Politics & Policy


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. In a rare show of unity, the UN Security Council has called on the Syrian government to allow immediate unfettered access for humanitarian aid shipments to millions of needy civilians. The council's statement says aides should be allowed to move across battle lines and international borders, even those the government no longer controls.

Some aid groups and governments have already launched cross-border programs, working quietly behind the scenes. One of the largest operations is run by Mark Ward, the State Department's senior advisor on assistance to Syria. NPR's Deborah Amos reached him in Istanbul.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: When Mark Ward heard the Syrian border town of Azaz was overrun by an offshoot of al-Qaida last month, he knew he was going to have to get creative again.

MARK WARD: It's definitely slowed us down, but it hasn't stopped us and it has reminded all of us that you always have to have a plan B in this kind of work.

AMOS: His work is to oversee a growing U.S. assistance program across seven provinces in northern Syria: $250 million in humanitarian aid and another $26 million in non-lethal aid for vetted units of the rebel Free Syrian Army. Last week, the Turkish government shut down the border near Azaz after radical Islamists seized the town and kicked out local rebels.

WARD: It's certainly gotten in the way. Azaz is quite a crossroads in northern Syria on the way to Aleppo, on the way to Idlib, two areas that are getting a lot international assistance. But it hasn't stopped it. It's just - it takes longer because the assistance has to travel further once it gets inside Syria.

AMOS: It's all part of the job for this veteran Foreign Service officer known as Mr. Mark to Syrians. The lanky 57-year-old works out of border hotels, wears a San Francisco Giants baseball cap and heads an unprecedented government aid program.

WARD: I don't think we've ever done it quite this way before, but then we've never really had a situation like this before.

AMOS: The situation, no functioning embassy in the Syrian capital, a Washington-based program was considered too far away so Ward and his team, about a dozen U.S. officials based along Syria's borders, direct assistance through partners, Western and Syrian, to deliver aid in rebel-held areas. And it's not just food and medicine.

WARD: We do garbage trucks, ambulances, fire trucks, big generators that could, you know, run a school, big water tanks that a school might need.

AMOS: But there are critics in Congress who urge even stronger support, especially for the rebels, moderate rebels. Critics also charge that aid for U.S.-backed fighters is dismally slow.

WARD: Well, certainly slow. I don't think it's dismal. And it's slow for a couple of reasons. We have to vet who gets the aid.

AMOS: Every Syrian that delivers U.S.-funded flour, medicine or cash assistance, every rebel that gets U.S. gear, from satellite phones to night-vision goggles, has to be vetted, says Ward.

WARD: The vetting, after all, is to prevent our assistance from falling into the wrong hands, which is exactly what we don't want.

AMOS: What the rebels want from the Obama administration: arms and ammunition. But despite promises of lethal aid, the largest delivery so far, thousands of meals ready to eat familiar to any U.S. soldier as standard military rations. Ward acknowledges it was a hard sell.

WARD: Well, I'll never forget the first day they arrived, and 50,000 - 50,000 - MREs in pallets had been unloaded.

AMOS: He was surrounded by suspicious senior rebel commanders who had never seen an MRE before.

WARD: Yeah, it looks like a small parcel from Amazon or something.

AMOS: They wanted to know if this is food, how do we eat it? Ward had to give a demonstration on the spot, heating up a package of beef stew.

WARD: And in just a minute or so, the steam is rising, the meal is getting heated and luckily, I found somebody who says, OK, he'll take the first bite. He takes the first bite and he likes it.

AMOS: Since that first delivery, Ward has handed over 330,000 packaged meals and rebels have earned U.S. confidence, he says, so more nonlethal aid is in the pipeline, including trucks, communication gear and portable battlefield clinics. But his biggest worries come in a few months when civilians face another punishing winter with food and fuel shortages.

WARD: I'm often asked, why isn't there more humanitarian aid going in? There's such a need. And I don't think the answer is lack of funds. I think the answer is access.

AMOS: Access, says Ward, to civilians in need blocked by hostile checkpoints manned by the regime or radical rebels. For the first time, the UN Security Council has called for cross-border aid, exactly what Ward's been doing on an expanded scale before the winter makes the crisis even worse. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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