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Third World Quarterly

ISSN: 0143-6597 (Print) 1360-2241 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ctwq20

Humanitarianism in intra-state conflict: aid

inequality and local governance in government-
and opposition-controlled areas in the Syrian war

Esther Meininghaus

To cite this article: Esther Meininghaus (2016): Humanitarianism in intra-state conflict: aid
inequality and local governance in government- and opposition-controlled areas in the Syrian
war, Third World Quarterly, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2016.1159509

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01436597.2016.1159509

Published online: 18 Apr 2016.

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Third World Quarterly, 2016

Humanitarianism in intra-state conflict: aid inequality and

local governance in government- and opposition-controlled
areas in the Syrian war
Esther Meininghaus
Institute for Architecture, Habitat Unit, Technical University of Berlin, Germany
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This article argues that humanitarian aid in intra-state conflict plays a Received 20 December 2015
crucial but largely unrecognised role in shaping the preconditions for Accepted 25 February 2016
negotiations for peace and post-conflict reconstruction. Drawing on KEYWORDS
a spatial theory approach, it identifies the role of humanitarian aid as Humanitarian aid
not being temporary and independent, but as forming an integral part spatial theory
of the daily lives of local communities and of continuously evolving Syria
structures of governance during conflict. As a result, significant governance
imbalances in the distribution of aid between different geographical international humanitarian
areas, as highlighted in the current Syrian war, threaten not only the law
immediate survival of civilians, but also their future. intra-state war

This article argues that, in the case of intra-state war, the presence or absence of humanitarian
aid represents a largely unrecognised factor in the prospects for post-conflict state building.
Drawing on the example of the Syrian war, it problematises the uneven distribution of aid
between government- and opposition-held areas, its effect on population movements and
local governance. It suggests that, despite officially adhering to the traditional principles of
humanitarian aid as being impartial, neutral and independent, relief in the Syrian war has
become deeply politicised. Amid ongoing fighting and destruction, 13.5 million people, or
more than half the original population in the country, are estimated to be in urgent need of
humanitarian aid in order to survive.1 With the war in its fifth year the Syrian territory is now
highly fragmented between regime forces and their allies, on the one hand, and an estimated
1000 armed opposition groups, on the other.2 While, independently of military control, civil-
ians on either side must be guaranteed access to humanitarian aid solely based on need,
according to international law, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has repeatedly denounced
the strategic withholding of aid by the Syrian government as a ‘tactic of war’.3 Although UN
Security Council Resolutions 2139 and 2165 passed in February and July 2014 seek to address
this imbalance through cross-border deliveries, the actual performance of different aid sec-
tors in the country indicates that these measures remain insufficient.

CONTACT  Esther Meininghaus  esther.meininghaus@bicc.de

© 2016 Southseries Inc., www.thirdworldquarterly.com
2    E. Meininghaus

Framed by an interdisciplinary approach combining the literatures of political geography,

the sociology of conflict and political science, as well as NGO and media reports, this article
emphasises that such aid imbalances risk affecting population movements, while relief is
actively utilised in local governance processes by political and military actors on all sides in
order to gain acceptance and political support. In addition to a critical analysis of the liter-
ature, it draws on a selection of three in-depth semi-structured expert interviews with expe-
rienced NGO staff in the official and unofficial aid response. Due to the circumstances the
article cannot reveal their affiliation or identity. All information has been triangulated to the
greatest extent possible.
Based on this approach, the article outlines three major strands of research debating aid
neutrality vs the politics of humanitarian aid, thereby highlighting the fact that the impact
of relief on the everyday life of locals in protracted conflict has remained under-researched.
In this light it employs a spatial theory approach to analysing the way in which the notion
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of ‘secure’ and ‘insecure’ space for humanitarian access, associated with ‘governed’ and ‘ungov-
erned’ territory, is being produced, manipulated and acted upon by various parties to the
war. By asking how different qualities of ‘space’ are being produced at the material and
ideational level, it questions the roots of the security narrative commonly cited to justify
insufficient and imbalanced aid provision between different parts of the country. Using this
approach, the article highlights the linkages between humanitarian aid and local power
relations in intra-state war, foregrounding how the availability or withholding of information,
infrastructure, resources and services play a decisive role not only for belligerents, but also
for the wider population. In order to exemplify this argument, the article draws on aid flows
in the present Syrian war. Set against the backdrop of Syrian politics and development since
the early days of the socialist regime, it details processes of official and non-official aid across
the country since 2011. Next, it discerns differences in aid provision between government-
and opposition-controlled territory, as well as the impact of this on the ground, which is
found to be exacerbated by aid’s misuse in processes of local governance. In conclusion the
article argues four major points: first, the need to recognise the politicisation of aid; second,
the need for a clear re-separation between development and relief, whereby the latter should
be kept free from interests of governance in order to safeguard equal and fair access to
humanitarian aid; third, the need for a thorough analysis and open recognition of the pro-
cesses shaping the perception of space by humanitarian actors and locals; and, fourth, the
imperative of conceptually understanding war not as a state of societal standstill but as a
period of transformation which sets the preconditions for later peace. In this sense both the
presence and the absence of humanitarian aid emerges as of vital importance to the survival
of the population at large in the present, as well as for the country’s future.

On the literature: the ideal of neutrality and the politics of humanitarian aid
Humanitarian relief occurs in one of two settings: natural disaster and violent conflict. Over
the course of the past few decades intra-state wars have become more frequent.4 Often
signalling the involvement of national governments among belligerents, intra-state wars
have heightened their sensitivity towards foreign interference in internal affairs even for
humanitarian ends.5 Earlier in history more wars were fought between, rather than within,
nation-states; it is the oft-quoted battle of Solferino in 1859 which led Henri Dunant to found
the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) four years later, laying the foundation
Third World Quarterly   3

for organised relief.6 Acutely aware of the need to assure sovereigns and governments of
political neutrality in exchange for the right to gain access to the wounded and dead on the
battlefields, to prisoners of war and refugees, the ICRC endorsed the core principles of neu-
trality, impartiality and independence.7 Access to victims of war has since been formalised
in International Humanitarian Law (IHL), governing the means and methods of warfare as
well as the protection of civilians and soldiers who are sick, wounded or detained.8
Legally IHL applies in violent internal conflict once it becomes categorised as civil war,
or Non-International Armed Conflict (NIAC). In Syria the intensity of fighting and the degree
of organisation among armed groups led the ICRC to classify the conflict as a civil war in
June 2012 – 16 months after Syrians had begun to openly take their protest against the
Ba’thist regime of Bashar al-Asad to the street.9 More than a mere shift in jargon, this classi-
fication of the Syrian conflict as a case of NIAC was decisive, because it rendered applicable
IHL stipulations for humanitarian aid: the right to life calls upon the state to comply with its
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duty to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need. Where the state cannot fulfil this
obligation, it must allow for humanitarian aid from other actors.10 While these parties are
required to obtain authorisation from the state, both the state and other armed groups are
obliged to grant access, secure safe passage for humanitarian personnel and goods, and
assist humanitarian organisations when needed.11 In practice, however, the implementation
of IHL in NIACs has proven problematic in that it relies on the commitment of state parties
– often warring parties themselves – to carry out judicial procedures, and it hence suffers
from a lack of enforcement mechanisms.12 Consequently humanitarian organisations should
adhere to their guiding principles by definition, but face a range of severe obstacles and
dilemmas in trying to reach populations in need.
At present the academic literature on humanitarian assistance and debates within the
sphere of aid organisations themselves can be roughly divided into three overlapping
themes. A first strand of literature is dedicated to internal and organisational questions,
elaborating on matters of logistics, coordination, communication, programming, staffing,
the physical and psychological well-being of aid workers, privatisation, and aid securitisa-
tion.13 On a normative level the ICRC finds itself in a long-standing debate with Médecins
sans Frontières (MSF) on the ethical obligation of humanitarian organisations to maintain
access to vulnerable populations while observing neutrality, or to risk losing access but to
speak out when witnessing war crimes, thereby assuming political responsibility.14 Similarly
tied to the question of ethics, aid funding and the role of the media in diverting attention
towards some crises at the cost of others have also been subject to critical review.15
Furthermore, the factual transformation of emergency relief into development aid, which
often overstretches the mandate and capacities of humanitarian organisations, has proven
problematic and political in effect.16
A second strand of research analyses different aspects of the effects of humanitarian aid
on the ground. In this regard the literature on humanitarian intervention, ie the alignment
of military operations and humanitarian aid provision, offers critical insights into the use of
humanitarian aid for political agendas (the attempt at winning ‘hearts and minds’), increased
security risks for aid workers and the alienation of locals, as seen in the Kosovo, Afghanistan
and Iraq.17 The effects of humanitarian aid have also been questioned from an economic
perspective, noting the risk of aid misuse in war economies, eg through looting by military
forces or the continuous diversion of aid to soldiers.18 In this context humanitarian aid in
conflict can unleash further side-effects, such as the strengthening of militia groups and the
4    E. Meininghaus

