Dispatch

Give Me Shelter

Syrians brave bombs and bullets to deliver aid to their war-torn country.

ISTANBUL - As the war inside Syria rages, aid organizations find themselves on the outside looking in -- fully aware of the daily destruction across the border, but unable to directly reach those in need because of the violence. That's where people like Mahmoud come in.

Mahmoud, who asked to be identified using a pseudonym, is a Syrian in his thirties who has worked with a Western-backed international aid organization operating on the Turkey-Syria border for the past six months. With security concerns and bureaucratic hurdles keeping most international aid workers from actually entering this war-torn country, NGOs rely on Syrians like Mahmoud to make the hazardous trek across the border to assess the needs for assistance and deliver aid to the local population.

Syrian "implementing partners" pick up the supplies at warehouses in southern Turkey, near the border, and drive them into Syria -- avoiding major highways to mitigate the risk of being attacked by a plane or helicopter. "The roads are bad because there are many parts of the road that are destroyed because of the shelling," Mahmoud said.

It's dangerous work. Mahmoud recounted a trip to opposition-held northern Syria this winter, when a military helicopter menaced the village he was visiting. The helicopter dropped barrels filled with TNT explosives onto the town. As Mahmoud sought shelter, running toward the relative safety of a basement, he saw two children and their mother standing on the roof of a house and watching the helicopter's deadly activity. The children and their mother did not hide, nor did they point or cry out.

"This is something horrible," he said. "I still have my feelings. I am afraid of the shelling. The people who stay inside [Syria] all the time, after all this, they are not afraid of anything."

Mahmoud's job is to help deliver aid, document how it is used, and gather data on the humanitarian needs inside Syria -- and then report back to his employer. It's not work that's going to be complete any time soon. 

"What is going on in Syria...we will need aid for five years after the fall of the regime," he said. "It is not only the materials that you have to deal with, the destruction of buildings, the material damage. There is something else that has to do with the psychology of the people. Here there is big damage."

As the Syrian conflict approaches the two-year mark, it has left more than 60,000 dead -- and the devastation grows larger by the day. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that more than 850,000 people have become refugees. Inside Syria, the situation is even worse: There are 2 million people internally displaced and four million are in need of assistance. According to Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the U.N. Refugee Agency, some 7,000 Syrians are fleeing the country every day due to the worsening crisis.

About 15 international NGOs -- including big names such as Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, and the Turkish IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation -- operate in southern Turkey, sending supplies into Syria. Private donors fund most of the NGOs, said aid workers speaking on the condition of anonymity, though some receive funding from the United States and European governments. Mahmoud estimated that a total of 50 international aid workers have established themselves in the Turkey-Syria border area.

In addition to private organizations, the United Nations has stepped up its work in Syria. It appealed for $519 million to help Syrians inside the country, which it says would sustain its work through June. So far it has received just over 20 percent of the funds, or about $106 million, according to Jens Laerke, a Geneva-based spokesperson for OCHA. The United Nations has also appealed for an additional $1 billion to aid Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. But it has only received about 19 percent of the funds, or about $200 million.

There are some signs that the aid organizations are growing more effective. According to Mahmoud, one Western NGO is supporting 25 field hospitals in Syria with medical supplies. Two field hospitals receive all their supplies from this one NGO. 

Field hospitals are, in general, better stocked with life-saving supplies than they were six months ago. But they remain ill-equipped to cope with the viciousness of the ongoing war: For instance, in many field hospitals, if 10 injured Syrians are brought in following an attack, there is not enough equipment to treat them all, Mahmoud said. A race to get the injured to a hospital in Turkey follows. But with the trip at times taking two to three hours, many patients die along the way. 

The frequency of aid deliveries is still irregular. "Sometimes it is every week. Sometimes it is one time per month," Mahmoud said.

There are bureaucratic issues to bringing supplies into Turkey from abroad. Purchasing large quantities of certain medicines -- such as powerful sedatives necessary for operations -- can be problematic. Additional hold-ups, such as the temporary closure of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing after a car bombing on Feb. 11, slows the delivery of aid into the country.

"You can't describe it as an open border," Mahmoud said. "Because the Turkish government does not all the time allow the people work. Of course, they hide their eyes at times, but not all the time."

Mahmoud pointed out that there are clear benefits to relying on local Syrians for NGOs. Syrians know the situation and can move more easily in the country, and can be more attuned to the needs on the ground. 

"As the volunteers are from the places in which they are working, they come from different backgrounds and have very good knowledge of their own communities," Stephanie Bunker, a U.N. spokesperson based in Amman, said in an e-mailed response to questions about the benefits of local implementing partners. "[O]f course, they speak the language as well."

However, putting the delivery of aid in the hands of Syrians increases the risk that it becomes politicized. Last week, for instance, Syrians living in a camp near the Turkish border refused to accept the first shipment of aid to northern Syria since the outbreak of civil war. The U.N. aid was delivered by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, an organization affiliated with the Syrian regime that the opposition views as a regime collaborator. "We don't need your aid ... not from the Assad's killers," the residents of the camp reportedly shouted.

