Theater of Cruelty

A trap of neutrality

Syria and the Neutrality Trap. The Dilemmas of Delivering Humanitarian Aid through Violent Regimes
Forfatter: Carsten Wieland I.B.
Forlag: Tauris, (Storbritannien)
SYRIA / Carsten Wieland uncovers a large number of mistakes in the Western donor countries' handling of the humanitarian crisis during the Syrian civil war. He also mentions how rebel forces have deliberately starved local people to attract aid: Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda.


These are the noblest motives that come into play when the decision is made to provide humanitarian aid in a conflict zone or a bloody war. This is at least the case in principle, and for that reason it is an ultimate requirement that emergency aid must be neutral and therefore free from all political considerations and ulterior motives. However, it is not always that simple, and this calls for a number of difficult decisions in relation to Afghanistan.

"It is a well-established principle that emergency aid in conflict zones must be neutral.

The German journalist and diplomat Carsten Wieland has written a thought-provoking book in which he meticulously uncovers a large number of mistakes in the Western donor countries' handling of the humanitarian crisis during the Syrian civil war:

"There have been a number of cases in recent years where humanitarian aid has failed, and I would probably describe Syria as an extreme case," he said over a WhatsApp connection with MODERN TIMES from Berlin. "Dozens of mistakes were made in Syria, and therefore it is important that we use the Syrian example to learn. If we do not make use of those experiences, we run the risk of going completely wrong in connection with the forthcoming humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan. "

Carsten Wieland's time in diplomacy took the form of UN work in Iraq, and based on those experiences, he now teaches conflict resolution at New York University, which has a campus in the German capital.

The firewall

"It works in such a way that there is a firewall between the humanitarian and the political when it comes to emergency aid," he explains. "It is a knee-jerk principle that emergency aid in conflict zones must be neutral. Political considerations must not come into play, and in many cases this can be done. It is common practice for humanitarian aid to go through and in collaboration with a local government, but when this local government itself has created the humanitarian disaster, one asks oneself, is that what humanitarian aid was created for? Because when that is the case, it cannot be avoided that aid efforts are politicized."

It is what he calls a neutrality trap in his book. It consists in a cynical dictator like Syria's Bashar al Assad asking for humanitarian aid, but playing his cards so cleverly that he can use the aid politically to gain tactical advantages in the conflict.

“This was what happened in Syria. The regime in Damascus waged a brutal war against a number of different rebel groups, and because the regime regarded these as an integral part of the civilian population, ordinary citizens were also targets of the warring parties. In the central government, it was a deliberate strategy to target the civilian population, because if you starved them, you also undermined the rebel groups. The board saw no point whatsoever in letting the emergency aid come forward – it actually only served to strengthen the opposition, and therefore it should be prevented."

Especially in the first years after the start of the Syrian civil war in 2012, this was a decisive problem. The classic model is called "cross line" and consists of the warring parties allowing international organizations to cross the front lines, so they can reach the needy population. But Assad simply did not allow this practice, and it meant that when the emergency aid arrived in Damascus, it almost exclusively benefited the civilian population on one side of the conflict.

"There were a number of small NGOs operating in the parts of the country controlled by the rebel forces," he adds. "But there was also the fact that several of the rebel forces were Islamic and believed to have links to radical Islamism, which in the eyes of many Western governments posed a problem in relation to cooperation."

Little by little, it was realized the necessity of getting emergency aid in another way, and that is the method known as "cross border". It consists in bringing emergency aidone from the inside out, i.e. by crossing national borders to reach the areas where the need was greatest, and that was largely Turkey. However, this was not without problems either, because the Turks themselves were part of the conflict. Still holds true today Turkey parts of northern Syria occupied, and the Turks became parties to the civil war because this also included the Kurdish question, which for years has been part of Turkey's own internal problems.

"In many donor countries, you came across the attitude that as long as the emergency aid was delivered, you had done your part," he says. "But in connection with Syria, we saw that the principle of neutrality has in many ways failed."

The politicization of emergency aid

It is all the result of a long development. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War have made the world more complicated to navigate, but if we go a little further back in time, the war and crisis in Biafra often considered to be a turning point – where the politicization of emergency aid really began to set in:

"A year after the rebels had declared independence for Biafra in 1967, the Nigerian government forces had pressured the rebel troops, so that they were effectively closed in an enclave. The situation for the civilian population was critical, but as the emergency aid was provided, it actually led to the war being extended for another two years, so it only ended in 1970," says Carsten Wieland.

Bernard Kouchner fanned the flames with his stories.

He points out, for example, that a young doctor at the Red Cross, Bernard Kouchner. Kouchner later became French foreign minister, and immediately after the Biafra disaster he helped found the organization Læger Uden Grænser.

Obama's red line had turned into a pink line.

After Biafra, there are a number of African examples of aid organizations – with or without better knowledge – helping rebel forces, just as there are examples of rebel forces deliberately starving a local population in order to attract attention and emergency aid. Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda belong to this list.

