Food Aid in Syria: Good Intentions, Unintended Outcomes

Emergency food aid is often depicted as the international community’s humane response to a crisis, aimed at alleviating suffering in areas of conflict or following natural disasters. However, a recent paper argues that despite the impartial intentions of UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations, the distribution of food aid during the current conflict in Syria has had unintended consequences that have affected the political and military balance of the war.

José Ciro Martínez and Brent Eng make a distinction between two main elements of aid relief in conflict areas: the intent and the actual impact of humanitarian organizations. According to the authors, most relief agencies working in Syria have adopted a neutral stance to the conflict and have attempted to deliver food aid to people in need, regardless of whether they are in areas protected by the government or under rebel control. The authors argue that international aid agencies have thus far been faced with challenges that have prohibited them from adhering to aid neutrality, and that this has benefited the Assad regime.

There are different explanations for why food distribution in Syria has not been politically and military neutral. Most international organizations—including UN agencies—depend on local organizations, such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and government approved NGOs, to organize and allocate food aid, which the Assad regime largely controls. By supplying civilians with external food aid, the government does not have to reach into its own pockets for humanitarian assistance. This provides the regime with additional resources to fund its own military efforts, and is likely one of the most critical ways in which food aid has been appropriated to indirectly alter the military balance of the war.

Additionally, volunteers working in Syria report that some food aid has been distributed directly to military members: one Mercy Corps employee working in Aleppo detailed how aid supplies had been distributed to army members in government control shelters near the University of Aleppo. This has given Assad’s regime and advantage over opposition forces.

The organization and distribution of food aid has benefited the government in other intangible dimensions; in particular, the relatively steady supply of food under regime-controlled territories has contributed to the projection of an image of relative security compared to areas under rebel control. According to the authors, this image of food security has increased support for Assad’s regime among the population. People support Assad not necessarily because they believe in his policies, but rather because they are led to believe that their chances of survival are higher if they live in government-controlled territories. The large number of internally displaced persons who have moved from rebel-controlled zones to the government-controlled cities of Latakia and Tartous are largely seen as evidence of this narrative.

The situation in Syria reveals how food scarcity during times of war makes it very difficult for food aid organizations to adopt a neutral role in the crisis. In this context, the authors suggest that policymakers and international organizations alter their current understanding of neutrality, which, in its simplest manifestation, considers Syrian civilians as existing in a state of emergency without taking into account the policies that continue to sustain such conditions.

The authors argue that neutrality—as is currently understood—poses grave consequences precisely because it obscures the true impact of food aid on war outcomes. A failure to recognize the unintended political and military consequences created by the distribution of food aid in Syria will preclude the discussion and implementation of any actions that could mitigate them and thus restore the neutrality of food aid.

Article Source: Ciro Martínez, José and Brent Eng. “The Unintended Consequences of Emergency Food Aid: Neutrality, Sovereignty and Politics in the Syrian Civil War, 2012–15.” International Affairs, 2016.

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Miriam Gonzales
Miriam ('17) is a staff writer for International Affairs. She is interested in economics, poverty alleviation, and program evaluation.

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