prolongation of conflict. In Congo, for example, Rwandan Hutu refugee camps, maintained
with international aid, served to recruit soldiers and divert supplies to Hutu rebel forces
committing the genocide of Tutsis on the other side of the border.19 Equally negotiations
pursued by humanitarian organisations with oppositional military forces can be seen to lend
legitimisation to their claims, while the choice of civilian partners, such as cooperating NGOs,
has been recognised as influencing local power relations more widely.20 In the case of less
immediate development aid, aid conditionality is advocated as a means of forcing warring
parties to negotiate peace.21
Third, another body of literature is concerned with the role of humanitarian organisations
in the realms of international relations and the global political economy. In 2014 humani-
tarian aid increased by 19% over the previous year, reaching an all-time high of US$24.5
billion worldwide.22 With this financial weight and their role in protecting survival, human-
itarian aid organisations are among the most powerful non-state and non-market actors in
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the changing landscapes of modern sovereignity.23 While long dominated by Western con-
cepts of humanitarian aid and neoliberal development, humanitarian actors are increasingly
diverse, including newly emerging influential organisations of different religious (eg Muslim)
and national donors (eg China and Russia).24 In parallel, the motives of humanitarian aid
funding, its politicisation and the effects of growing global competition in the aid market
have been called into question.25 Lastly, the aid sector also includes nongovernmental organ-
isations which do not adhere to the principles of humanitarianism, but which operate in the
same field of relief. As a result of this growing complexity on all three levels, the coordination
of aid and the understanding of its effects in more detail has become increasingly

The production, perception and representation of space during intra-state

war: the impact of humanitarian aid on local power relations
Critically what remains lacking is a clear assessment of the impact of aid – or its absence – on
aid recipients themselves, including local populations in need, internally displaced people
(IDPs) and refugees.26 Hoping to initiate greater debate on these points, this article argues
that, among the wider population, humanitarian aid in intra-state war unfolds two interde-
pendent effects: it influences population movements, and it shapes local governance pro-
cesses. Consequently it regards a more comprehensive understanding of the availability and
modality of aid provision as central to reducing adverse risks at present and strengthening
critical awareness of their consequences for post-conflict state building in the future.
Conceptually peace and conflict studies are interested in the political, economic, ethnic,
religious and social causes, trajectories and outcomes of war, to which spatial theory con-
tributes partially by elaborating on the role of material conditions in the geography of violent
conflict. From this perspective factors such as natural resources, infrastructure, population
distribution and density, or general topography have an impact on warfare.27 While research
in both fields often focuses on principal actors and major developments of war, a factor that
remains overlooked is the daily life of local populations in the country in ongoing violent
conflict – also, but by no means only, including IDPs. However, life does not stop. As sug-
gested by Chojnacki and Engels, spatial theory is a useful tool of analysis in this respect as
it also ‘conceives of conflict as social action and space as both socially produced and pro-
ductive’.28 In this context it can thus help to unravel the ways in which ‘space’ is being shaped
Third World Quarterly   5

and understood during ongoing war both materially and ideationally. Space, according to
Henri Lefebvre, is a social product that unfolds in three dimensions. First, we find ‘spatial
practice’, which is space as manifested in social relations embedded in their material envi-
ronment. This is space as we perceive it. The second dimension of space is the ‘representation
of space’, ie the way in which space is reproduced, for example through description (including
speech), maps and plans. This dimension of space is ‘space conceived’, which helps us in
ordering, organising and navigating space, such as the space of architects and urban plan-
ners. Third, Lefebvre identified ‘spaces of representation’, meaning ‘lived’ space symbolised
and thus carrying additional meaning.29
In the context of humanitarian aid delivery the first two categories of space are of par-
ticular importance: ‘spatial practice’ will highlight the ways in which the physical environment
and social relations shaped by and productive of this environment interact with humanitarian
aid; the ‘representation of space’ draws our attention to the question of how a certain under-
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standing of space, such as spaces that are categorised as accessible for humanitarian aid
organisations (or not), is being produced. It hence helps to highlight what could be termed
‘the spatial politics of war’; that is, the role of space as both a field of contestation and of
becoming amid ongoing violent conflict. Since, within this space, humanitarian aid provides
vital resources and services for survival, it represents an integral part of this field.
Building onto this argument, the article suggest that humanitarian aid provision often
occurs in contexts that spatial theory would understand as states of exception, whereby the
logic of formal governance is replaced by ‘rationalities of survival’ instead.30 For as long as
territory remains contested, formal and informal spheres of governance will coexist and
intersect.31 Typically humanitarian aid operates across both. In government- and opposi-
tion-controlled territory alike, humanitarian organisations complement or substitute services
otherwise fulfilled by the state, such as the provision of food, medical assistance, non-food
items and shelter. In this regard Hall and Taylor contend that any institution – including
humanitarian organisations with neutral intent – operates in established fields of social and
economic actors and is inevitably drawn either into the role of stabilising the status quo or
into advancing social and economic change.32 Humanitarian organisations rely on strategic
negotiations with warring parties for access, local partners for staff recruitment, need assess-
ment and aid distribution, and they interact with populations in need as the recipients of
aid. As a result, humanitarian organisations become part of local governance systems, which
in settings of intra-state war with high numbers of armed actors are highly diverse. By being
tied into newly emerging, hybrid political orders that involve a (re-)negotiation of political,
economic and social resources, humanitarian organisations will, often unintentionally, but
effectively either strengthen or undermine the system in place.33
Of particular interest in this regard is the impact of aid on population movements. From the
standpoint of belligerents, humanitarian aid and the organisations rendering this aid accessible
represent an opportunity to create political allegiances and mobilise support.34 Paradoxically,
despite – or because of – dramatic shortages in funding, humanitarian organisations may find
themselves under pressure to compete with one another for funding and projects, ie delivering
aid efficiently, while aid recipients develop their own strategies in identifying aid and accessing
the best options available.35 Although portrayals of aid recipients tend to diverge between
accounts of passive victims and savvy agents, there is no question that, in times of war and dis-
aster, humanitarian relief represents a lifeline for millions around the globe whose survival is
under immediate threat.36 Consequently, access to aid in terms of resources and services is highly
6    E. Meininghaus

likely to play a significant role in war displacement. However, few studies provide detailed insights
into the actual reasons as to why local populations stay, leave or return, and how they decide
where to seek refuge in times of war. Among studies available, violence is known to function as
the primary push-factor in population movements, while, in their overall calculations of risks,
populations in danger weigh net economic benefits and social networks in their choice of ref-
uge.37 In addition, the availability of social services, such as health and utilities, have been found
to be significant in the decision to stay.38 In contrast, much less attention has been paid to the
fact that, in parallel, the provision of aid can constitute a pull-factor towards areas where vital aid
is actually available, while it is also prone to being utilised by belligerents in order to manipulate
population movement through aid flows.39
As one factor among others, humanitarian aid thus presents a significant aspect to con-
sider in the active decisions of locals themselves to stay or to flee. At the same time it is also
restricted and channelled through warring parties, humanitarian organisations and donor
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interests. While the notion of aid efficiency has gained greater currency in recent years, aid
efficiency does not aim for geographical equality solely based on need that would help
avoid such dynamics. Instead, its interest lies in rendering aid distribution measurable and
economically viable, often giving preference to areas that are accessible and controlled by
groups that do not cause political dilemmas for donors. As a result, as Hyndman notes,
‘uneven geographies of power and influence shape the directions in which displaced people
move’.40 In situations of intra-state war and widespread destruction, such dynamics are com-
pounded by strategic attempts to cut off aid to ‘belligerents’ – factually meaning areas with
populations under the control of ‘the enemy’.41 Seeking to steer internal population move-
ments, belligerents dispose of two means: overt force and covert incentives. Among the
former, warring parties employ ethnic cleansing and the forceful containment or displace-
ment of population groups in their own territory.42 If, as stated by Ban Ki-moon in the case
of Syria, unequal aid distribution is purposefully employed as a weapon of war, then likewise
access to aid can be instrumentalised for manipulating internal relocation and political gain.
Given the prerogative of state sovereignty in IHL, the regime’s ability to channel aid for its
own benefit, ie primarily into government-held areas, is disproportionately greater.
It may appear that these processes primarily affect the physical notion of space – the
availability or lack of aid, and the presence or flight of civilians. Drawing on Lefebvre’s under-
standing of space, it transpires, however, that both phenomena also strongly depend on the
perception of a given space. During war as in times of peace space is a process that holds
multiple, constantly evolving identities over the understanding of which different actors
equally compete.43 One and the same space will assume different connotations of protection
or danger, survival or death, memories and hope depending on the position of the observer
and their relation to other actors involved. For locals, belligerents and humanitarian organ-
isations alike, their assessment of whether a certain space is liveable, controllable or acces-
sible strongly depends on the information available to them – that is, space conceived. In
order to illustrate the risks, but also the opportunities that humanitarian aid harbours on
both levels, the article will now analyse these factors in the case of the Syrian war.