"What happened in Biafra is undoubtedly something that the regime in Syria has been able to use as a narrative about humanitarian organisations, which help rebels to victory", explains Wieland. "The difference, however, is that the Syrian government prepared by killing unarmed civilians on a massive scale, and we are talking about people who had no intention of taking up arms, and at the beginning of the conflict were even hesitant about the demand to depose Bashar al-Assad. Nor did they have any desire for secession from Syria, as was the case in Biafra."

Wieland puts numbers on the dramatic asymmetry in the Syrian civil war: In March 2020, the Syrian Network For Human Rights, which is in opposition to the regime but probably also has the most reliable figures, counted 226.247 civilian deaths since the start of the Syrian conflict. conflict in 2011. Of these, a good 88 pct. have been killed by the regime and Iranian militias, while Russian forces accounted for a further 3 per cent. Around 1,8 pct. had been killed by various opposition groups, and it is thought-provoking that only 2,2 pct. of the deaths can be attributed to the Islamic State.

Iraq and Syria

We ask him Wieland directly on the phone about why they chose, in the first instance, to focus on delivering emergency aid through the regime in Damascus?

"There are basically two schools of thought when the world community considers intervention in a conflict. One argues politically and the other chooses legalistic arguments. The political camp is based on the assumption that since it was political conditions and military activity that led to the formulation of international law, which includes subcategories such as human rights and humanitarian legislation, then it is also politics that must lie behind the decisions. It was expressed in the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, which is a good example of how wrong this resort can go."


In the event Syria it was the legalist camp that won, and that led to the decision to let the emergency aid go through the government, i.e. the board in Damascus. Most of all, it happened because there was no other decision, for example from the UN Security Council. It is a common attitude among donor states that there must be no doubt about the purely humanitarian principles, and that is the reason why there are watertight shutters between the two camps.

"It is also part of the explanation, that they had Iraq as a precedent", he explains. "Iraq and Syria are two glaring examples, where the result in both cases was terrible."

He calls it an illustrative contrast:

"The US invaded Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Husseins board. From the Western side, it was a purely political decision, which was made without regard to the humanitarian aspects. You can say that the decision was made without regard to what was happening on the other side of the fire wall. In Syria, the situation was just the opposite. The West decided to provide humanitarian aid, but the decision was made without taking into account the situation on the political side of the fire wall. And Bashar al Assad was fully aware of this, and he took full advantage of it."

Will he thus say that Bashar al Assad did they outmaneuver western decision makers?

Carsten Wieland holds back for a moment. Then he answered:

The Taliban have taken power, and although there is no longer open armed conflict in the country, a humanitarian emergency is already knocking on the door.

“Yes, he actually did. He was fully aware that the US and the West had burned their fingers in Iraq, and he knew that Obama would do everything to avoid a repeat. So when the West decided on the humanitarian approach, it was aware that the political or the military was far away."

So when Obama declared that Assad would cross the American red line and risk military intervention the moment he used chemical weapons against the rebel forces, Assad used it to test the limits of.

"Assad just used chemical weapons, and as expected there was no military response. Obama's red line had turned into a pink line, which Assad did not have to take seriously. Humanitarian aid continued, but this is a clear example of the neutrality trap."

Dialogue with the Taliban

We ask whether he is in fact arguing for a breakdown of the fire wall between the humanitarian and the political:

"No, I don't, because the firewall is necessary. It is crucial that humanitarian aid remains neutral," he says. He gets a little more specific:

"There are two radical solutions if you want to avoid the neutrality trap. One is to admit that under such extremely unfavorable conditions the aid effort will no longer be humanitarian. The second is to put humanitarian work on hold, either tactically or temporarily, in order to gain a negotiating advantage, as happened in Bosnia in 1993 and Yemen in 2020. We will never know how the Syrian regime had reacted in 2012, if the UN and the other international organizations had collectively threatened to withdraw."

Wieland predicts that considerations such as these may soon be on the table in relation to Afghanistan. The Taliban have taken power, and although there is no longer open armed conflict in the country, a humanitarian emergency is already knocking on the door. Afghanistan's foreign exchange reserves have been frozen, and the new government is already facing an acute shortage of money to keep a society running. There are still goods in the cities' markets, but prices are rising and large parts of the population are threatened with hunger:

"When the humanitarian aid effort is to start, it is therefore of the utmost importance that we engage in dialogue with the Taliban," considers Carsten Wieland. "The Taliban stand for a terrifying ideology, but if you don't take the board into account and only go after a humanitarian effort, you fall straight into the trap of neutrality."

He sees good reason to compare Afghanistan today with Syria in 2012. As a starting point, Bashar al Assad was desperate to attract emergency aid, because this could ensure the regime's survival. The Taliban are in need in the same way and one can well imagine that they will have a similar view of humanitarian aid from the outside.

"But completely as Assad was sure to have the upper hand in the long run as a result of the West's painful experiences from Iraq, feels Talked also, that they are in a strong position as a result of the Americans' incredibly clumsy withdrawal from Afghanistan. . They are sure that they have the upper hand in the long run, and if Western donor nations step in with humanitarian aid without investigating what is going on on the political side of the firewall, they will be able to use the aid to their own advantage, just as Bashar al Assad did that in Syria.”

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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