Since then, two additional shipments of U.N. aid to northern Syrian have been successfully delivered. But the regime still refuses to allow the delivery of aid from across the rebel-controlled border with Turkey, requiring that all aid convoys make the treacherous journey north from Damascus. The United Nations has refused to defy the Syrian government, worried that such a decision could jeopardize its work in the capital.

NGO workers who spoke with Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity are only too aware of the limitations of delivering aid while not being on the ground themselves.

Identifying trustworthy implementing partners is the first challenge: Aid organizations must constantly ensure that elements in Syria's fractured opposition, or groups affiliated with the regime, are not diverting the aid to support their political agenda.

It's no easy task to verify that aid is being used properly when NGOs can't send their staff to see for themselves. Aid workers try to overcome this hurdle by maintaining contact with networks of activists and local councils inside Syria, and heavily crosschecking and verifying the information provided to them by their Syrian implementing partners.

For instance, 30 Syrian data gatherers spread out across the north of the country in January 2013 to produce a report on humanitarian needs in the area. The report was organized by the opposition's Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), which is designed to disburse aid in rebel-held regions, and international NGOs. The organization is headed by Wissam Tarif, a Lebanese activist who formerly worked with the advocacy group Avaaz.

"Basically, the data was collected by teams where we paired up ACU enumerators with NGO enumerators," said a British consultant to the ACU. "The data gatherers were interviewed extensively themselves on their return by the international assessment experts who designed the method."

Western aid organizations also demand receipts and documentation that funds and materials are used for the specific task for which they were allotted. For example, Mahmoud said that doctors at Western-supported field hospitals must sign for all materials that they receive. One copy of the receipt is left with the doctor and the other is brought back to the organization supporting the field hospital. Gulf donors, meanwhile, tend to be nowhere near as stringent with their reporting requirements.

Western NGOs' safeguards, while understandable, also place them at a disadvantage in winning the hearts and minds of Syrians. Mahmoud agreed with recent reports that the al Qaeda affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra is gaining support through its aid work.

"I am completely against Jabhat al-Nusra, but I have to tell the truth about what is going on," Mahmoud said. "If you go now to any village that is under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra you can find the bread there very cheap. If you go to any village that is close to the one under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra, the bread is very expensive."

"I think this is what makes people sympathize with [Jabhat al-Nusra] or at least respect them. How does al Qaeda have all this money, tell me?" he said.

As international aid agencies settle in for the long haul, however, there is a chance that this dynamic will change. Mahmoud said international NGOs are preparing to stay in southern Turkey for at least one or two years.

This means Mahmoud will continue traveling into Syria to aid his countrymen. He has been embarking on these dangerous journeys long enough now that he even knows the best weather conditions to make the trip.

"I am waiting all the time for the bad weather, when it is raining or when there are clouds," he said. "Because the aircraft don't go in this weather."

Even if the Syrian regime falls, the need for international aid to Syria will continue, he added.

"Until now, the doors to Syria are still closed. After the fall of Assad, these will open and...the Syrian people who escaped will all come back," he said. Only then can the real work of rebuilding Syria begin.

Olivier VOISIN/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Sneaking in the Back Door

Did Hugo Chávez quietly slip back into Venezuela to die?

CARACAS — Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's surprise return to his country on Feb. 18 still leaves Katiana Perez sputtering in disbelief. "I can't believe he's back, that he is alive and well," says Perez, a 30-year-old beautician, choking back her tears. "He is our leader, our president, our father. We can all rest easier now that he's home."

She's not alone in her disbelief.

Javier Rojas woke up Monday morning when a friend called to tell him of El Comandante's return. An unemployed 43-year-old computer technician, Rojas didn't vote for Chávez in the October presidential election and blames the president's policies for many of the country's woes. "The nightmare continues," he says. "How much longer do we have to suffer this charade that he's in control? How much longer are they going to lie to us about his condition?"

Chávez's stealthy return to the country, which surprised even his cabinet and closest advisors, is yet another unexpected twist in Venezuela's unfolding political drama. Flying from Cuba, where he had been in seclusion for two months and seven days after undergoing his fourth operation for cancer, Chávez arrived at Caracas's Simón Bolívar International Airport at 2:30 a.m. Unlike previous arrivals and departures, this homecoming wasn't televised, nor were any photos released.

According to El Universal, Chávez was sedated before takeoff, and the plane flew at a low altitude to avoid compromising his delicate health and an ongoing respiratory problem. Upon his return, he was taken to the military hospital in Caracas. When he was safely in his room, three messages went out on his Twitter account. Besides thanking Cuba, Fidel Castro, and Raúl Castro for their support, Chávez (or someone in his retinue) tweeted, "We have arrived again to Venezuela. Thank God. Thanks to my beloved country. Here we will continue treatment."

