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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Aid in Syria: Part II

Territorial zones are a more productive way to discuss foreign aid assistance in Syria.

Words: Paul J. McKinney
Pictures: Laura Adai

The issue of Syria’s reconstruction looms large. Estimated at more than $400 billion in economic terms alone, the social and political costs of this conflict will be generational and nearly impossible to quantify. Although the Syrian regime now territorially controls most of the country, the war is far from over. Rather, it has entered a new phase of a lower intensity conflict, one marked by the persistence of enmity and social and political erasure.

Although the regime has all but emerged as the (pyrrhic) victor, it contends with three other zones of territorial control within its borders: 1) Hayaat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its political arm, the Syrian Salvation Government in Idlib and its environs; 2) Turkish forces and Turkish-backed armed groups and governance structures in pockets of Aleppo, Raqqa, and Hasaka; and 3) the Autonomous Administration (AA) and its armed wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in northeast Syria. Under the complex and diverse circumstances found in each of the four zones of territorial control, using Syria as a single unit of analysis to discuss the country’s reconstruction and development can be misleading. Instead, an emphasis on the territorial zones of control is more productive for framing any discussion of current foreign assistance and future reconstruction efforts.

With the Syrian regime now controlling an estimated 70% of the country, it has long since become clear that Western donors’ objective is not to build back better. Nor is the objective to prepare for “the day after” the regime transitions out from power. With governance compromised across all four zones of control, it has become clear that working directly with local governance structures — once a hallmark of foreign assistance in opposition-held areas — has now become almost entirely unviable. And with space for civil society shrinking in such repressive environments, it has become increasingly dangerous for activists to advocate for a democratic, free, and pluralistic Syria. Identifying where and how best to engage in each zone has become increasingly fraught with geopolitical problems and requires making difficult trade-offs.

There are no easy answers to be found anywhere in Syria when it comes to foreign assistance. The approach the Biden administration has settled on so far — that of maintaining the status quo — also has significant consequences. It has sent a signal to Damascus that it can continue to drop barrel bombs on innocent civilians, imprison and torture anyone deemed as a potential threat and, under the veneer of legality, attempt to homogenize “useful Syria” through illegal property confiscation. Turkey is also enforcing arbitrary housing, land, and property laws in areas under its control in an effort to fundamentally reengineer the demography along its southern border. In Idlib and its environs, the HTS/Salvation Government project has drawn parallels to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the AA is seen as growing increasingly authoritarian in the northeast.

Despite these challenges, in a country where nine in ten people already live at or below the poverty line, further Western donor disengagement should not be on the table. It would lead to catastrophic consequences for ordinary people and local partners.


Stabilization programs, also known as hard aid, are distinguished from traditional development programs. Hard aid takes place in unstable and conflict-affected environments, such as Syria, whereas development frequently occurs in post-conflict or stable environments. Although projects may sound similar in scope, they can have very different mandates. For example, a community policing project in El Salvador aimed to demilitarize the police following its 12-year civil war faced significantly different implementation challenges than the Access to Justice and Community Support (AJACS) program in opposition-held Syria from 2014-early 2019.

The $20 million-dollar AJACS program supported the establishment of the Free Syria Police, an unarmed civilian police force trained to intervene in private disputes and petty crimes, manage traffic, and enhance community security. Not only did the AJACS program have to actively contend with sustained aerial bombings in the communities where they lived and served, armed groups simultaneously challenged and attempted to co-opt them — issues that more traditional security sector reform initiatives like those implemented in post-conflict El Salvador did not encounter. While insecurity was an issue experienced by residents in both countries, the options available in opposition-held Syria were clearly much more limited due to ongoing war.

As illustrated by the AJACS program, hard aid is often employed with the aim to foster greater security in the short-run and to create conditions more conducive for development in the medium and long runs, following a negotiated political settlement generally brokered under international auspices. It is explicitly political, having been recently defined in a much-anticipated 2018 joint document by USAID, the US Department of State, and US Department of Defense as an “inherently political endeavor…toward supporting locally legitimate authorities and systems to peacefully manage conflict and prevent violence.”

With more than 13 million people inside Syria currently in dire need of humanitarian assistance, there is both a moral imperative and political obligation to intervene.

Humanitarian assistance, or relief programs, is conceptually differentiated from hard aid and more traditional development. Namely, donors have pledged that the provision of humanitarian assistance be apolitical and guided by the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. These foundational principles are noble, and undoubtedly the vast majority of humanitarians involved in the Syrian conflict sincerely strive to uphold them. With more than 13 million people inside Syria currently in dire need of humanitarian assistance, there is both a moral imperative and political obligation to intervene. That many parents have come to fear their children will freeze to death sleeping in myriad displacement camps during Syria’s upcoming cold winter months is indicative of an international system that all too often fails those who are already vulnerable, having lost all their material wealth and so much more during a decade of war — and yet these circumstances often make it difficult to distinguish between the provision of what constitutes humanitarian assistance from stabilization and development programs.

The interconnected nature of the human security problems, conceptually now known as the “humanitarian-development-peace nexus,” often means that local councils, INGO representatives, and NGOs must attend cluster meetings to coordinate activities and avoid duplication of efforts. This is because these are not serial processes as all are needed concurrently, which is the case across all four zones in Syria. Separating the “politically-oriented” development and peace programs from the strictly humanitarian in practice is often a matter of perspective and a distinction that is not drawn on the ground.

