Aiding a Failing State

An Al Jazeera article published just over a year ago discusses the difficulties of delivering and administering aid in Syria, an issue that has seen little improvement over the past year.

As of March 2014, over 9.3 million people in Syria needed humanitarian aid; of primary importance were food provisions. Heading the attempted deliveries is the UN World Food Program, which reports progress to the Security Council. Of the 9.3 million in need of aid, 6.5 million people are internally displaced, and 3.5 million are located in hard to reach areas. Yet even for people not living in hard to reach areas, there are many obstacles preventing aid from reaching them.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has placed blame both on the Syrian government and rebel groups for the difficulties: their continued violence and intentional barriers to aid have made it increasingly difficult for aid to reach the civilian population that needs it, despite their pledges to comply with the Security Council and allow the Council access to anyplace that needs aid. Instead, the Syrian government has refused to open additional borders to allow aid to enter, citing an infringement upon their sovereignty, and, in addition to Syrian rebels, ISIS is now blocking access routes as well.

The Syrian government’s argument that opening more borders to UN access decreases Syrian sovereignty is a valid one, yet Syria initially agreed to the condition. Sovereignty has become an issue of contention that is part of a larger problem. As the Syrian rebels and ISIS encroach on the Syrian government’s monopoly on violence, the state loses sovereignty and becomes a failed state. The UN too encroaches on Syrian sovereignty, placing increasing perceived pressure by the government on their attempts to maintain control. It is important to distinguish between the UN and Syrian rebel groups and ISIS though; the UN is attempting to aid Syria’s civilian population and internally make the population more stable, while the violence of rebel groups, ISIS, and the government destabilizes the population. Yet to a failing state, even the UN can appear as a threat.

Despite the obstacles to aid delivery, the US is still attempting to deliver nonlethal assistance to moderate rebel groups, such as vehicles and communication equipment. At the time, they had secured a route through Syria in order to deliver supplies. Despite sending one of the largest shipments ever, though, Syrian rebels doubt that it will make any difference; instead, a change in forces on the ground is necessary in their opinion. But despite this, the US continues to offer nonlethal aid.

A potential problem arises with this US strategy: if the Syrian government views UN humanitarian aid as threatening to Syrian sovereignty, then US nonlethal assistance is blatantly hostile towards the Syrian government. While it may help the cause of the rebels, the maneuver may well decrease the willingness of the Syrian government to allow UN intervention in the form of aid. With the US indirectly affecting Syrian sovereignty and supporting opposition to the government, how can it be likely that the Syrian government will allow another organization such as the UN, in which the US is a member, to also provide assistance within the country, even if the intent is very different?

When interacting with a failed state such as Syria, countries and organizations must be careful to recognize how their actions are perceived within the failed state; providing aid is not simple in a state with three sets of actors vying for control. Instead, there are blocks ranging from concerns over sovereignty to issues of violence preventing distribution that must be recognized and worked around. Otherwise, states and organizations only hinder their own progress.

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