Granting or withholding humanitarian access in the Syrian civil war has been politicized, used by different warring parties to advance their military strategies and political objectives. For the regime, withholding access and preventing aid from reaching rebel-held areas is a deliberate strategy to punish and weaken opposition groups and to prevent the creation of an alternative political order. Regulating and distributing basic public goods, from food to electricity, is also used to reward loyalty and further civilian dependency on the regime. At times, aid has even been diverted to support the Syrian army’s war efforts. For the Islamic State (IS), preventing humanitarian access in areas under its control follows a distinct, yet equally political logic: IS wants absolute control and absolute civilian dependency. In this context, humanitarian access is de facto “weaponized.”
Because of this situation, the international community’s approach to delivering aid in Syria has evolved over the past few years, expanding from the initially negotiated response plan—which relied almost entirely on a system of coordination with the central government to carry out humanitarian relief operations in Syria. Unfortunately, when withholding access and distributing aid are seen as key military tools, relief operations quickly became hostage to politics: the regime slows down the process or withholds consent according to its own strategic interests and in turn undermines humanitarian aid’s need to stay neutral and impartial.
Since the initially peaceful political revolution turned violent, sectarian, and militarized, the regime led by Bashar al-Assad has sought victory both by defeating rebel groups on the battlefield and systematically undermining their attempts to create a political alternative to the regime. In practice, this has meant targeting rebel-held areas to destroy infrastructure and cut opposition supply lines, as well as deliberately attacking civilians and targeting hospitals, schools, or markets—as shown by the horrific devastation in places like Duma and Aleppo. Preventing civilian access to basic goods and services, including humanitarian aid, is another widely employed tactic to ensure either that civilians are forcibly displaced—further isolating the rebels—or that the opposition is eventually forced to surrender both territory and population.