Celebrations by the president's supporters began almost immediately in Caracas and other major cities, stoked by the state media machine, which called on the president's backers to take to the streets. The state television station flashed the headline, "He's returned!"

Soon crowds had gathered outside the military hospital and Plaza Bolívar in the capital's center, where they shouted slogans, danced, and sang. A nurse told state television that she had seen Chávez walk into the hospital unaided, eschewing a gurney or wheelchair. That claim was immediately picked up and repeated by government officials.

But discrepancies immediately cropped up. As opposition politicians noted, if Chávez was able to walk into the hospital, why did he disappear from sight? And after the three initial tweets, why was there was nothing more from the ailing leader and no video footage or photos released?

"Cuba or Venezuela, we still don't know what is happening," says Rojas.

Analysts say there are three possible scenarios in the wake of Chávez's return. The first scenario -- which sees the president getting better and resuming his duties -- is also considered the most unlikely. The second is that Chávez will be sworn in for his fourth term of office and then promptly resign in favor of his handpicked successor, Vice President Nicolás Maduro. Such a move would give legitimacy to Maduro and help him in any subsequent presidential election, which would have to be scheduled within 30 days of Chávez's stepping down.

The third scenario is the darkest: that Chávez will die without being sworn in. Most observers are leaning toward the second or third scenario. "We still expect to see elections before the end of the year," says Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with Eurasia Group.

Chávez has never indicated what kind of cancer he is fighting or what the prognosis is. A tumor was discovered in June 2011 and subsequently removed. Since then, he has undergone three more operations in addition to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. During last year's presidential campaign, he repeatedly assured voters that he was cancer-free, even though he often appeared sick and tired during his infrequent campaign swings. He won reelection with about 55 percent of the vote. His current term ends in 2019, but few Venezuelans, if any now, think he'll see this term out.

Chávez's return came a few days after the release of four photos, the first proof since Dec. 9 that he is still alive. Those four photos created more questions than they answered as two of the four seemed to have different backgrounds, suggesting that they had been Photoshopped. On the defensive, the government then came out with a more detailed medical report, admitting that Chávez had difficulty speaking as he had undergone a tracheotomy.

Upping the ante, Venezuelan students started protesting in front of the Cuban Embassy in Caracas, calling for a full accounting of Chávez's health and an end to Havana's interference in Venezuela's internal affairs. Coupled with the pope's surprise resignation for health reasons, pressure has begun to build on the government to give more details.

To maintain his position, Chávez needs to demonstrate "mobility, speech, and to take the oath of office," says Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College and the author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela. "If that occurs, Chávez then buys time to recover and can either govern or oversee a transition in which he plays a role rallying supporters, even if only symbolically."

Meanwhile, Chávez has yet to be sworn in for his fourth term of office. According to the Venezuelan Constitution, that should have occurred on Jan. 10 -- but the Supreme Tribunal of Justice ruled that he could be sworn in at a later date. Now that he's back in country, the opposition -- and even the Catholic Church -- is calling for his swearing-in.

Allies like China, which have signed new deals with Maduro in recent days, are also eager for Chávez to be sworn in to avoid possible contract abrogations if Chávez were to die before fulfilling his legal obligations.

Still, any ceremony would be fraught with problems, especially as it would need to be televised, which would expose the president's real condition and likely raise further concerns about his ability to be president. That seems like something Maduro and the Chavistas seem unwilling to do right now. "They could tell people that Chávez was sworn in during a private ceremony, but that might be difficult,'' says Grais-Targow of Eurasia Group.

Still, Chávez's return should provide a welcome respite for Maduro, who has gotten off to a rocky start and is still recovering politically from a currency devaluation Feb. 8 that shaved a third of the value off the bolívar and that is sure to spur inflation.

The 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader has been hard-pressed to explain why the government needed to devalue the currency when oil prices remain above $100 a barrel. To press its point, the government began floating commercials on the state television station, explaining that the devaluation would help the country rebalance its economy and reduce the crippling scarcity of staple goods.

Besides the devaluation, Maduro's only other initiative has been to press for an investigation of Venezuela's largest opposition party, First Justice, for alleged corruption. A proposal to investigate the party passed in the National Assembly but not before opposition legislators skewered Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela for their own wrongdoings.

"There is no doubt that Maduro isn't Chávez,'' says Tinker Salas, the Pomona College professor. "There is only one Chávez. With Chávez in the country, the attention now turns to him and less so to Maduro."

That could give Maduro time to grow into the job while Chávez gives Maduro his backing. But for a growing number of Venezuelans like Rojas, the president's return is only prolonging the suffering.

"Great, Chávez is here," he says. "But there is no sugar, no cornmeal, no gas. Take a guess what I prefer."

GERALDO CASO/AFP/Getty Images