As an illustration, let’s look at HTS-controlled Idlib and its surrounding areas, where the Salvation Government’s Ministry of Development and Humanitarian Affairs requires every organization to officially register with them. This requirement allows the Salvation Government to better monitor programs as they seek to influence where and how assistance is implemented. For example, an activity such as the distribution of shelter kits, which on the surface appears to be strictly humanitarian, assumes much greater political significance when I/NGOs are coerced into coordinating with, and receiving permission from, the Salvation Government so that they can distribute them. Such coordination, all but unavoidable and arguably necessary to avoid duplication of efforts, nonetheless confers some measure of legitimacy on the Salvation Government. The same is true in areas under Turkish occupation, under AA/SDF control, and areas held by the Syrian regime. Authorities across all zones of control have similar bodies that closely monitor the work of all I/NGOs, requiring registration and coordination.

No matter how often I/NGOs and humanitarian assistance-focused bureaus insist that the distribution of goods and services in Syria is independent, in practice their interventions are not. This is because humanitarian action in each of the four zones is not autonomous from the political, economic, and military interests of the authorities who have increasingly acted as its gatekeepers. All foreign assistance is viewed by the respective power brokers as an important tool in the hearts-and-minds struggle of people living under their rule. Accordingly, local authorities have appropriated not only the technical jargon of development agencies when overseeing the distribution of goods and services, but have also dedicated monitoring and evaluation teams on hand to help ensure its efficacy. When “the population is the prize,” as the metaphor of stabilization goes, development and relief activities assume greater significance.

Though blurry in practice, the conceptual distinction between humanitarian assistance from hard aid and development is hardly a trivial one at the policy level — billions worth of foreign assistance to Syria is allocated based on those distinctions, as are the levels of funding oversight necessary and the vetting required for local partners. This distinction also frames programmatic objectives and informs intervention designs. Yet, whereas stabilization and development intervention should have well-articulated theories of change that feed into larger country objectives, humanitarian assistance projects focused on immediate relief often do not. As anyone who has trudged through a logic model knows, writing clearly defined indicators becomes much, much easier only after you’ve developed a clearly articulated theory of change. To do that successfully, you must possess a larger vision of what your intervention aspires to accomplish.


Western foreign policy objectives have been incongruous with the shifting on-the-ground realities in Syria. The UN Security Council adopted resolution 2254 (UNSCR 2254) in late 2015. It enjoyed broad international support, including from Russia, Iran, and China — Damascus’ key backers. It provided a framework for a “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition” in parallel with “support for a nationwide ceasefire,” and until today remains the entry point for discourse about Syria’s future. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime and their allies have continued a scorched earth policy. They have also yet to show any real interest to meaningfully engage in a negotiated political solution to the conflict, and have characterized all opposition as being “terrorists or traitors.” Though Brussels and Washington still insist the Syrian regime peacefully transition out of power as expressed in UNSCR 2254, they have turned their attention in recent years to the refugee crisis in Europe, the “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State and other violent extremist organizations, and in countering Iranian influence.

To achieve these ambiguous objectives, donors are tasked with implementing hard aid activities. A growing reliance on hard aid programs to meet short-term, western-centric interests, like those listed above, can undermine overall longer-term development efforts. For instance, the Trump’s administration’s fixation on Tehran made countering Iranian influence one of the pillars of US foreign policy, with hard aid earmarked for that purpose. The Trump administration also released $50 million dollars in October 2019 to “provide emergency financial assistance to Syrian human rights defenders, civil society organizations, and reconciliation efforts directly supporting ethnic and religious minority victims of the conflict.”

With the economy in shambles, development and relief programs remain a critical resource for almost every community in Syria as they endure yet another year of conflict.

By allocating foreign assistance to local partners based on communal and confessional identity, foreign assistance funding directly undermines the integrity of UNSCR 2254 and longer-term development, which includes a commitment to Syria’s non-sectarian character as well as “protecting the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination.” By choosing to allocate millions of dollars of hard aid on the basis of ethnic and religious identification, such programs egregiously violate do-no-harm principles and introduce new sources of conflict while exacerbating others. High-level strategy in Syria has been increasingly incoherent with foreign assistance objectives and divorced from evolving on-the-ground realities, forcing implementing partners to translate these misguided policies into operational programs.


With the economy in shambles, development and relief programs remain a critical resource for almost every community in Syria as they endure yet another year of conflict. That foreign assistance is also being exploited to help subsidize power brokers’ military and security apparatuses, all of which have committed egregious crimes, is not a secret.

Alas, all aid — including the distribution of emergency relief — has become highly politicized in recent years. Authorities are keen to act as gatekeepers of all assistance, requiring partners to register and coordinate with them to distribute billions of dollars’ worth of assistance. Fearing that critical aid will not reach the millions who are in dire need, I/NGOs have begrudgingly complied. In the process, they have, perhaps unwittingly, conferred a degree of legitimacy to those authorities which will be difficult to reverse. In the absence of a clear policy for each of the four zones, and the remote prospect that UNSCR Resolution 2254 will regain traction any time soon, it will be ordinary Syrians who, once again, will have to shoulder the cost as the status quo persists.

Paul J. McKinney has worked on foreign assistance programs in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen for the past five years. He is a US Army veteran and graduate of Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. 

Paul J. McKinney

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