Background to the crisis

The politicisation of aid in the Syrian war in general needs to be understood in the context of the
oppression of alternative structures of power, a lack of checks and balances and state-led
Third World Quarterly   7

development over a period of more than five decades. Governed by the Arab Socialist Ba’th Party
since 1963, Syrian politics have been characterised by a totalitarian mode of governance.44
Enforced by the military and a large network of intelligence agencies, mass surveillance, censor-
ship, intimidation and arbitrary arrests were utilised to oppress political opposition and civil
society initiatives alike.45 Because the executive, legislative and judicative powers were merged,
the option of seeking independent legal recourse did not exist. 46 In parallel, however, social
reforms expanded roads, water and electricity supplies to rural areas and introduced free edu-
cation and medical care, leading the country to show exceptionally high rates of literacy and life
indicators in regional comparison before the beginning of the war.47
In addition to an undocumented number of individuals who risked and often lost their lives
in advocating change for civic liberties and political rights, the country experienced three periods
of large-scale resistance and assault: protests by religious groups and professional associations
throughout the country against expanding state control and the perceived domination of the
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regime by members of the Alawis, a heterodox Muslim sect representing a religious minority, in
the 1960s; the uprising of members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982, resulting in the
brutal killings of an estimated 10,000–40,000 residents; and the unprecedented emergence of
civil society groups demanding political reform, human rights and an end to nepotism and cor-
ruption following the change of presidencies during the Damascus Spring in 2001, repressed
again shortly thereafter.48 In view of the regime’s entrenchment, a lack of political alternatives
and a prevailing atmosphere of fear, a Syrian revolution similar to the early Arab Spring in Tunisia,
Libya and Egypt long seemed unlikely. In February 2011, however, isolated protests emerged in
different parts of the country, and the brutal use of force by secret police and the military opening
fire on protesters drew thousands onto the streets thereafter. Since the beginning of the war an
estimated 470,000 people have lost their lives, uncounted numbers have been injured, and the
country destroyed: by late 2013 three in four Syrians lived in poverty, of these 54% in extreme
poverty, rates which are unprecedented in the country.49 Frontlines continue to shift on a daily
basis and military alliances change equally frequently, not even to mention their relationships
with the civilian opposition.50 As of today the country is divided between four major military
groups: the government and the Free Syrian Army as one of the major opposition forces, with
battle lines mainly lying in Southern, central, coastal and towards Northern Syria; the Islamic
State (IS), occupying the Northeast of the country (with exceptions), but also moving further
west and south; and Kurdish forces occupying large parts of the North. Each of these groups is
backed by a variety of foreign powers.
Amid ongoing battle, the current regime under Bashar al-Asad has continued to employ its
deeply conflictual and highly dynamic combination of the use of force and the creation of con-
sent. As a result, humanitarian aid organisations have been stepping into an environment in
which the regime is seeking to monopolise aid deliveries, while areas under the control of various
opposition forces are undergoing a process of radical transformation, whereby aid deliveries are
needed to substitute for lacking goods and public services. For in the shades of ongoing fighting
and destruction, locals continue to live.51 As in times of peace they remain in need of food and
water supplies, sanitation, education and medical care to maintain their daily lives.

Official and non-official humanitarian response in the Syrian war

Despite the vital role of humanitarian aid in supplementing or replacing local services to
address such needs, the assessment of the reach and impact of aid is complicated by a stark
8    E. Meininghaus

contrast between the official and the actual aid response, as well as by a grave lack of data.52
Both the actual delivery of aid and the knowledge and decision-making processes underlying
aid work are interwoven with the making or ‘un-making’ of space in the Lefebvrian sense.
Problematically questions of official needs assessment, response planning and security
clearances are closely tied to government permission. As for the official response, humani-
tarian aid within Syria has been planned, structured and monitored through consecutive
Syrian Humanitarian Assistance Response Plans (SHARPs) since June 2012. The main coor-
dinating organisation on behalf of the UN in this regard is the Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). In parallel Regional Refugee and Resilience Plans (3RPs) have
been put in place to address the Syrian refugee crisis in neighbouring countries, which have
also implemented their own national response strategies, each under the guidance of
UNHCR.53 In 2015 SHARP was replaced by the Syria Strategic Response Plan (SRP) following
the newly developed Whole of Syria approach that links internal and external relief opera-
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tions within one single strategic framework in parallel to 3RP.54 SHARP represented joint
plans issued by the Syrian government in collaboration with several UN agencies, the
International Organisation of Migration and International Nongovernmental Organisations
(INGOs), while SRP and the newly introduced SHARP 2016 only mention the Syrian govern-
ment as a source of consultation.55 At present 16 INGOs have obtained authorisation to work
with 137 Syrian NGOs.56 Internally the implementation of these plans has been directed by
a number of units, such as the Syria Country Team (Syrian government, UN and INGOs)
meeting on a monthly basis, chaired by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates. Likewise sector groups including local NGOs
operate in most parts of the country, again convening regular meetings to coordinate their
activities.57 In 2014 the UN strengthened the decentralisation of internal aid operations by
introducing a hub system including Aleppo, Qamishli, Hums and Tartous cities in 2014; pre-
viously, aid was officially channelled through Damascus.58
From the beginning and in line with IHL, SHARP was bound to respect national sover-
eignty in that it stated: ‘Humanitarian action will be conducted in accordance with UN
General Assembly Resolution 46/182 and the Guiding Principles contained in its Annex,
under the overall leadership of the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic and in full respect
of the state sovereignty and territorial integrity and the recognized principles of humanity,
impartiality and neutrality’.59 On the one hand, SHARP hence emphasises the prerogatives
of the present government in representing and protecting the state, which are further under-
lined by its explicit demand of humanitarian organisations to assist the government in ‘the
rehabilitation and reconstruction of critical infrastructure and vital public services affected
by the current events through rapid response’.60 By February 2015, however, the current
government under al-Asad and its allied militias were in direct control of only about half the
Syrian territory.61
Despite this severe limitation, the Syrian government has retained the right to regulate
aid deliveries across the country. In terms of administrative procedures any INGO wanting
to work in Syria has had to seek approval with the Syrian authorities since before the war.62
INGOs intending to provide relief are required to closely collaborate with the Syrian Arab
Red Crescent, as well as coordinating their activities with the respective Syrian ministries in
their field.63 Indeed, direct support to the Syrian ministries forms part of long-term pro-
grammes, such as maintaining water supplies.64 In addition, permission to collaborate with
local NGOs must be obtained from the government, while Syrian security services continue
Third World Quarterly   9

