Aid Inside Syria: A Step in the Right Direction?

Providing humanitarian aid in a conflict zone is a challenge all over the world. But perhaps no situation has proved more complex than that of Syria.

A particularly stubborn and brutal regime, a fragmented opposition movement, and ever-changing alliances among fighting groups have resulted in an operational context defined by irregular access and major security risks for humanitarian workers. Every day, millions of vulnerable people across the country live with food and fuel shortages, homelessness, and an absence of vital medical care. Almost 5 million of those people are in places that are difficult for humanitarians to access. Syrian groups working inside the country have been able to offer some support in hard-to-reach areas and to a lesser degree in besieged areas where the United Nations and international non-governmental organizations do not send their staff.  But there needs to be far more focus on getting more and better humanitarian assistance inside Syria. This can be done by ensuring that the Syrian aid organizations that international actors rely on to deliver the vast majority of assistance are supported and included in all aspects of the design and implementation of humanitarian action. 

Every day, millions of vulnerable people across the country live with food and fuel shortages, homelessness, and an absence of vital medical care.


The conflict in Syria is well in to its fifth year, and the human toll continues to increase. More than 220,000 people have been killed and over one million have been injured. There are nearly four million registered refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and hundreds of thousands more Syrians live in but are unregistered in those countries. Inside Syria, 12.2 million people need humanitarian assistance to survive. But the inability of humanitarian actors to safely move aid around the country coupled with perpetual funding shortfalls have left Syrians without access to sufficient lifesaving assistance.

There is wide recognition among humanitarians that local Syrian groups operating inside the country deliver much of the assistance. But these Syrian organizations are reliant on the United Nations agencies and INGOs for funding that is then distributed to them in amounts that may not be adequate and with requirements that may not be reasonable given the circumstances. These relationships between large INGOs and smaller Syrian groups create human, financial, and technical resources on the ground that are an essential part of the international humanitarian aid system. But the way they are currently structured does not always take into account the amount of assistance that could not happen without the Syrian groups, the danger in which they operate, and the difficulty they face in attempting to document the delivery of assistance through methods designed for easier, non-conflict settings.

Donor governments, UN agencies, and INGOs have attempted to make steps toward incorporating more local and diaspora Syrian aid organizations into their operations with the intent of increasing their capacity and thereby increasing the number of people and locales inside Syria reached with humanitarian assistance. However, in the case of Syria, it is not clear that this capacity-building process is taking account of and responding to the actual needs and concerns of the Syrian organizations on the ground. While these major donors and operational entities know that local partnerships are best practice in humanitarian work, with regard to the response in Syria, they rarely seem to achieve them. 


  • The U.S. government [specifically, the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)] should operate its $10 million capacity-building fund for local Syrian humanitarian organizations as a high-priority project, with robust financial and technical support and timely monitoring and evaluation.
  • In administering the fund indicated above, the U.S. government (USAID/OFDA) should assign officers to mentor and work directly with those already-approved Syrian humanitarian organizations that are the recipients of grants in a way that is in keeping with best humanitarian practice.
  • Donor governments, UN agencies, and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) should make greater efforts to build relationships with Syrian humanitarian organizations based on successful models, to provide more substantial resources for building their capacity, and to support projects addressing needs the groups have identified.
  • Donor governments, UN agencies, and INGOs should require that partners and sub-grantees relying on local Syrian organizations to deliver humanitarian assistance inside Syria include those organizations in the established planning process for the location, time, and types of assistance being provided.
  • Donor governments and UN agencies should each establish a standardized form for reporting on the use and delivery of materials inside Syria so that organizations are not required to complete different forms for multiple agencies whose funds all originate from the same donor or UN source.

Daryl Grisgraber and Sarnata Reynolds traveled to Turkey in March 2015 to assess the humanitarian aid situation for Syria’s internally displaced.

Cover photo courtesy of Syrian Relief and Development.