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Aid Traffickers: The Failure of Aid Delivery in Syria

12/03/2013 14:31 GMT | Updated 12/05/2013 10:12 BST

Faddy Sahloul, the founder of Hand in Hand for Syria, rubs his tired eyes and pulls heavily on his cigarette. From his small flat in Rayhaniya, on the Turkish-Syrian border, Sahloul is struggling with the logistics of delivering aid inside Syria. As if this was not daunting enough, he has four days to pay off a phone bill that keeps the likes of Al-Jazeera informed about events inside the country. Unlike other aid networks, he makes sure that his correspondents inside Syria have satellite phones. The cost of that safety comes at a price: satellite phones cost $3,000 dollars each, not including the cost of using them.

The British-born Syrian's life changed when the revolution broke out. Sahloul, a factory manager from Nottingham, was ordered by his 97-year-old father to deliver aid to inaccessible parts of Syria. How they deliver aid is remarkable. One of his 'fixers' from Homs is described as someone who makes things out of nothing. He had come to Rayhaniya by crawling through three kilometers of feces and urine. One of Sahloul's convoys can deliver twenty-two tons of medical and food aid the same way.

Doctors come in and out of the office, requesting drugs and specialist equipment. They huddle together, puffing cigarettes and discussing a particularly difficult case. Things take a turn for the worse when a doctor from Deir Zour enters the room saying that he needs medicines and water purification equipment due to an outbreak of cholera in a village on the outskirts of his town. Sahloul drinks coffee straight out of the pot and lights another cigarette; it will take days to deliver this aid. He has only just put together another aid proposal for a field hospital. He does not need this.

The tension in the room is broken by a YouTube clip put on by Dr. Abu Hamza, who accuses me jokingly of being shabiha, a member of a pro-government militia. Few doctors trust journalists. We watch an old man in boxer shorts who has clearly lost everything curse Assad with a volley of expletives: "O, you son of a donkey, son of a dog, son of a harlot, may God curse you! Have you not done enough?"

Sahloul laughs bitterly, as that is all he can do: "I have no tears left". He shows me his photo library of injured women, children and old men. It makes me want to vomit. All the doctors in the flat are volunteers, and everyone has suffered torture and imprisonment because they tried to fulfill their Hippocratic Oath. As Sahloul says, "To deliver humanitarian aid is a crime in Syria. We have had aid workers tortured even in Lebanon. We had to close our offices in Lebanon because of pro-regime forces there".

I ask Dr. Abu Hamza about the aid delivered by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to the country. He is pessimistic: "Everyone knows this goes to the regime. Do you think that the Syrian Red Crescent can operate without the permission of the Syrian regime?" Several newspapers, like Haaretz and the Lebanese Daily Star, report that the Assad regime confiscates medical aid from the Syrian Red Crescent. Even the UN figures showing that 49% of aid was delivered to contested or opposition areas are questionable. Doctors Without Borders has stated that international aid was not being distributed equally within Syria, with government-controlled areas receiving nearly all of it. It is no wonder, then, that UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Gueterres's remark that there is 'no light at the end of the tunnel' seems so galling.

Dr. Mustafa runs a hospital in Salma with two volunteers, a nurse and a wanted female pharmacist. "Empty words!" he says, "We have operating equipment but no qualified surgeon! I do the surgery. We have not seen a penny from the UN!" It was the same story from Dr. Abu Muhammad, a doctor in Yamadia, who said that most aid came from the Syrian diaspora community.

Sahloul says that a proposal that took him twenty-eight days to write was refused by the UK Department for International Development within three hours. "I don't even know if they read it", he complains. "NGOs and the international community talk much, but do very little. Why can't they deliver field hospitals on the Turkish border so we can get on with delivering aid inside? What is so hard about that?"

This contempt seems to apply to Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs) as well, particularly the Islamic charities that seemingly peddle verses from the Qu'ran to get donations while delivering very little. One CEO of an Islamic charity that raises money for the country, refused to work with charities inside Syria because he believed that they had allegiances to the FSA. He did not bother to ascertain the facts. This blinkered vision hampers humanitarian aid Syria.

The international community must take the recommendations of Dr. Marie-Pierre Allié, the president of Doctors Without Borders, seriously. Donors must recognize the legitimacy of cross-border humanitarian operations intended for Syria and assist them financially, administratively and logistically. If this is not done by the international community, more lives will be lost and the message to Syrians will be clear. "You [the international community] will help the US clearing the debris from the floods, but you [the international community] are happy to bleed us [Syrians] dry", as one Syrian doctor puts it. This sense of abandonment will push Syrians to embrace groups that the international community does not want to deal with.

Dr. Abu Hamza adds, "The West is worried about the Islamists in Syria, but they don't realize that it is only the Islamists that are delivering aid and victories, not the international community." In such a scenario, the international community will only have themselves to blame.

This article first published in the Majalla.