to closely monitor civil society activities where possible.65 In general, the Syrian government
retains the right to decide which geographic areas are accessible to INGOs and to grant or
refuse visas for every member of staff on the basis of comprehensive security checks.
Additional requests for permission of entry are to be submitted for every new area the
organisation wishes to access and every member of staff working in a different area from
that originally assigned to.66 Further administrative hurdles include the submission of load-
ing, transportation and distribution plans to the government and frequent changes of
bureaucratic requirements, which are often communicated to checkpoints inconsistently,
causing disruption and delays of aid deliveries.67 Often aid deliveries are eventually permit-
ted, but vital content such as surgical kits is subsequently removed from aid convoys by
security personnel.68
Given such obstacles and the urgent need to reach areas cut off from aid, UN Resolution
2139 passed univocally in February 2014 demanded free and safe passage of humanitarian
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convoys and workers in the country, now including hard-to-reach areas. A joint committee
composed by officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Social Affairs, security
personnel, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations has been established to
negotiate access to such locations on a case-by-case basis.69 Shortly thereafter – more than
three years into the war – UNSC Resolution 2156 also allowed for cross-border deliveries
with notification of the Syrian government, but no longer requiring its approval, which was
extended by Resolutions 2191 and 2258 for another year each.70 Nonetheless, deliveries and
outreach programmes to territory under opposition control or contested areas, including
areas under siege, remain particularly sensitive, and requests to access these areas still
launched in order to protect humanitarian aid workers from attacks are being declined or
remain unanswered on a regular basis.71 In justifying such procedures the government has
argued that areas under its control are safe to access, whereas humanitarian access is being
declined for reasons of ‘insecurity’, implying that any territory concerned – ie largely territory
outside its control – is unsafe.72 Withholding aid to opposition areas has thus become a
military strategy for the government aiming to defeat ‘terrorists’ – a viewpoint which equates
the lives of fighters and those of civilians – and a means for forcing oppositional armed
groups to surrender with no regard for the consequences for civilians in these areas.73
Consequently the government has come to silently impose a hierarchy of lives, whereby the
lives of those living in secure areas – defined by its own standards – are prioritised over those
outside these territories. If humanitarian aid organisations, including the UN, restrict them-
selves to complying with this logic even in cases where, legally, they are not bound to do
so, they will indeed contribute to perpetuating a hierarchy of human lives which no longer
operates on the basis of need, but according to different degrees of ‘valued lives’ – that of
aid workers first, those who can be accessed ‘safely’ second, and everyone else last.74
In addition to its attempt to monopolise the discourse on opposition-controlled territory
by framing it as chaotic, dangerous and unliveable spaces, the government has simultane-
ously and consciously created a severe lack of information on these areas. As a rule it can be
observed that humanitarian needs-mapping, including needs assessments by the UN, does
not delineate even approximate areas of control by different warring parties. The only pub-
licly available source of information that did seek to correlate data on conflict and human-
itarian needs, the Syrian Needs Analysis Project (SNAP), which offered a differentiated and
independent evaluation of a wide range of NGO and media sources in Arabic and English,
was closed down in summer 2015 because of a lack of funding. Since then no reports or
10    E. Meininghaus

maps disaggregating humanitarian needs, aid delivery data and data on conflict develop-
ment according to different areas of control have been made available by either the gov-
ernment or the UN and their partners themselves. Consequently the latter have recently
come under increased pressure through accusations of becoming complicit in government
censorship of vital data. Indeed, although the government is only mentioned as a source of
consultation in the SHARP 2016, it has reportedly been allowed to edit the report, thereby
downplaying the catastrophic humanitarian conditions especially in areas under siege, which
the UN estimates in other sources to concern 400,000 persons inside Syria.75 Only towards
the end of 2015 did the most recent Humanitarian Needs Assessment openly acknowledge
critical gaps in its own assessment, monitoring and planning in Syria, stating that there still
exists no joint humanitarian needs assessment as a result of government refusal.76 Only now
– towards the end of the fifth year of the war – are the UN and their partners stating that
they will aim to ‘capture information at sufficiently granular level enabling more complete
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reporting’.77 It can hence be expected that information flows controlled by the government
have constituted a highly biased source over the past few years. Speaking on the condition
of anonymity, UN staff have so far explained the adherence to compromising procedures
with the Syrian government by the fear of being denied access altogether.78 It is evident,
however, that the government has succeeded in creating a situation whereby humanitarian
actors see themselves as dependent on the governments’ collaboration. As a result, it
emerges that the government has not only implemented far-reaching control over actual
aid flows but also over the ‘representation of space’: it has, practically, succeeded in creating
blank areas on the map, both geographically and in terms of independent assessments of
the humanitarian situation on the ground, which render external actors ever more depend-
ent on the government’s cooperation. In brief, even in areas where the Syrian government
has not been able to maintain military control, it has been seeking to exercise ‘humanitarian
Nonetheless, different dynamics have emerged on the ground, and the process of factual
humanitarian assistance delivered in the country is much more complex. Reportedly an array
of hundreds, and more likely thousands of actors is operating in the country informally, not
only but primarily in opposition-held areas.79 These include a wide range of groups, including
(1) independent activist networks with cross-border connections to different professions,
including medical personnel; (2) neighbourhood, religious or other philanthropic networks
and NGOs; (3) aid delivery carried out by military actors; (4) aid provided through civilian
political actors; and (5) non-authorised INGOs, such as MSF.80 In all these cases the degree
of connection to diaspora communities in Syria’s neighbouring countries or further abroad,
to foreign NGOs, governments and to donors differs. Likewise some actors will operate solely
in opposition-held territory, while others work across both. Furthermore, their radius of
organisational activity may differ in that it can be limited to a very localised approach or
extend across several governorates. However, especially in opposition-held areas, the work
of these actors has remained largely undocumented because greater transparency would
expose them to great risk.81 In addition, the government has refused to officially acknowl-
edge the work of unregistered NGOs, which again have also for this reason found no mention
in the present SHARP.82 Across the country humanitarian staff conduct painstaking negoti-
ations over access with armed forces on a daily basis, and are risking their lives to provide
humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian convoys have been subjected to targeted attacks,
lootings, attempted extortion at checkpoints and aid diversion by both governmental and
Third World Quarterly   11

oppositional forces; official and non-official relief organisations are equally struggling with
access denials and threats to the very lives of their staff.83 Nonetheless, the provision of
humanitarian aid has been largely concentrated in areas under government control.

Inequality of humanitarian aid in government- and opposition-held territory

Because of the complexity, informality and often clandestine nature of aid deliveries in oppo-
sition-held areas, no comprehensive figures of actual aid flows throughout the country are
available.84 It has become clear, however, that the assistance reaching territories controlled
by oppositional forces is not achieving the same levels of financial backing as do the con-
certed efforts of authorised INGOs, including the UN, disadvantaging opposition areas, where
aid needs have been estimated to be the greatest.85
Official aid alone points to severe imbalances. In terms of registered aid flows the Financial
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Tracking System distinguishes aid going to SHARP through the Central Emergency Response
Fund (CERF, UN agencies only) and the Syria Emergency Response Fund (ERF, including UN
organisations, INGOs, national NGOs and the Red Crescent Societies).86 Between the begin-
ning of the crisis and 11 September 2015 CERF provided a total of $212.4 million in human-
itarian aid to the region, of which $110.1 million went directly into UN organisations in Syria87.
In parallel, Syria ERF funding amounted to $80 million, half of which went into the country
itself.88 Between 2012 and 2014 UN agencies and INGOs received 77% of Syria ERF funding,
with only 19% and 3% being allocated to – authorised – national NGOs and the Arab Red
Crescent Societies, respectively.89 While UN organisations and INGOs bundle most of regis-
tered funding, UN and INGO aid has been almost completely absent from IS controlled
territory since 2013, from other opposition-held areas and from areas under siege.90 In 2014,
for example, only 32% of UN medical aid went into opposition-held areas, as did 15% of its
food aid in the first quarter of the year.91 As the main recipient areas of aid, civilians in gov-
ernment-controlled areas are accordingly considered to have comparatively good access to
basic services.92 Although, reportedly, UN and INGOs do pass on a share of their funding to
further NGOs, for the reasons mentioned above data on such aid flows, as well as on aid
going unregistered, are not obtainable.93 The UN itself has recently stated, however, that the
majority of aid is channelled through its ‘regular programme’, thereby indirectly referencing
the unofficial aid system for the first time.94
A partially overlapping gap in assessing aid distribution between government- and oppo-
sition held areas is the grey zone of cross-border aid.95 As for rough trends, it has been found
that, by autumn 2014, opposition areas in the governorates of Aleppo, Idlib, rural Lattakia
and Northern Hama have been ‘largely accessible’ thanks to cross-border deliveries from
Turkey, and Qunaytra and al-Dira’a from Jordan. In contrast, opposition-controlled territory
under IS control in al-Raqqa, Dayr al-Zur and al-Hasakeh has remained largely inaccessible,
as were opposition-held areas encircled by government forces in coastal and central Syria,
Damascus and rural Damascus.96 Such trends, however, allow for neither estimates of the
volume of aid nor its reach on the ground, and they cannot differentiate between sub-dis-
tricts, where needs, conflict-levels and services available vary widely.
If populations in opposition-held areas are disadvantaged in aid deliveries, this is even
more the case for those in oppositional territory in rural areas. Indeed, certainly for official
relief, most medical aid flows into urban rather than rural areas.97 Among NGO staff this is
attributed to pressure on INGOs and NGOs to demonstrate effective aid delivery to donors,
12    E. Meininghaus

