In northeast Syria, remaining aid workers face 'highly volatile' situation

A scene from a medical evacuation in Douma, Syria. Photo by: REUTERS / Bassam Khabieh

NEW YORK — The security situation in northeast Syria has deteriorated rapidly since last week, displacing 160,000 to 275,000 people, depending on estimates, and pushing international nonprofits to scale back or end their emergency response operations.

Several international NGOs are still maintaining the bulk of their response work, even as unpredictable security concerns mean they have to recalibrate their operations each day.

“CARE is still working, delivering emergency aid to vulnerable populations affected by the violence in northeast Syria. One of the biggest challenges at the moment is the highly volatile security situation,” said Fatima Azzeh, a spokesperson for CARE International. “Conflict is posing a huge challenge to staff movement and reaching vulnerable and displaced civilians.”

"When MSF pulls out, they are usually the last ones to leave the place. That gives you an idea of how bad the picture is. It is very serious.”

— INGO representative

Save the Children has relocated its approximate 10 international staff, but still has about 500 national staff operational in northeast Syria. The organization is expecting response work to grow more complicated when winter hits in the next few months. But it is also challenging to look beyond the next several days, explained Amjad Yamin, a spokesperson for Save the Children.

“We do not know what our situation is going to be on the ground. Are there going to be more IDPs? The lack of predictability is the biggest worry we have right now,” Yamin explained. “We have to do security reviews every day, checking on where are our staff, where are they going to be able to reach. This is where the vast majority of the challenges are coming from.”

Both Turkish and Syrian military forces have advanced in northeastern Syria since Oct. 9, when U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly announced that he was withdrawing American troops from the Kurdish-controlled region. More civilian displacements are expected, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Already, about two-thirds of the 3 million people living in the region were in need of humanitarian assistance before the military offensives, according to OCHA estimates.  

On Thursday,  U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced he had brokered a 120-hour ceasefire deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which would allow the withdrawal of Kurdish forces.

U.N. chief António Guterres issued a statement on Thursday welcoming “any effort to de-escalate the situation and protect civilians.” The statement also issued a caveat: “There is still a long way to go for an effective solution to the crisis in Syria,” Guterres said.

"It is just chaotic … the worry and fear and uncertainty and not knowing which troops are coming in, which troops are leaving, it is complete chaos," said Karl Schembri, regional media adviser in the Middle East to the Norwegian Refugee Council

"Syrians themselves are at risk, Syrian aid workers and some of them have fled with their families to other places. There are still some essential services going on, but nowhere near the extent of needs. Still, some medical services are being provided, but we know that hospitals have been hit and targeted," Schembri continued.

Via Twitter.

Mercy Corps and Médecins Sans Frontières recently announced that they were evacuating international staff and suspending the majority of their operations from the region. “We cannot operate at scale until we gain the assurances and acceptance of all parties to the conflict that we can operate safely,” Robert Onus, MSF emergency manager for Syria, said in a statement.

Other large international NGOs have also withdrawn international staff and have ceased their operations in the region, but have not publicly announced their decision due to security concerns, one INGO representative told Devex.

"When MSF pulls out, they are usually the last ones to leave the place. That gives you an idea of how bad the picture is. It is very serious," the INGO representative said.

There’s also concern that remaining Syrian aid workers could be detained or arrested by the Syrian government for operating in an area that has not been under Syrian government control, the representative said. Some national staff at organizations such as Save the Children have also been displaced, according to Yamin.

Save the Children is focused on three priorities, Yamin said. First, providing basic needs, such as food rations, for displaced families. They are also providing psychological aid for families that were “not expecting this,” according to Yamin, who added that “people are in shock.”

The third area of concern is looking ahead to essential needs for the winter, such as blankets and plastic covers for tents.

“I would like to tell you we are focusing on this for the next six months, but because of what the situation looks like on the ground I can only look forward for a week or 10 days,” Yamin said.

“We do not know if this is what people are going to need a month from now. We know they need food, we know they need shelter, and we have to think about what they are going to do when the temperature drops.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.