How Food Aid Is Being Used As A Weapon In Syria

The civil war in Syria has left millions of people dependent on food aid. But delivering that aid to rebel-held areas is an enormous challenge. And food aid is being used as a weapon to control the population in both government and rebel territory.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The civil war in Syria has left four million people dependent on food aid. That's what Muhannad Hadi, the World Food Program's emergency coordinator for Syria, told us on the program last week, and he expects that number to grow to seven million by the end of this year.

The ongoing conflict between the government of Bashar al-Assad and anti-government fighters means residents constantly move in search of security and basic necessities. And many groups, including radical Islamists, are winning over those communities by providing food.

NPR's Deborah Amos has covered the Syrian civil war since it began, and joins me in the studio. And Deb, it's great when your travels bring you home for a bit and we can see you. Thanks for coming in.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: It's very nice to be in the studio.

GREENE: Give me a sense of how desperate Syrians are for food right now?

AMOS: No one is starving. It would be wrong to think that. But there are shortages. There are many Syrians who are now so poor that their staple diet is bread, which is why people would risk their lives to stand in a bread line, because they can't afford anything else. And in places that are controlled by the rebels, it is very, very difficult for international aid agencies - almost impossible in some areas - to get food aid to those places, and these are the places where people are most in need.

GREENE: Why isn't it getting to them?

AMOS: The food aid goes through the United Nations, that has many offices inside Damascus, the capital of Syria. And that aid goes through the government. They have not wanted that food aid to go to contested areas, rebel-held areas, and the international system doesn't really promote something called cross-border aid.

GREENE: Cross-border aid. Make sure we understand what that is, here.

AMOS: So what happens is if the UN wants to deliver aid to a rebel-held area, it has to get government permission. That has happened rarely. There were two cases earlier this year where aid was moved from Latakia on the coast, driven all the way up to the Turkish border on the Syrian side, and it was delivered to refugee camps that were in sight of Turkey. So logistically, it would've been easier, cheaper, safer, to bring those trucks from Turkey into Syria.

GREENE: Just drive a truck across the border.

AMOS: Just drive a truck. But it...

GREENE: But it can't happen.

AMOS: ...instead it can't happen. No government really wants to break that system.

GREENE: They have their own conflicts, countries like Turkey, and they don't want the UN coming in into their borders and deciding who's going to get food.

AMOS: And not asking them.

GREENE: Well, the people who are in rebel-controlled areas, who is getting food to them?

AMOS: Well, the rebels have taken it upon themselves in places that they control to be the humanitarian aid organizations, along with Syrian civilians who have set up shop. But I can tell you that the most radical Islamist guerilla rebel groups have begun a hearts and minds campaign. They are fighting for an Islamist state in Syria. They're very open about that.

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

AMOS: And how to convince people to come with them is to be the deliverer of aid.

GREENE: And is that enough, in some cases, to turn people?

AMOS: In the beginning it was, because these groups were less likely to loot, less likely to steal, more likely to give bread fairly. In the last few months, there have been some additions that you also have to swallow with your bread, and that is Sharia law, and people are rebelling. So food isn't enough to turn a population pro-al-Qaida in Syria, because the package is much bigger.

GREENE: What are governments like the United States and others doing about this?

AMOS: The United States, USAID, is actually running a covert, cross-border aid operation. It is rather large on the Turkish border, smaller on the Jordanian border. And they have partners, some rather large international aid agencies that take their names off the trucks. There are no American flags on any of this aid, and it goes in every day across the Turkish border, and they have Syrian partners who distribute that aid in the north.

There are times when Islamist groups take credit for that bread that comes, because the Americans don't want to brand it. There is a bit of an argument in Congress, in the White House, about: Should we be branding this aid? But the concerns, of course, with everybody who is looking at this as a humanitarian disaster, is any way you that can get flour into Syria stops one Syrian from crossing the border and becoming a refugee.

GREENE: Deb, it's great to see you. Thanks for coming in.

AMOS: Thank you.

GREENE: That's NPR's Deb Amos.

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