which is more quickly achieved in urban settings.98 In some cases this means that even areas
where belligerents do not block aid deliveries, but which are located in geographical regions
difficult to access, remain with little or no aid.99
With respect to post-conflict state building, such imbalances in the distribution of human-
itarian aid are arguably particularly fatal in humanitarian sectors which rely on physical
infrastructure and human resources. Crucially war and violence do not represent the sus-
pension of governance and social order, but their transformation.100 With Jessop et al it could
be argued that the state of war is located in a continuum of territories, places, scales and
networks within which physical, political and social conditions are lived, destroyed, rebuilt
or changed.101 Consequently the presence or absence of aid in the past and in the present
will affect the prospects for reconstruction after the end of war. Especially in a country with
a strong tradition of public service provision, the material disadvantaging of some areas
over others over the course of several years of war reinforces severe imbalances in morbidity
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and mortality, community resilience, and the prospects of post-war recovery. In the case of
Syria’s medical system, for example, targeted attacks on medical facilities and personnel, the
restriction of official aid flows to public health institutions and aid imbalances in this sector
have effectively already led to a fragmentation of medical care along frontlines in which,
again, government-held areas are comparatively advantaged.102 While such strategies may
primarily seek to hinder the treatment of wounded fighters in opposition areas, they effec-
tively cause even greater suffering for civilians. Eventually populations – including combat-
tants and civilians – living in areas where medical aid is more accessible are more likely to
remain in a healthier and stronger condition during ongoing battle, as well as at the onset
of negotiations for peace. Further, reconstruction investment can build onto existing and
functioning facilities more easily than onto largely destroyed medical systems which, in
many areas, have literally been driven underground.103 In this way humanitarian aid provision
is closely intertwined with a population’s physical and mental capacity, and its ability to
survive and to engage with political processes.
Among INGOs active in Syria, it has indeed been a medical organisation, namely MSF,
that has assumed the most prominent role in publicly denouncing aid imbalances between
opposition- and government-held areas and advocating cross-border aid since before UN
Resolution 2165.104 While MSF has acknowledged persistent attempts by the UN to exercise
greater pressure on the Syrian government, it has repeatedly emphasised the need to sup-
port non-traditional humanitarian actors in addition to official aid provided. MSF itself often
relies on independent networks of medical professionals for the transport, and at times
smuggling, of equipment and medicines, and to support formal and informal medical facil-
ities where possible.105 Notably, in the case of Madaya, a town of 40,000 isolated from the
outside world between July 2015 and January 2016, MSF staff have been able to continue
to work during the siege.106 These measures are unconventional and remain subject to
debate; in particular, the trustworthiness of such informal processes is often viewed with
scepticism.107 Nonetheless, innovative ways of tackling these difficulties are urgently needed.
In an environment of high levels of dependence on humanitarian aid, such severe imbal-
ances in the volumes of aid risks further influencing population movements in that, over
time, disadvantaged populations from opposition-held territory may be drawn towards
government-held areas if these spaces are perceived to be more secure and to provide better
services and living conditions.108 Up until now an estimated 7.6 million people have suffered
internal displacement but, even in the fifth year of the war, there are still no comprehensive
Third World Quarterly   13

empirical data on population movements within the country.109 The UN 2016 Humanitarian
Needs Assessment, for example, lists the numbers of IDPs by sub-district, which are often
divided between different areas of control that remain unmentioned, however.110 Again,
OCHA is forced to rely on government data or those of oppositional forces rather than being
admitted to work independently, as it is the case elsewhere. Again, only in the current SHARP,
does the UN acknowledge these shortcomings, stating that it will seek to focus on ‘coordi-
nating the collection of accurate data of displacements and IDP movement trends so as to
inform the humanitarian response’.111 Furthermore, UN and media reports indicate that gov-
ernment and opposition forces alike have forcefully displaced locals in an attempt to enforce
ethnically and religiously homogeneous areas.112
As for cases where locals themselves have decided to leave and then stay or return, REACH
presents a rare case study analysing IDP movements between the city of Maarrat al-Nu’man
and the town of Kansafra in the governorate of Idlib. Corroborating case studies among IDPs
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in other countries, it finds that violence has indeed served as a push-factor among the groups
studied, while, alongside employment opportunities, services in health and education were
identified as pull-factors.113 Findings such as these should function as a warning to reconsider
priorities, especially in cases where aid imbalances do not occur as a result of a lack of access,
but are the result of questionable sourcing of information channelled through the govern-
ment, the prerogatives of aid efficiency and the political preferences of donors. In this regard
a more critical evaluation and transparent discussion of the production of knowledge which
informs the understanding of a given space on all sides is urgently needed. Especially in
cases of protracted crisis and high levels of aid dependency such as this, aid inequality will
re-enhance fragmentation in the social fabric of the wider population. Through its inevitable
impact on local resources and infrastructure, humanitarian aid thus unfolds a long-term
effect beyond immediate relief in both government- and opposition-controlled territory,
which has already been put to use politically.

Humanitarian aid, local power structures and governance

The dual process of seeking control over actual space as well as over the perception of such
spaces also manifests itself in local governance processes by the government and by oppo-
sition groups. As opposed to being blocked, when it is permitted, humanitarian aid is stra-
tegically used for military purposes or to gain political support within a given area among
local communities – and notably more so in times of low-intensity conflict.114 In govern-
ment-held areas the Syrian authorities have shown great care in attributing aid distributions
to their own efforts, claiming at the UN in February 2014 for example that ‘Syrian domestic
efforts account for 75% of needed humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, as opposed to
barely 25% provided by international organisations’.115 It appears that consequently the
government seeks to portray all aid facilitated by SARC – its designated, obligatory opera-
tional partner for humanitarian aid delivery in accordance with SHARP – as governmental
aid; this is notwithstanding the fact that the bulk of this aid originates from UN organisa-
tions.116 While staff of any humanitarian organisation operating in the country are risking
their lives on a daily basis, it is highly problematic when even UN aid has become associated
with the government because of its collaboration with SARC, a concern that led the World
Food Programme (WFP) to decrease its cooperation with SARC in 2015.117 All the while the
government continues to offer free education and medical care where possible and, despite
14    E. Meininghaus

price increases and a highly strained economy, it has sought to maintain state subsidies, for
example on bread, rice and sugar, reducing fuel subsidies only recently.118
In government-held areas so-called popular committees have reportedly been formed
for the assessment of local needs, the coordination of aid and its distribution at governorate,
district and neighbourhood level.119 These committees, however, are not novel, but expand
on the regime’s covert modes of participatory governance practised through its various
mass organisations since the 1960s; they remain under tight regime control.120 Independent
activist networks organising aid provision and medical services, in particular, are also working
in government-held areas, but have suffered an increasing number of crackdowns.121 In
areas under its own control, international humanitarian aid is thus at high risk of being
hijacked in the regime’s attempt to continue a long-standing practice of strengthening its
power through the creation of popular consent. While thus consolidating its role as a service
provider where possible, the government increases a direly felt absence of such services in
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opposition-held territory through restrictions on aid. In parallel, it has been found to depict
truces as ‘national reconciliation’, suggesting that ‘the people “lost hope in the rebels to meet
their basic needs”’, whereas the government will now ‘bring life back to normalcy’.122 In this
way armed opposition groups are portrayed as being unable to establish livable spaces,
even though government-imposed sieges often lie at the root of these truces. Hence oppo-
sition forces are not only pressured to accept ceasefires for aid delivery into their areas, but
the regime is also seeking to capitalise on these deliveries for political gain.
Similar processes can be observed in opposition areas, albeit with a significantly higher
degree of local variation. Other than in cases where armed forces directly interfere with aid
provision or aid is delivered unmediated by local NGOs or networks, humanitarian aid flows
are often channelled through Local Administrative Councils (LACs) or Local Coordination
Committees (LLCs). Both types of bodies have emerged in opposition-held areas from the
start of conflict, and their composition (eg elected or appointed), range of work and rela-
tionship with armed groups differ widely.123 Since the beginning of the war LACs and LCCs
have assumed a wide range of tasks, from documentation of and media reports on the war
to organising protests and acts of civil disobedience, maintaining electricity supplies, organ-
ising waste collection and distributing exam papers to pupils while schools are shut – as
well as the distribution of aid.124 Their structure and decision-making processes also differ
widely and have often remained informal.125
Despite their varied tasks, the primary role of many LACs is considered to comprise the
distribution of aid. As such, the committees have been welcome by the international aid
community as official points of liaison.126 Where present, the LACs operate either supported
by the Syrian National Coalition, or by other donors via ‘implementers’ abroad.127 Since its
establishment in 2012 the Coalition, ie Syria’s officially recognised interim government in
exile, has been seen to utilise LLCs and LACs in some areas in order to gain support on the
ground politically.128 The means to this end are humanitarian aid, technical assistance and
funding channelled through its Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU) serving this purpose.129
While the ACU has assumed a central role in assessing humanitarian needs, Local Assistance
Coordination Units were established to serve as consulting units as a ‘local component of
the broader political strategy for consistency and administration of a post-Assad Syria’.130 In
parallel LACs came to hold 14 out of 114 seats in Syria’s interim parliament in exile.131 Indeed,
donors at times regard their collaboration with LACs as a form of state building.132 Locally
the strength of LACs depends on their resources, which can be drawn from agricultural,
Third World Quarterly   15

