The State Department and USAID are increasing their humanitarian aid for Syria but have no intention of moving any of that money through the Syrian opposition coalition, as several senators have called for.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, Assistant Secretary for Populations, Refugees, and Migration Anne Richard, and USAID Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance Nancy Lindborg just returned from a trip to Turkey, Jordan, and Kuwait. In Kuwait, they pledged $155 million of additional U.S. humanitarian aid to help alleviate the suffering caused by the Syrian civil war, bringing the total U.S. aid commitment to $365 million.
Richard and Lindborg said on a Wednesday conference call with reporters that State and USAID don't work through government structures and therefore won't be dispersing any of that aid through the Syrian opposition coalition, which President Barack Obama has recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
"Globally we provide our humanitarian assistance through the U.N. system and our NGO partners and this is specifically to ensure that there is a global humanitarian architecture that can get assistance to people who need it the most," said Lindborg. "We don't provide humanitarian assistance through other governments anywhere globally."
State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told The Cable that although the aid won't be given directly to the Syrian opposition coalition, a portion of the new funds will be dispersed in coordination with the coalition and its partners inside Syria.
"We are intensifying our work with the Syrian opposition coalition to channel assistance to those NGOs who can effectively deliver humanitarian aid on its behalf to the most needy in Syria, especially those in areas where the Assad regime has systematically blocked or limited UN access," Nuland said.
Last month, seven U.S. senators from both parties traveled to some of the same refugee camps and met with the Syrian opposition coalition leaders, after which they publicly called for the U.S. government to funnel some aid through the opposition leadership in order to bolster their legitimacy and credibility.
"We are delivering significant humanitarian assistance into Syria, but it's going through international aid agencies and being distributed out of Damascus, rather than in ways that strengthen the credibility and the reach and the effectiveness of the Syrian opposition council," said Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE).
The State Department delegation did meet with the Syrian opposition coalition's assistance coordination unit in Turkey and is working with them to determine where aid is needed inside Syria. The State Department has a full time liaison with that unit to help them increase their own capabilities, Lindborg said. But they won't be getting any U.S. humanitarian assistance.
"Aid is supposed to be delivered not based on one's political beliefs or which side one's picking in a war, or which faction one belongs to, but based on need. We want to work with them, but right now they're not built as an organization to deliver aid," Richard said.
"We are always very respectful of the role of Congress. We're being especially sweet to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff now because we don't know which ones are going to come over the State Department and be our bosses," said Richard.
Forty-nine percent of food aid is reaching contested or opposition-held areas, Richard said, and aid is reaching all regions of Syria, although aid workers are frustrated that aid is not reaching everyone who is in need. The United States is also spending about $50 million to help a range of local governance and civil society organizations get established inside Syria.
The trio visited refugees camps in Turkey and Jordan and lamented the plight of those there, especially women and children, who make up 80 percent of the refugee camp populationsin the countries surrounding Syria. There are currently 240,000 refugees in Jordan, 171,000 in Turkey, 256,000 in Lebanon, 83,000 in Iraq, Richard said. Another 2.5 million Syrians are internally displaced inside the country, according to U.N. figures, which Richard said were the most reliable figures available.
The officials said the NGO groups that are delivering the aid on the ground are largely independent but acknowledged that their leaders may also have some ties to the Syrian government. Seventy percent of the total international humanitarian aid is going to groups that are supervised by the Syria government, the officials said.
The Syrian regime is not in control of any of the aid but it does control access to many of the communities where the aid is going, the officials noted. They also said the Syrian regime has been more willing recently to allow aid to flow to more areas inside Syria.
"We think they have calculated that they have to pacify parts of the country by letting some aid go through," said Richard.
The senators all said that the refugees on the ground don't believe that the United States helping them and are increasingly bitter toward the United States.
"We heard a visceral frustration and outright anger, especially from the refugees, about the inadequate level of the U.S. support and assistance in their struggle against the Assad regime," McCain said. "This woman warned us that these Syrian children would, in her words, seek revenge on those who did not help Syria in its hour of greatest need."
The aid doesn't have any markings identifying the United States as its source, which could account for the confusion, the State Department officials said.
"Our aid is not being branded. We are not putting flags on the aid so perhaps it's not as visible as it is in other situations. But that is a priority to ensure that it reaches people and that it doesn't create additional insecurity," Lindborg said. "However, the bottom line is that there hasn't been enough."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.