status quo is not a viable option. Right now, the aid pouring into Syria is helping the regime much more than it is helping suffering civilians, and it would be irresponsible to ignore this fact. Does this mean the international community should simply suspend humanitarian aid to Syria altogether? That option is also unpalatable. For one thing, it would impose grave costs on Syrian civilians: Even if the regime steals or misdirects up to 90% of incoming humanitarian aid, the 10% that ordinary Syrian civilians currently receive is still better than nothing. Furthermore, a decision to halt aid completely could also send the message that the international community does not think helping Syrian civilians is worth the hassle.
If neither continuing the current approach to delivering humanitarian aid nor suspending aid altogether is acceptable, what should the international donor community do? There is no good answer to this question, but as the humanitarian crisis in Syria shows no sign of abating, the international community must do what it can to find ways to get aid to the citizens who need it most. There are a few measures that, while imperfect, might be helpful: