what side are you on? NGO neutrality in Syria

by Campaign ~ July 18th, 2013. Filed under: News, Uncategorized.


By Tom Burridge, Research Assistant

Civil war in Syria has raged for over two years and is unlikely to end in the near future. The G8 summit has debated in Northern Ireland whether to arm the Syrian rebels, with alleged use of chemical weapons by government forces seemingly a deal clincher for the US and the UK in this respect.1 In a conflict that is still very much alive, the possibilities of conflict prevention are slim, with outside influence from both state and non-state actors, a country beset with arms and the ever lingering shadow of sectarian conflict. This is a stark contrast to the hope the Arab Spring possessed when it originally erupted. In this environment NGOs and aid organisations struggle to impact upon the conflict, and struggle to retain their neutral status making conflict prevention activities both problematic in terms of their effect, and their sensitivity towards the conflict, potentially endangering lives of both NGO staff and the people they are attempting to help.
Syrian Rebels
The reasons behind the continuing conflict are multiple and diverse, making both the conflict and its resolution extremely complicated. What the Western media has focused on is the spectre of sectarian conflict, with fear not just for Syria,2 but Iraq,3 Burma4 and others deemed to be newsworthy by both Western media and others. This is certainly an important factor, and particularly seems to drive state interference by Sunni Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran and non-state Hezbollah,5,6 and also the underlying agendas of Western powers and Israel.7 However this is contradicted by Syrians, who maintain their rebellion is primarily secular,8 and these divergent stances have been reflected in the Saudi-Qatari rivalry over supplying the Syrian rebels, with Qatar supporting Islamist groups while the Saudi’s have backed secular groups such as the Free Syrian Army.9 This hardly presents a unified Sunni front, and as Foreign Policy columnist and Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University Marc Lynch notes, the focus on a “sectarian master narrative… obscures rather than reveals the most important lines of conflict in the emerging Middle East. The coming era will be defined by competition between (mostly Sunni) domestic contenders for power in radically uncertain transitional countries”.10 It would be also wise not to forget the origins of the Arab Spring, which was a regional desire for democracy, and as shown by Pew Research this is the case with the majority of people in the Arab world, irrelevant of whether the democracies they vote for do not seem particularly democratic to those in the West.11

This makes for an extremely complicated environment for NGOs and aid organisations to operate in, with divisions within rebels and government forces, with different discourses and actors all promoting different interests and opinions. This lack of unity makes any work inside or outside of the conflict very challenging, as aid, conflict prevention and non-governmental organisations are required to work with or alongside many different competing actors. This is a daily problem for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, a humanitarian not-for-profit organisation, by law an auxiliary team of the Syrian Army, but attempting to work across the conflict helping both rebels and the armed forces. The Secretary General of Red Crescent Khaled Erksoussi says that the conflicting sides have an attitude of “You are either with us or against us”.12 Yet Red Crescent still works strenuously to maintain its neutrality in the conflict, helping both sides in retrieving bodies and detainees, and delivering food packages, first aid, medical supplies and other aid. This is despite the accusations of partiality and many volunteers being detained by the government,13 as well as 18 volunteers having been killed.14The Syrian Army Red Crescent

The difficulty of maintaining neutrality in this environment first occurred in Kosovo but since has occurred in many other areas,15 particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where the UK Government Interdepartmental Conflict Prevention Pool funds conflict prevention activities.16 Similar to Syria, there is on-going conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with many competing actors both state (such as Rwanda and Uganda) and non-state (such as the Lord’s Resistance Army), with media depictions focusing on reasons such as ethnicity and natural resources.17 Though these factors are important, there are many other factors involved such as problems of geography (Eastern DRC being dense, mountainous jungle with a mass of river systems), inequality and poverty the weakness of the DRC state and ease of access to arms.18 This is also a particular problem in Syria with an easily accessible stockpile of military hardware remaining in the former Yugoslavian countries after the conflict in the Balkans which are supplied by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others to Syrian rebels.19 This has made the conflict in the DRC an extremely dangerous and fractious environment, which for NGOs and aid organisations is extremely difficult to be effective and impartial in. For example, conflict prevention demobilisation activities have been conducted in cooperation with the military peacekeepers United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), this may maximise the number of soldiers that do surrender according to MONUSCO, but it also blurs the line between conflict prevention and military operation, which has led to retaliation by the Lord’s Resistance Army, with the LRA attacking the civilian population and replenishing their ranks with civilians in 2008.20 What both Syria and the DRC highlight is the difficulty for NGOs, conflict prevention and aid organisations of remaining neutral in conflict situations and the dangers this presents not just to the organisations’ staff but to the people they are trying to help. With the inherently complicated nature of conflicts, this problem is here to stay and needs to have more thought and resources devoted to it by NGOs and conflict prevention organisations.


