The politicisation of aid has been a longstanding issue ever since the start of the Syrian conflict, with reports highlighting the failure of humanitarian principles and the role of aid funding in exacerbating the war economy and prolonging the conflict. The recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria, which has caused immense human suffering and widespread destruction, is yet another tragic example of how politicising aid can lead to increased death tolls and further threats to millions of lives. Aid agencies face criticism for their slow and insufficient response to the crisis while the government of Syria (GoS) has been accused of instrumentalizing and monopolising aid. The bureaucratic procedures of the UN-led humanitarian system have only added to the difficulties.
Politics impinges on emergency response in northwest Syria
The dual function of governments as both donors to the humanitarian system and members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) makes political action and humanitarian response inseparable, and sometimes dissonant. The effectiveness of aid agency operations in Syria is contingent on the political positions and strategies of donor governments in an environment where geopolitics and governance structures are constantly changing. As such, the priorities and agendas of UN humanitarian agencies and the UNSC do not always align.
The uncertainty surrounding the maintenance of cross-border aid to northwest Syria illustrates how political tensions between UNSC members impedes UN aid operations, with UN humanitarian leaders urging council members to put aside political calculations so they can get aid to those most in need. As a result of Russia’s veto power in the UNSC, three previously authorised border crossings into northeast Syria have been closed, leaving northwest Syria entirely dependent on the renewal of a six-month UNSC resolution keeping the Bab Al Hawa crossing open.
This decision has made it extremely difficult for more than 4.1m people to receive humanitarian aid and survive. Channelling aid through one border crossing is a highly political matter, which has rendered emergency response to northwest Syria slow, precarious, and insufficient to almost non-existent.
This was most notable in the wake of the recent earthquake. Despite confirmation by international jurists of the existence of avenues outside of the Security Council for UN aid to reach Syrians, the UN’s strict adherence to “narrow and bitterly contested” interpretations of international law means that cross-border aid operations remain severely restricted more than two weeks into the crisis. As a result, already-vulnerable Syrians are left without basic needs and livelihoods, making them susceptible to serious threats to their lives.
The tension between humanitarian and political action
February’s natural disaster has further highlighted the longstanding tension between humanitarian and political action in Syria.
Prior to the earthquake, the international community’s focus on the humanitarian aspects of the conflict both obscured its root causes and highlighted the inconsistency and impotence of efforts to find a long-term political solution. A 2016 report evaluating the response of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to the Syrian crisis showed that humanitarian action had been used as a substitute for political action, indicating a lack of political will or strategic patience on the part of the international community and donor countries to find a political solution to the conflict at an early stage.
Moreover, the normalisation of the conflict – due to its long duration, severity, and scale – had already detached the international community from the emergency response before the earthquake, and justified donor fatigue and premature calls for refugee return, early recovery, stabilisation or reconstruction.
The lack of an effective nexus between humanitarian and political action, coupled with international polarisation and politicisation of aid, has restricted the ability to make swift decisions to save lives in Syria and created challenges for the role of aid and development funding.
A report by the Syrian Legal Development Programme found that in 2019–20 almost half of UN procurement funding was awarded to risky or highly risky suppliers in GoS-controlled areas, some of whom had committed war crimes and human rights violations. Additionally, at least 23% of the funding went to companies with owners sanctioned by the US, EU, or the UK. Furthermore, reports from Human Rights Watch have detailed the co-optation and instrumentalization of humanitarian aid, development, and reconstruction by the GoS, resulting in serious issues related to human rights, restricted access, corruption, abuse, and the war economy. 
These issues highlight the need to open all cross borders and crosslines and to find alternatives to ensure that emergency aid reaches those in need while preventing the GoS from further monopolising and instrumentalizing aid.
Where to next?
In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake – and with the myth percolating that the Syrian conflict is over – it is more important than ever to address the politicisation and instrumentalization of aid and to find new opportunities for emergency response, as well as a political solution.
The acknowledgement and apology by the UN aid chief Martin Griffiths regarding the shortcomings of aid delivery in northwest Syria after the earthquake could be seen as a diplomatic statement, but it may also provide an opportunity to increase pressure on the international community and the UN to address past failures.
Donor governments and aid agencies must work to rebuild legitimacy and trust and play an effective role in filling the vacuum stemming from the lack of reliable political action and failing diplomacy. To be effective, aid agencies and donors must leverage their positions to promote transparency, conditionality and accountability. It is essential that these actors have the political will and strategic patience to make a real investment in addressing the root causes and drivers of the violent conflict prior to the earthquake and mitigate the impact of decades of instability, impoverishment and displacement.
It is important for aid agencies to navigate the tension between political and humanitarian action and find ways to address the complex and ongoing suffering of the Syrian people. This requires a strategic and moral rethinking of how to move forward with aid and development, given that the GoS continues in power and has control of significant territories. Ultimately, the responsibility falls on aid agencies to find ways to make their response fair, substantial and efficient.
To achieve this, decision-making processes, resource allocations and accountability frameworks must be made more ethical, principled and human rights based. Monitoring and evaluation mechanisms should be leveraged to hold all actors accountable, not only to donor governments and taxpayers but to the Syrian people, who have been abandoned for the last twelve years.
 The issue of cross-border aid has been used politically by Russia to return control over humanitarian operations to Damascus. For more details on cross-border operations see Mohamad Katoub “UN cross-border aid hangs in the balance as politics and need collide”, Syria Direct, June 29, 2022, accessed February 2023.
 A letter published in 2023 and endorsed by 16 pre-eminent international jurists confirmed that there is no legal barrier to UN cross-border operations in Syria without a Security Council Mandate. For more details see Cross Border Aid into Syria is Legal, https://www.crossborderislegal.org/, accessed February 2023.
 For more details see Annie Sparrow, “How UN humanitarian aid has propped up Assad. Syria shows the need for reform”, Foreign Affairs, September 20, 2018; Reinoud Leenders and Kholoud Mansour, “Humanitarianism, state sovereignty, and authoritarian regime maintenance in the Syrian war”, Political Science Quarterly, June 2018; Natasha Hall, “Rescuing aid in Syria”, Center for Strategic & International Studies, February 2022.