A general view of the Kawergost refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq, which is 217 miles north of Baghdad. The long civil war in Syria has driven about 2 million people into neighboring countries. (Khalid Mohammed/AP)
Syrian internally displaced families gather Sunday at an abandoned land where they have taken shelter after fleeing their village that turned into a battlefield between government forces and Free Syrian Army fighters in Idlib province, northern Syria. Somewhere between 4 and 5 million are displaced from their homes inside Syria. (AP)
WASHINGTON — As the Syrian crisis rages and debate heats up over Syria’s chemical weapons, U.S. officials are fighting a quieter battle: The delivery of nearly $1.3 billion in assistance in a war zone so chaotic that ambulances are used for target practice and aid is halted by armed men at random checkpoints.
The humanitarian needs in Syria are staggering. An estimated 6.8 million Syrians require assistance. Of that number, about 2 million have fled to neighboring countries. Even more — somewhere between 4 and 5 million — are displaced from their homes inside Syria.
The U.N. says more than 100,000 people have died in the two years that opposition forces have fought to topple President Bashar Assad, who is accused of launching a chemical weapons attack last month that killed more than 1,400 people. While Assad has denied orchestrating the attack, he has agreed to a U.S.-Russia plan to give up his chemical arms.
That plan will dominate talk about Syria at this week’s U.N. General Assembly, where there also will be renewed pleas to deliver more international aid — a job as daunting as the overwhelming need.
Shipments are being stolen or diverted by armed groups filling the power vacuum in areas no longer controlled by the Assad regime. Border crossings are open, then closed. In rebel-controlled regions, the conflict has been complicated by an influx of Islamic extremists who have mixed in with the U.S.-backed opposition forces trying to oust Assad.
“People ask me all the time ‘Why aren’t we doing more humanitarian assistance?’” said 57-year-old Mark Ward, the State Department’s point man on the nearly $1.3 billion in U.S. aid flowing into the country.
“I can’t really comment on the regime-controlled parts of the country — whether they are getting enough. But in the liberated areas, it’s not a question of money. It’s a question of access. If we had access, we could find money,” Ward said in a telephone interview Saturday from the region.
“But you’re not going to give a non-governmental agency more money than they can usefully spend. The last thing you want to do in a very dangerous environment is pre-position a bunch of stuff in a warehouse and have the warehouse stuff go missing. … You have to do less pre-positioning and more regular deliveries, which is more dangerous.”
Many opposition-held territories have largely descended into chaos as a multitude of rebel brigades and factions compete over resources and aid and its distribution. Some rebel groups use aid they get through unofficial channels and charities as leverage to win support from the local population. Residents accuse some Free Syrian Army brigades of being corrupt, spending the money they get on luxuries instead of channeling it to the people.
The security situation has deteriorated sharply in recent months, with an uptick in robberies, killings and kidnapping for ransom, making it all the more challenging to get aid to the right people.
“We haven’t had any of our deliveries hijacked yet,” said Ward, who leads a two-dozen member team that works from sites — he won’t name them for security reasons — near the Syrian border in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
“So we have done well so far, but honestly, I think it’s a question of time.”
The U.S. assistance to the crisis flows from three spigots.
The first $1 billion goes for humanitarian needs. Half is for Syrians now crowded in camps or communities in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt or Iraq. The other half is for Syrians who are displaced from their homes, but still live inside Syria.
The U.N. can work in regime-controlled areas, but not in ones held by the opposition unless the government approves. So far Assad has said no. The opposition areas, therefore, rely on the work of NGOs — many supported by U.S. tax dollars.
The second spigot of money — $26 million so far — is non-lethal assistance the U.S. is providing to the Free Syrian Army. That has paid for more than 350,000 meals given to opposition fighters as a test to see if they ended up in the wrong hands. They didn’t and now the U.S. is sending the army bigger items like trucks, large radios and medical equipment.
The third spigot — some $250 million — is given to local councils springing up in areas no longer controlled by the government. The money pays for training — a kind of Governance 101 — for Syrians trying to get services turned back on in the middle of a war. It also provides small cash grants to the councils and heavy equipment, such as fire trucks, ambulances, generators, water tanks and garbage trucks.
Kenan Rahmani, who works for the Syrian American Council in Washington, was in Syria this summer working to help connect local councils to resources. Rahmani, who helped set up three bakeries to produce bread to feed about 30,000 families a day, says such aid is costly because of a shortage of electricity.
“The cost that goes into diesel to run these bakeries is unbelievable,” he said. “This is a big challenge so we have been asking different agencies within the State Department and other donor nations to help fix the electricity grids damaged by air strikes so that we can put the diesel money to actual aid.”
In addition to the non-lethal aid, the CIA has been delivering light machine guns and other small arms to Syrian rebels in recent months, following President Barack Obama’s decision to arm the rebels. The agency has also arranged for the Syrian opposition to receive anti-tank weaponry like rocket-propelled grenades through a third party.
Another issue complicating the delivery of aid is a widespread disregard for international humanitarian law, according to François Stamm, head of the International Committee for the Red Cross’ delegation to the United States. He said combatants have occupied health facilities, turning them into targets, searched medical centers, interrupted medical treatments and killed enemy patients.
“We took for granted that you don’t shoot on the ambulances and regrettably, we were wrong,” he said.
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.