manufacturing or industrial production, tax, cross-border trade, the support of affluent locals
living abroad; the ACU or donors; the competence of its members and recognition in the
wider community; and its relationship with other major actors.133
On the one hand, in all their variety LACs have gained experience in local governance
processes and have been credited with maintaining functionality in highly challenging cir-
cumstances. Through their focus on humanitarian assistance and welfare services LACs and
LCCs are filling gaps which military forces often cannot address.134 In so doing, the focus of
civil society organisations on humanitarian concerns has come to be regarded as depoliti-
cising, thereby leaving political questions to other actors – usually armed forces in control
or sharia courts.135 On the other hand, the Coalition has been widely criticised for alleged
corruption, and a lack of transparency and legitimacy, raising questions around its influence
on LACs and LCCs the ground.136 Similarly the imposition of donor-driven agendas which
side-line local needs and capacities has emerged as a source of frustration within LACs.137
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In this light criticism regarding the depoliticisation of LACs only applies where humanitarian
aid provision occurs solely on the basis of need rather than being driven by any – even if
external – political agenda.
More self-determinedly political than the LAC/LCC structure, the two main Kurdish parties
in Syria merged in 2012 to form the Kurdish Supreme Council, which has since become the
main governing body of Kurdish parts of Syria under their control, and includes Local People’s
Committees on the ground.138 Like other armed actors Kurdish groups have interfered with
humanitarian aid deliveries, while IS has been trying to prevent humanitarian organisations
to access to Kurdish areas on the grounds of their ethnicity.139
In opposition areas under the control of radical Islamist forces, and IS in particular, human-
itarian aid has been openly instrumentalised as an integral part of local governance by armed
actors themselves. For example, Islamist groups in Dayr al-Zur established a bureau for
humanitarian relief alongside other administrative units and a police force in areas under
their control, with the aim of establishing alternative forms of governance in March 2013,
four months before the proclamation of the caliphate.140 As in government-held areas, bread
supplies in al-Raqqa, controlled by IS, are equally closely monitored and subsidised.141
Nonetheless, incidents such as the appearance of the IS logo on WFP parcels in Deir Hafr,
Aleppo governorate, confirm that, again, humanitarian aid is openly being utilised for polit-
ical gain.142 In addition, propaganda films depicting the utopia of an orderly, peaceful, clean
and appealing ‘state’ complement the picture.143 In IS-controlled areas more so than any-
where else humanitarian aid organisations face the two-fold challenge of donor reluctance
and attempts by IS to pressurise them into cooperation, which has repeatedly led humani-
tarian aid organisations to withdraw from IS territory.144 If the US-led alliance bombing IS
areas can agree on air raids, this inevitably raises the question as to why repeated calls by
civil society groups within and outside Syria for the UN to carry out airdrops of aid have
remained consistently unheard.145 In contrast, it is noteworthy that Russia does fly air drops
in addition to its attacks on IS – which also target areas under the control of other opposition
forces – over areas under IS siege.146
As these findings illustrate, Syria is witnessing the emergence of manifold hybrid systems
of humanitarian and political governance which, however, do not run parallel but have
become conflated. In this regard, it has been demonstrated that humanitarian aid contributes
significantly to shaping the material realities, political governance and perception of spaces
in which citizens struggle to continue their lives. If the possibility of aid neutrality has long
16    E. Meininghaus

been drawn into doubt, the tragedy of the government siege of Madaya – and areas under
opposition siege like it, such as Foua and Kefraya – have transformed into what Henri Lefebvre
would understand as the third dimension of space: a symbol of people who feel deserted
even by the UN.147 In the course of this analysis two different modalities of aid provision can
be identified: instances where aid deliveries are destined to reach recipients directly through
humanitarian actors, but are diverted by force; and instances where assistance is consciously
channelled through non-humanitarian bodies, at times with the declared aim of strength-
ening local governance. While it has been pointed out that humanitarian aid is inevitably
political in effect, political intent nevertheless represents a clear violation of its most funda-
mental principles. In addition, the ways in which non-humanitarian actors utilise aid demon-
strates that emergency relief is not understood solely as serving to safeguard the survival
of those in need, but to integrate relief in the creation and maintenance of regular structures
of governance.
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In the course of the Syrian war humanitarian aid has become increasingly politicised in clear
breach of IHL and the humanitarian ethos, thereby endangering the lives of both humanitarian
staff and the local population. Amid ongoing war relief has been identified by donors, non-
armed actors and military forces as a crucial means of governance and state-building.
Consequently humanitarian aid has been utilised not only to exercise pressure through denial,
but also to mobilise political support. For locals themselves evidence from other crises suggest
that the presence or absence of humanitarian aid as a lifeline counts among the factors for
locals to stay or to leave, to enter or to return. While government-held territory has been com-
paratively advantaged, the risk of populations being pulled towards these areas if they are
perceived to be more secure and to hold better access to services may fuel further fragmen-
tation. More than just affecting the physical conditions of ‘place’, these processes have an
impact on space: that is, the social relations lived and the lives imagined to be possible in these
areas. Conversely inequalities in humanitarian aid provision that disadvantage populations in
opposition-held areas represent a severe risk to future peace building and stability. Given the
manipulation of humanitarian aid by political and military actors in the country, the acknowl-
edgement of such processes and an enhanced mandate of UN organisations or otherwise
independent humanitarian actors operating in opposition-held areas even without govern-
ment authorisation is strongly advisable. By admitting a limited number of INGOs, the regime
has created a situation whereby no single humanitarian body alone can exercise pressure on
the government by threatening to withhold aid. Simultaneously, it is creating aid scarcity and
a lack of coherent aid coordination that further diminuishes the chances for such an approach.
As stipulated in IHL, however, the government does bear humanitarian responsibility and it
should be held accountable for its breach internationally.
In view of the country’s previous oppression of civil society groups and the strong reliance
on the state in fostering development and maintaining services, it has been shown that
reliance on non-traditional actors in the humanitarian sector requires a more differentiated
approach. In this light the misuse of humanitarian aid in local governance processes high-
lights the dangers of a convergence of emergency relief and development.148 It is the merit
of development, as regards governance, to strengthen institution- and capacity building for
civilian self-administration; that is, for a relative few. At the same time it is the greatest
Third World Quarterly   17

achievement of humanitarianism not to be led by military, political or economic motives,

but to stand in for the survival of vulnerable populations without discrimination; that is, for
all. If it hopes to be successful, post-conflict state building requires both. If, in providing aid
or delivering aid on behalf of other parties, any actor does not provide relief according to
need but favours recipients based on their political conviction, ethnicity, religion or any
other grounds, this aid can no longer be understood as humanitarian in the sense of IHL.
Such practices not only discredit the work of local and international networks and organi-
sations that do uphold humanitarian principles, but they also put the very lives of vulnerable
populations at risk. Accordingly any additional layer of delegating aid distribution to non-hu-
manitarian bodies, civilian or military, should be replaced by direct aid deliveries through
humanitarian actors wherever possible. In particular, airdrops need to be urgently reconsid-
ered as an option.
Seeing humanitarian aid through the lens of Lefebrve’s understanding of space has
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further highlighted the way that humanitarian aid provides resources, builds service infra-
structures and influences local governance processes, which, beyond the warring parties,
decisively shape the everyday realities and power relations on the ground for the local pop-
ulation at large. In addition, a close analysis of the way in which our understanding and the
perception of spaces thus created is shaped has revealed that data gaps are not only the
result of the circumstances of ongoing battle, but also of a conscious manipulation of infor-
mation that has succeeded in blinding the international community. Problematically, this
probably influences the direction in which people move. Rather than being restricted to the
duration of the current conflict, the material and social legacies of humanitarian aid will also
affect post-war reconstruction and development. In this sense the effects of humanitarian
aid are political also in that, where present, they build the foundation for future services and
livelihoods, both structurally and in terms of human capacity. Conversely the relative absence
of humanitarian aid from other areas will disadvantage and further weaken their populations
not only now but also after the end of the war. Overall addressing these challenges remains
an indispensable condition for ensuring even and fair access to humanitarian aid for those
in dire need now, and for their prospects of living in the country in the future.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Notes on Contributor
Esther Meininghaus is a senior researcher at the Bonn International Centre for Conversion.
Previously, she was a consultant and researcher affiliated with the Habitat Unit in the Institute
for Architecture at the Technical University Berlin. She is the author of Creating Consent in
Ba’thist Syria: Women and Welfare in a Totalitarian State, published with I.B. Tauris in 2016.

