The US government has reinforced counter-terrorism controls on aid operations in Syria. New contractual terms require US-funded organisations to get special permission to provide relief in areas controlled by extremist groups. The move further complicates aid operations for those trapped in Syria's last rebel stronghold, Idlib, where two thirds of its three million people need assistance.
The top UN official for the Syrian humanitarian crisis, Panos Moumtzis, told IRIN that donors were, in general, backing away from funding all but the most critical needs in Idlib, fearing aid will fall into the hands of groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliate Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS).
A UN-appointed human rights watchdog, Agnès Callamard, told IRIN that counter-terror legislation applied to aid was "out of control" and leading to the "arbitrary deprivation of life". USAID's two largest NGO partners working in Idlib have already run into regulatory difficulties: Catholic Relief Services halted operations and GOAL has paused part of its food programme.
Via email, a USAID spokesperson said the reinforced terms - which specifically mention HTS and other groups - would be applied to all new USAID grants and contracts, adding: "USAID regularly reviews the provisions in our awards to mitigate risks, ensure compliance with US law, and safeguard US taxpayer funding."
While the front lines in Syria are "fluid", and the "presence of armed and sanctioned groups in Syria raises particular challenges", the spokesperson said USAID "remains committed to providing life-saving humanitarian assistance to vulnerable Syrians."
Asked how difficult it would be to get the special permissions, the spokesperson referred to a list of extensive high-risk mitigation requirements. For Syria, these already include 12 pages on vetting of "recipients, sub-recipients and sub-contractors."
A US-based NGO policy specialist, who asked to remain anonymous, said the terms, released on 12 September, showed that USAID was "coming down hard" on compliance, even if the policies are technically by the book. Other NGO officials say the USAID policy is ill thought out and unfairly expects aid agencies to meet unrealistic "zero-losses" aims.
As a condition of receiving USAID grants, NGOs must undertake not to provide material support or resources to sanctioned groups or individuals. Violations of counter-terrorism law can be punished by fines or, in aggravated cases, imprisonment. However, NGOs and researchers say, minor losses and cases of diversion, even involving sanctioned armed groups, have been tolerated by USAID in the past.
Large parts of Idlib - up to 60 percent, according to a Syrian conflict monitor - are controlled by HTS, an armed group sanctioned by the US. A military offensive to capture it by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia appears to have been postponed after Turkey and Russia agreed to attempt to tackle HTS without a full-scale attack. The UN has warned of "catastrophic" humanitarian consequences on an already weakened and vulnerable population if a no-holds-barred attack unfolds.
To limit the risk to civilians from a military onslaught, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has called for HTS to move its fighters away from towns and cities. De Mistura estimated there are 10,000 "terrorists" in the region.
The new terms offer a slightly less stringent requirement for Kurdish areas of Syria, where the US has a military presence. They read as follows:
"USAID/FFP restricts support to all activities in ISIS, YPG/PYD, JKW, and HTS controlled areas of Syria under the terms of its award agreements. With the exception of activities outlined in the Program Description to be implemented in YPG/PYD controlled areas only, no funds under this award may be used to support activities implemented in areas controlled by ISIS, YPG/PYD, JKW, or HTS without additional written approval of the Agreement Officer."
JKW is an extremist group in southern Syria. The YPG/PYD are Kurdish groups in northern Syria that fought against so-called Islamic State, alongside the US.
Moumtzis, the UN's regional humanitarian coordinator, told IRIN by email that the aid community was taking counter-terrorism legislation "extremely seriously", especially as keeping up donor confidence and funding is "vital" for Idlib. He said a Syrian NGO even has donor funding to provide training and advice to other NGOs on donor compliance.
Humanitarian money from a range of donors was still flowing but donors had cut back "stabilisation" funding, which typically goes beyond immediate survival needs, Moumtzis said. He cited cuts in support to public bakeries - donors have funded flour and other support that provided over 150,000 people in Idlib with free or discounted bread in June, according to UN reporting. Moumtzis said he believes bakery projects will need to "seek other funding", as they go beyond the boundaries of strictly humanitarian action.