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Published: June 18, 2014

The ‘State’ of insecurity in Syria

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Former UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has recently stated Syria is ‘going to be a failed state, with warlords all over the place’, asserting the country will soon ‘become another Somalia’. Syria entered the top five most violent aid contexts in 2012, yet the 2013 Aid Worker Security Report (AWSR) claimed it remained to be seen whether the country would follow Afghanistan and Somalia, ‘where aid workers are used as proxy targets in … warfare’. Brahimi’s predictions provide an opportunity to briefly evaluate the current state of insecurity in the country, and its implications for humanitarian operations and security risk management.

Aid Delivery in Syria

Aid delivery into the country has proven increasingly difficult. The UN was able to distribute food to only 3.2 million Syrians in May 2014, compared to 4.1 million in March. Following Assad’s re-election on June 3rd, UN chief aid coordinator Valerie Amos has stated ‘everything has to be centralised through Damascus’, whereas before, international aid organisations were able to negotiate access directly with provincial governors. Nevertheless, even government-held areas have seen attacks on aid convoys and warehouses, such as in Douma (a suburb north-east of Damascus) on the 24th May, and the OHCHR has reported ‘deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel and transport’ across the entire country.

Providing assistance to opposition-held areas has been especially challenging, as the Assad regime has placed strict controls on aid delivery by blocking off aid ‘corridors’. Occasionally allowing ‘cross-line’ aid deliveries from cities such as Damascus to opposition areas, the regime rarely officially permits cross-border transfers directly from neighbouring countries. With ‘heavy bureaucratic hurdles’ and extremely risky front-lines, Human Rights Watch has confirmed ‘cross-line’ delivery is often too dangerous to undertake openly and many areas have thus been left without assistance. However, as of March 2014, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reported that non-State armed groups have also blocked aid to an estimated 45,000 civilians in besieged areas. The fragmented nature of the various opposition groups makes for extremely complex negotiation processes to attain access.

Despite the UN Security Council Resolution 2139 on 22nd February 2014 urging increased humanitarian access, there has been a significant decline in humanitarian assistance over the last three months, caused by all ‘sides’ to the conflict. Humanitarian practice has shifted towards working through local partners and remote management; a widespread practice in Somalian aid delivery. This leads to questions of risk transfer to national partner organisations. As of June 2014, the OHCHR placed the fatality count of Syrian Arab Red Crescent workers at 34, compared to 16 UN and one NGO staff (not to mention kidnappings that have become commonplace).

Do Brahimi’s words foreshadow an even worsening situation for aid workers?

Risk levels for aid workers in ‘failing’ states have proven to be significantly worse than those in high-violence but stable states. The Aid Worker Security Report (AWSR) 2012 found that the strength and stability of governance in countries, rather than the type of regime, is more likely to contribute to levels of attacks against aid workers. The report highlights correlations ‘between aid worker violence and (in descending order of significance) low levels of political stability, high ‘state fragility’ scores, institutional weakness of the regime, and low levels of ‘rule of law’.’ Thus, a weak or failing host state is central to the insecurity of aid workers, which suggests that such attacks can be seen as a symptom of state failure, not merely a product of conflict.

Without placing a blanket assumption of anarchy on the concept of a ‘failed’ state, it is undeniable that the security situation in Syria has inched ever closer to scenarios akin to Somalia. In addition to his damning comparison, Brahimi also claimed the ‘conflict is not going to stay inside Syria … entire region will blow up’; a claim compounded by the radical Islamist threat via groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and their growing power witnessed recently in Iraq. ISIS’ considerable funds, control in the region, and newly acquired weaponry is a worrying development for Syria with growing numbers of foreign fighters getting involved in the conflict. This dimension ensures the continued involvement of external actors, with Syria increasingly becoming a proxy battleground between regional powers, thus entrenching the conflict further. As such, it is difficult to imagine a future where aid workers will not be targeted as part of the political, ideological and religious strife in this failed state, locked in a prolonged, bloody civil war.



