As one of the most staggering humanitarian crises in recent decades continues to rapidly accelerate in Syria, the ability to effectively deliver food aid to vulnerable populations is paramount. 4 million Syrians cannot access basic foods according to the World Food Programme, and escalating tensions will not help agricultural production.
Food is also part of the story that increased Syria’s overall vulnerability in the first place. A massive drought coupled with failed agricultural policies caused one of the worst crop failures in the history of the fertile crescent in 2009, prompting widespread internal migration from Syria’s countryside to urban areas. Syria was also part of a larger tapestry of Arab Spring nations that felt a harsh sting from high wheat prices in 2011 caused by severe droughts in China and Russia–two food-related stressors perhaps enhanced by a warming world.
Now, with international conflict looming on the horizon and the humanitarian emergency characterized as the “biggest displacement crisis of all time,” what does the future hold for Syria’s food aid operations?
Two Vital Lessons: Turkey’s Engagement in Somalia
Just weeks ago, the Rwandan genocide was held as an analog for the severity of the Syria’s complex emergency, but now, the international community does not have a recent historical frame of reference. That said, Turkey’s significant humanitarian engagement in the complex emergency of Somalia yields two very important lessons that are transferable to Syria’s food aid future.
Turkey’s humanitarian soft power has been growing dramatically in recent years. Both the Turkish government and Turkish Red Crescent active on the ground in Somalia, perhaps as geopolitical and diplomatic instrument to help cultivate close ties with Africa’s emerging markets. Recent incidents from Turkey’s Somalia efforts are important lessons for the international community’s future efforts in Syria.
Lesson 1: Food Aid Geopolitics Can Be Very Local
The geopolitics of food aid is not just a topic at the national and transnational level. It can bleed into the trenches of the most difficult, on-the-ground humanitarian work. Last month, the semi-autonomous Somali state of Puntland actually rejected a maritime food aid shipment from the Turkish Red Crescent after it was deemed by Puntland officials as being “politicized.” Tensions between Puntland and Mogadishu are rising, and as pointed out by Today’s Zaman journalist Mahir Zeynalov, “Working in a federal country of autonomous states, militant groups and boiling [a] political atmosphere requires extra caution even in humanitarian operations that include aid distribution and lifting people out of poverty.”
Similarly, in Syria, as recently as July, food aid distribution was characterized as having complex political and logistical dimensions hampered distribution to the end user. National Public Radio Syria correspondent Deborah Amos described how food aid shipments from the international community must be centralized through the government in Damascus, and how cross-border aid operations into rebel-held areas is not promoted by the international community. USAID has recently undertaken covert food distribution operations which some Islamist groups are taking credit for. Yet, as pointed out by Amos, despite these intensely complex and local sensitivities, directing food aid to its end destination is exceptionally important as “any way you that [you] can get flour into Syria stops one Syrian from crossing the border and becoming a refugee.”
Lesson 2: Safety of the Food Aid Distributors is Critical
Humanitarian operations in Somalia and Syria have one commonality–they are extremely dangerous for humanitarians, who are a main cog in the food aid distribution system. In Somalia, Turkey’s humanitarian operations have brought the ire of local Islamist groups who view humanitarian soft power as a front for Western interference. In April, a Red Crescent humanitarian convoy was bombed in Mogadishu. In October 2011, a large attack was directed solely at Turkish humanitarian activities.
In Syria, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other NGOs will be major players in distributing the World Food Programme’s increased nutritional aid efforts. Over 20 Red Crescent workers have been killed since the beginning of the Syria conflict, and Red Crescent staff are making contingency plans for themselves if and when international conflict erupts. As the British Red Cross stated in an impassioned appeal on World Humanitarian Day, the Syrian Arab Red Cross “delivers critical life-saving assistance and aid to the people who need it most, when and where access is possible. Its neutrality is key to delivering humanitarian assistance to over two million people every month and enabling it to provide assistance in areas that are otherwise inaccessible to much of the population.”
In summary, Turkey’s current experience in Somalia holds two important lessons for what the future may hold for Syrian food aid. There are very real on-the-ground geopolitical realities when it comes to aid distribution. And the humanitarian distributors of that aid are, and will, continue to work under extremely dangerous conditions, yet they will be a focal point for effective delivery to the end user.
Over the coming weeks, months, and even years, the international community will likely need a food aid strategy of epic proportions for Syria. As operations scale up, and these two lessons must be kept in mind at all times.
[Via: the Examiner, Center for Climate and Security, InterAction.org, BBC, EurasiaNet, Al Jazeera English, Garowe Online, British Red Cross.]