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BBC, “Guide to the Syrian Rebels”; and Slim and Trombetta, “Syria Crisis Common Context
Analysis,” 57–58.
UNSC S/2014/427, “Report of the Secretary-General,” 9.
18    E. Meininghaus

4.  Sarkees et al., “Inter-state, Intra-state, and Extra-state Wars,” 62–63.

5.  Labonte and Edgerton, “Towards a Typology.”
6.  Brauman, Humanitarian Medicine, 10–13.
7.  Bernard, “Humanitarian Debate,” 1189; and Jacoby, Understanding Conflict and Violence, 13.
Neutrality refers to the abstention from taking sides for or against a party to the conflict;
impartiality refers to the impartial treatment of individuals who are victims of conflict, ie
the abstention from any form of discrimination; and independence refers to organisational
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and ICRC, “Fundamental Principles.”
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10. Stoffels, “Legal Regulation of Humanitarian Assistance,” 518–520.
11. Stoffels, “Legal Regulation of Humanitarian Assistance,” 521.
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12. Pfanner, “Various Mechanisms and Approaches,” 299.

13. Duffield, “NGO Relief in War Zones”; Cooley and Ron, “The NGO Scramble”; Van Wassenhove,
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15. Alexander, “Globalization of Disaster”; Jakobsen, “Focus on the CNN Effect”; and Robinson,
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16. Vaux, “Humanitarian Trends and Dilemmas”; Rigby, “Humanitarian Assistance and Conflict
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Humanitarian ‘Force Multiplier’”; and Chandler, “The Road to Military Humanitarianism.”
18. Jung, Shadow Globalisation; and MacFarlane, “Humanitarian Action and Conflict.”
19. Barber, “Feeding Refugees or War?”; and Lischer, “Collateral Damage.”
20. Okumu, “Humanitarian International NGOs”; Schweizer, “Moral Dilemmas for Humanitarianism”;
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21. Boyce and Pastor, “Aid for Peace.”
22. Global Humanitarian Assistance, “Global Humanitarian Assistance Report.”
23. Hardt and Negri, Empire, 313–314.
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27. Le Billon, “The Political Ecology of War,” 563–572; Buhaug and Gates, “The Geography of Civil
War,” 419–420; and Ross, “What do we Know?,” 419.
28. Chojnacki and Engels, Material Determinism and Beyond, 5.
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Lefebvre’s Theory,” 29, 36–43.
30. Watson, “Seeing from the South,” 2268.
31. Benvenisti and Cohen, “War is Governance”; Arjona et al., Rebel Governance in Civil War.
32. Hall and Taylor, Political Science, 954.
33. Mac Ginty and Sanghera, “Hybridity in Peacebuilding and Development,” 4.
34. Hilhorst and Jansen, “Humanitarian Space as an Arena.”
35. Cooley and Ron, “The NGO Scramble,” 6.
36. Chandler, “The Road to Military Humanitarianism”; Armstrong, “‘Seeing the Suffering’ in Northern
Uganda”; and Cooley and Ron, “The NGO Scramble.”
37. Czaika and Kis-Katos, “Civil Conflict and Displacement,” 402–405.
Third World Quarterly   19

38. Engel and Ibanez, “Displacement due to Violence in Colombia,” 356.

39. MacFarlane, “Humanitarian Action and Conflict,” 557f; McGinnis, “Policy Substitutability,” 66–67;
and Terry, Condemned to Repeat?, 47.
40. Hyndman, Border Crossings, 28.
41. Labonte and Edgerton, “Towards a Typology of Humanitarian Access Denial,” 46–48.
42. Lischer, “Security and Displacement in Iraq,” 95.
43. Cf. Massey, “Concepts of Space and Power,” 16–17.
44. Meininghaus, Creating Consent.
45. HRW, “A Wasted Decade”; Lobmeyer, “Al-Dimukratiyya Hiya Al-Hall?”; and Abd-Allah, The Islamic
Struggle in Syria. On the (albeit limited) leeway of religious groups and the Eastern tribes, see
Pierret, The State and Religion in Syria; and Chatty, “The Bedouin in Contemporary Syria.”
46. George, Syria.
47. Kherallah et al., “Health Care in Syria”; and Meininghaus, Creating Consent.
48. van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria; Abd-Allah, The Islamic Struggle in Syria; Zisser, “Syria,
the Ba’th Regime and the Islamic Movement”; and Landis and Pace, “The Syrian Opposition.”
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49. UNOCHA, “2015 Syria Response Plan,” 2; and UNOCHA, “About the Crisis.”
50. O’Bagy, Syria’s Political Opposition; Holliday, Syria’s Armed Opposition; and Abboud, Syria.
51. Al-Shami and Yassin-Kassab, Burning Country.
52. SHARP data have been subject to government approval. ACAPS, “Regional Analysis Syria: Part
I, Syria, 7 February 2014,” 36. Data on nongovernmental areas rely heavily on the following
four major assessments: UNOCHA et al., “MSNA Syria Multi-sectoral Needs Assessment”; SINA
Working Group, “Syria Integrated Needs Assessment”; Assessment Working Group for Northern
Syria, “Joint Rapid Assessment of Northern Syria II”; and ECHO et al., “Joint Rapid Assessment
of Northern Syria.”
53. Slim and Trombetta, “Syria Crisis Common Context Analysis,” 41. Until 2015 3RPs were called
Regional Response Plans.
54. UNOCHA, “2015 Strategic Response Plan,” 2; UNOCHA, “2014 Syria Humanitarian Assistance
Response Plan (SHARP),” 8; and UNHCR, “3RP 2016–2017.”
55. UNOCHA, “2015 Strategic Response Plan,” 5; and UNOCHA, “2016 Humanitarian Response Plan,”
56. UNSC S/2015/862, “Report of the Secretary-General,” 10.
57. Slim and Trombetta, “Syria Crisis Common Context Analysis,” 53.
58. UNOCHA, “2014 Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP),” 4.
59. Government of the Syrian Republic and UN, “Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan September
2012,” 8; Government of the Syrian Republic and UN, “2014 Syrian Arab Republic Humanitarian
Assistance Response Plan (SHARP),” 3; and Government of the Syrian Republic and UN, “Revised
Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan,” 8.
60. Government of the Syrian Republic and UN, “Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan September
2012”; Government of the Syrian Republic and UN, “2014 Syrian Arab Republic Humanitarian
Assistance Response Plan (SHARP),” 4; and Government of the Syrian Republic and UN, “Revised
Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan,” 8.
61. SNAP, “SNAP Estimated Areas of Control,” 1.
62. Bosman, The NGO Sector in Syria, 11f.
63. Slim and Trombetta, “Syria Crisis Common Context Analysis,” 42.
64. ACAPS, “Relief Actors in Syria,” 3.
65. Atkinson, “Final Report,” 7f; Slim and Trombetta, “Syria Crisis Common Context Analysis,” 42;
and UNSC S/2015/813, “Report of the Secretary-General,” 10.
66. Svoboda and Pantuliano, International and Local/Diaspora Actors, 2.
67. UNSC S/2015/813, “Report of the Secretary-General”; UNSC S/2014/427, “Report of the Secretary-
General”; UNSC S/2014/840, “Report to the Secretary-General”; and UNSC S/2015/698, “Report
of the Secretary-General.”
68. See, for example, UNSC S/2014/427, “Report of the Secretary-General,” 6, 15; and UNSC
S/2014/840, “Report to the Secretary-General,” 15, 18.
20    E. Meininghaus