Interview with UN Peace Envoy Brahimi: ‘Syria Will Become Another Somalia’, Spiegel Online, 07 June 2014, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/interview-with-former-un-peace-envoy-to-syria-lakhdar-brahimi-a-974036.html

Syria: Overview of the Humanitarian Response, Margesson, R., and Chesser, S. G., Congressional Research Service, 25 February 2014, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/R43119.pdf

Aid Worker Security Report 2013: The New Normal: Coping with the kidnapping threat, Harmer, A., Stoddard, A., Toth, K., Humanitarian Outcomes, October 2013, https://aidworkersecurity.org/sites/default/files/AidWorkerSecurityReport_2013_web.pdf


Aid Delivery in Syria

Syrian Government Making Aid Delivery More Difficult, U.N. Official Says, Cumming-Bruce, N., The New York Times, 16 June 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/17/world/europe/syrian-government-making-aid-delivery-more-difficult-un-official-says.html

Syria: Agencies Should Send Aid Where Most Needed, Human Rights Watch, 12 June 2013, http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/06/11/syria-agencies-should-send-aid-where-most-needed

Syria: UN humanitarian chief condemns attack on warehouse during aid distribution, UN News Centre, 25 May 2014, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=47890#.U5_8QfldWSo

Assault on medical care: a distinct and chilling reality in Syria, OHCHR, 08 October 2013, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/AssaultOnMedicalCare.aspx

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement deplores the death of another aid worker in Syria, ICRC, 19 November 2013, http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/statement/2013/11-18-syria-death-aid-worker.htm

Oral Update of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, OHCHR, 16 June 2014, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/A-HRC-26-CRP-2_en.pdf

Security Council Unanimously Adopts Resolution 2139 (2013) To Ease Aid Delivery to Syrians, Provide Relief From ‘Chilling Darkness’, UN Security Council SC/11292, 22 February 2014, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2014/sc11292.doc.htm

U.N. Chief Urges Aid Delivery Without Syria’s Consent, Sengupta, S., The New York Times, 23 May 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/24/world/middleeast/un-chief-urges-aid-deliveries-to-syria-without-its-consent.html

Syria: Defying Security Council on Aid Access, Human Rights Watch, 28 March 2014, http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/03/28/syria-defying-security-council-aid-access


Do Brahimi’s words foreshadow an even worsening situation for aid workers?

Aid Worker Security Report 2012: Host states and their impact on security for humanitarian operations, Stoddard, A., Harmer, A., and Hughes, M., Humanitarian Outcomes, December 2012, http://www.humanitarianoutcomes.org/sites/default/files/resources/AidWorkerSecurityReport20126.pdf

Delivering aid in highly insecure environments: A critical review of the literature, 2007–2012, Schreter, L. and Harmer, A., Humanitarian Outcomes, 18 February 2013, http://andystaging.rwdev.org/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/60995-Delivering_aid_in_highly_insecure_environments_final_report.pdf

Lesch, D. W., (2013), ‘The Unknown Future of Syria’, Mediterranean Politics, Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 97-103.


Background Reading

Patrick, S., (2007), ‘‘Failed’ States and Global Security: Empirical Questions and Policy Dilemmas’, International Studies Review, Vol. 9, pp. 644–662.

Aid Workers, More on the Front Lines, Suffer Increased Attacks: Interview with Abby Stoddard, Labbé, J., The Global Observatory, 07 March 2014, http://theglobalobservatory.org/interviews/693-aid-workers-more-on-the-front-lines-suffer-increased-attacks-interview-with-abby-stoddard.html?utm_source=IPI+Publications+%26+Events&utm_campaign=5c4edd028c-Webcast1_7_2013&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6f1f2e59e4-5c4edd028c-22470469

The Future of Humanitarian Security in Fragile Contexts, Armstrong, J., European Interagency Security Forum, March 2014, http://eisf.helpful.ws/resources/item/?d=7917


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