1 BBC News (14th June 2013). ‘US says it will give military aid to Syria rebels’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22899289
2 Reuters (May 4th 2013). ‘Syrian Sunnis flee coastal town fearing sectarian violence’, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/04/syria-crisis-displacement-idUSL6N0DL09120130504
3 Mohammad Tawfeeq and Tom Watkins (May 19th 2013). Sectarian violence erupts anew in Iraq’, CNN http://edition.cnn.com/2013/05/18/world/meast/iraq-violence
4 Al Jazeera (29th May 2013). ‘Sectarian violence erupts in Myanmar’, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia-pacific/2013/05/201352952410553862.html
5 Associated Press (June 17th 2013). ‘Hamas urges former ally Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria, signalling growing sectarian rift’, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/hamas-urges-former-ally-hezbollah-to-withdraw-from-syria-signaling-growing-sectarian-rift/2013/06/17/0a7ca81e-d765-11e2-b418-9dfa095e125d_story.html
6 BBC News (14th June 2013). ‘Who is supplying weapons to the warring sides in Syria’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22906965
7 Robert Fisk (5th May 2013). ‘The truth is that after Israel’s air strikes, we are involved’, The Independent
8 Mark Urban (4th June 2013). ‘Why there is more to the Syrian conflict than sectarianism’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22770219
9 Mariam Karouny (May 31st 2013). ‘Saudi edges Qatar to control Syrian rebel support’, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/31/us-syria-crisis-saudi-insight-idUSBRE94U0ZV20130531
10 Marc Lynch (May 23rd 2013). ‘The War for the Arab World’, Foreign Policy
11 Pew Research Global Attitudes Project (July 10th 2012). ‘Most Muslims Want Democracy, Personal Freedoms, and Islam in Political Life’, http://www.pewglobal.org/2012/07/10/most-muslims-want-democracy-personal-freedoms-and-islam-in-political-life/
12 Robert Fisk (19th April 2013). ‘The 9,000 unsung heroes working on both sides of Syria’s front line’, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-9000-unsung-heroes-working-on-both-sides-of-syrias-front-line-8580939.html
13 Anne Barnard (June 3rd 2013). ‘Rushing to Aid in Syrian War, but Claiming No Side’, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/03/world/middleeast/syrian-red-crescent-volunteers-sidestep-a-battle.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
14 Robert Fisk (19th April 2013). ‘The 9,000 unsung heroes working on both sides of Syria’s front line’, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-9000-unsung-heroes-working-on-both-sides-of-syrias-front-line-8580939.html
15 Michael Pugh (2000). ‘Civil-Military Relations in the Kosovo Crisis: An Emerging Hegemony’, Security Dialogue, Vol. 31, No. 2
16 Independent Commission for Aid Impact (2012). ‘Evaluation for the Inter-Departmental Conflict Pool’, http://icai.independent.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Evaluation-of-the-Inter-Departmental-Conflict-Pool-ICAI-Report1.pdf
17 Nile Bowie (January 16th 2013). ‘Congo’s M23: Rebellion or Resource War’, Global Research, http://www.globalresearch.ca/congos-m23-conflict-rebellion-or-resource-war/5319178
18 Laura E. Seay (2012). ‘What’s Wrong with Dodd-Frank 1502? Conflict Minerals, Civilian Livelihoods and the Unintended Consequences of Western Advocacy’, Center for Global Development, Working Paper
19 C. J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt (February 25th 2013). ‘Saudis Step Up Help for Rebels in Syria With Croatian Arms’, The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/26/world/middleeast/in-shift-saudis-are-said-to-arm-rebels-in-syria.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&smid=tw-nytimes&_r=0
20 Independent Commission on Aid Impact, Evaluation of the Interdepartmental Conflict Pool, 2012


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