69. UNSC S/2015/124, “Implementation of Security Council Resolutions 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014)
and 2191 (2014),” 9.
70. UNSC S/RES/2165, “Resolution 2165 (2014)”; UNSC S/RES/2191, “Resolution 2191 (2014)”; and
UNSC S/RES/2258, “Resolution 2258 (2015).”
71. UNHCR, “Living under Siege”; and Parker, “The Conflict in Syria.”
72. See, for example, UNSC S/2016/60, “Report of the Secretary-General,” 8–9; and UNSC S/2015/862,
“Report of the Secretary-General,” 9.
73. Whittall, “The ‘New Humanitarian Aid Landscape’,” 13.
74. Borger, “Syria.” For a detailed analysis of the creation of a hierarchy of lives through a process
of spatial–moral ordering, see Schetter and Prinz, “Spatial–Moral Ordering.”
75. Mortimer, “UN Accused.”
76. UNOCHA, “2016 Humanitarian Needs Overview,” 22.
77. UNOCHA, “2016 Humanitarian Needs Overview,” 19.
78. Lynch, “UN’s Fear of Angering Assad.”
79. Svoboda and Pantuliano, International and Local/Diaspora Actors, 10; ACAPS, “Relief Actors in
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Syria,” 6f; Slim and Trombetta, “Syria Crisis Common Context Analysis,” 43; and Whittall, “The
‘New Humanitarian Aid Landscape’,” 14.
80. Ibid., 15–17.
81. ACAPS, “Relief Actors in Syria,” 4; and Margesson and Chesser, Syria, 15.
82. UNOCHA, “2016 Humanitarian Response Plan,” 4.
83. UNGA A/HRC/27/60, “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry”; Hartberg
et al., “Failing Syria”; UNSC S/2015/698, “Report of the Secretary-General”; and Whittall, “The
‘New Humanitarian Aid Landscape’.”
84. ACAPS, “Regional Analysis Syria: Part AI,” 16–19.
85. Whittall, “The ‘New Humanitarian Aid Landscape’,” 11. See also UNOCHA, “2016 Humanitarian
Response Plan,” 17.
86. The submission of data on aid funding to FTS is voluntary.
87. UN CERF, “CERF Funding to Syria Crisis.”
88. UNOCHA, “About ERF Syria.”
89. Drummond et al., “An Evaluation of WFP’s Regional Response,” vii; and Stoianova, “ICVA’s Review
of NGOs’ Experience,” 18, 40.
90. ACAPS, “Regional Analysis Syria: Part I, 26 September 2013,” 6; and Holmes, “Syria eases Aid Flow.”
91. WHO, “Syrian Arab Republic,” 6; Sengupta, “UN seeking more Ways to distribute Aid.”
92. ACAPS, “Regional Analysis Syria: Part AI,” 16.
93. Stoianova, “ICVA’s Review of NGOs’ Experience,” 13.
94. UNOCHA, “2016 Humanitarian Needs Overview,” 20.
95. Parker, “Humanitarianism Besieged,” 5.
96. UNOCHA et al., “MSNA Syria Multi-sectoral Needs Assessment,” 12.
97. UNOCHA et al., “MSNA Syria Multi-sectoral Needs Assessment,” 68.
98. Interview 1: personal interview with leading member of staff of an NGO operating in Syria, 2015.
99. UNOCHA et al., “MSNA Syria Multi-sectoral Needs Assessment,” 29.
100. Korf and Schetter, Geographien der Gewalt, 13ff.
101. Jessop et al., “Theorizing Sociospatial Relations,” 395.
102. Meininghaus, “Emergency Aid in Intra-state War.”
103. Parker, “The Conflict in Syria”; and MSF, “Aleppo.”
104. MSF, “Syria: MSF criticices Aid Imbalances”; Weissmann and Rodrigue, “Syria”; and Liu, “Letter
to the Member States.”
105. Whittall, “The ‘New Humanitarian Aid Landscape’.”
106. MSF, “Syria: Siege and Starvation in Madaya.”
107. Whittall, “The ‘New Humanitarian Aid Landscape’,” 19.
108. Montgomery and Leigh, “Syria is Now the World’s Biggest IDP Crisis.”
109. ACAPS, “SNAP,” 11; Doocy et al., “Internal Displacement and the Syrian Crisis,” 1; Ferris et al.,
“Syrian Crisis,” vii; and UNGA A/67/931, “Situation of Internally Displaced Persons,” 7.
110. UNOCHA, “2016 Humanitarian Needs Overview,” 5.
Third World Quarterly   21

111. UNOCHA, “2016 Humanitarian Response Plan,” 24.

112. UNGA A/HRC/23/58, “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry,” 22f;
UNSC S/2015/813, “Report of the Secretary-General,” 5; UN, “Report of the Independent
International Commission of Inquiry,” 5–6; Khodr, “Syria Deal”; Chulov and Mahmoud, “Syrian
Sunnis”; and AI, “‘We had Nowhere Else to Go’.”
113. REACH, “Displacement Patterns.”
114. UNOCHA et al., “MSNA Syria Multi-sectoral Needs Assessment,” 26; and ACAPS, “Relief Actors
in Syria,” 9.
115. Mission Permanente de la Republique Arabe Syrienne, “Comments on UN Report ‘Living under
116. SARC’s impartiality on the ground has been subject to debate. See Parker, “The Conflict in
Syria,” 4; Slim and Trombetta, “Syria Crisis Common Context Analysis,” 42; and Attar, “The Syrian
Arab Red Crescent refutes Allegations.” Over time SARC has been facing increasing internal
challenges, especially from leading staff, regarding uneven aid delivery, with some leading
members calling for the organisation to exercise greater pressure on the government in order
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to gain greater access to opposition-held areas. Interview 2: personal interview with leading
member of staff of an NGO operating in Syria, 2015. In the meantime SARC’s network of
more than 10,000 volunteers has suffered violent attacks in government- and opposition-
held areas alike, leading to the tragic deaths of 40 volunteers by February 2015. Svoboda
and Pantuliano, International and Local/Diaspora Actors, 11; ACAPS, “Relief Actors in Syria,” 5;
and ICRC, “Syria Crisis,” 3.
117. Drummond et al., “An Evaluation of WFP’s Regional Response,” 16.
118. ACAPS, “Relief Actors in Syria,” 8; Martinez and Eng, “Asad’s Bread Problem”; and Butter, Syria’s
119. ACAPS, “Relief Actors in Syria,” 1, 10.
120. Meininghaus, Creating Consent; and Ahmad, “‫ في المقابل نقاط قوة صانت البلد من االنهيار والفتنة‬..‫خلخلة قيم‬.”
121. Whittall, “The ‘New Humanitarian Aid Landscape’,” 16.
122. CIA Open Source Centre, “Syria,” 1.
123. Khoury, “Losing the Syrian Grassroots,” 5–6; and Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, “Local
Administration Structures,” 17.
124. Khalaf et al., Activism in Difficult Times, 9; Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, “Local
Administration Structures,” 15; Svoboda and Pantuliano, International and Local/Diaspora
Actors, 17; and Khoury, “Losing the Syrian Grassroots,” 1–2.
125. Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, “Local Administration Structures,” 21–22; and ACAPS, “Relief
Actors in Syria,” 8.
126. Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, “Local Administration Structures,” 15.
127. Khalaf, “Governance without Government in Syria,” 52.
128. Whittall, “The ‘New Humanitarian Aid Landscape’,” 19; and Khalaf, “Governance without
Government in Syria,” 51. The Coalition was founded in Doha in November 2012, replacing
the former National Council as the main umbrella organisation of the opposition, which had
become dysfunctional and was regarded as unrepresentative. The National Council became
part of the Coalition before withdrawing in protest against negotiations with the Asad regime
during Geneva II. Despite its wide international recognition, a range of internal opposition
groups have remained outside the National Coalition. Its actual support at grassroots level is
impossible to gauge. See, for example, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “National
Coalition”; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “The Syrian National Council”; and
“Syrian National Council Quits Opposition Bloc.”
129. Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, “Local Administration Structures,” 4.
130. Ibid.
131. Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, “Local Administration Structures,” 24.
132. Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, “Local Administration Structures,” 15.
133. Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, “Local Administration Structures,” 16; and Khoury, “Losing
the Syrian Grassroots,” 6ff.
134. Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, “Local Administration Structures,” 17.
22    E. Meininghaus

Khalaf, “Governance without Government in Syria,” 54.
Ibid; Whittall, “The ‘New Humanitarian Aid Landscape’,” 18; and Svoboda and Pantuliano,
International and Local/Diaspora Actors, 21.
ICG, Syria’s Kurds.
UNOCHA et al., “MSNA Syria Multi-sectoral Needs Assessment,” 26.
Sayigh, “The Syrian Opposition’s Leadership Problem,” 19.
Caris and Reynolds, ISIS Governance in Syria, 22.
Miles and Holmes, “WFP Alarmed.”
Lewis, “The Utopia of Isis.”
Interview 3: personal interview with leading member of staff of an NGO operating in Syria,
See, for example, Haid, “Airdropping Aid to Starving Syrians.”
Goldman, “Airdrops called too Risky.”
Gutman, “Madaya was Starving”
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