Dusty and sweaty, three Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU) workers emerge from the Turkish-Syrian border at Cilvegözü, near Reyhanli. For a few days, they have been delivering food baskets to civilians in the northern areas around Idlib, Aleppo, Antakia and Latakia as part of the ACU, the humanitarian arm of the Syrian National Coalition.
Samer, a defected Assad soldier now working with the ACU as a cross-border operator, meets them at the border for the drive to their offices in Reyhanli.
Once there, they discuss the realities on the ground, especially a security situation in constant flux, as rebels fight among themselves for control of liberated areas.
They say theft is the main reason humanitarian aid does not reach its intended destination, and that 600 food baskets were stolen at gunpoint last month by a rebel faction as the ACU team made its way to Jarabulus, an area northeast of Aleppo.
“They beat up the driver and told him to stay for four hours while they took the truck, which they brought back empty,” Samer says. Another time, 11,000 food baskets were taken from the ACU store near Raqqa.
And three months ago, an armed group, who they believe to be affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra, came for something a bit different.
“At first they took everything in our warehouse in Azaz, and then we negotiated to get our supplies back,” says Abdelhadi, one of the team members. “So they took [control of] the warehouse itself. We told the Free Syrian Army commanders that control the area about our warehouse, but they didn’t do anything. They are weaker than ISIS and Jubhat al-Nusra.”
Reports of kidnapping and detention of humanitarian workers on the ground in Syria are growing. With ISIS increasing its control and administrative powers, some areas have become no-go zones for foreign nationals. The town of Jarabulus is administered by ISIS, which has forbidden the presence of foreign women.
But it’s not just foreigners who face increased danger in delivering aid.
Eyad, another of the ACU team, was arrested, detained and effectively tried by a Sharia court three weeks ago for taking baby milk to Atmeh camp, just kilometers from the Cilvegözü crossing. He says he was questioned by a Yemeni and Tunisian national on suspicion of taking the delivery to the Kurds, whom the militias dislike.
Even the ACU is not trusted. “They know of the ACU, but they do not recognize it as legitimate because it is linked to the Coalition, which works with foreigners, who aren’t ‘good’ Muslims,” Eyad says. “I was held for three hours while they asked me questions, mainly to do with the Syrian National Council, because it is headed by George Sabra, a Christian. They want to know why we were working with Christians and accused me of being secular.”
Eyad was let go when he promised to register the families of the local fighters for aid. Many of them, he says, are in need of baby formula.
To tackle theft, the ACU team works closely with the local councils and NGOs who are familiar with the militias in heavily contested Idlib and surrounding provinces. About 90 percent of their aid is distributed this way.
Sometimes, they say, the stolen aid is redistributed by the militias, who don’t trust aid workers to distribute it to the right people. And the problems aren’t all concentrated in one zone or one group. “We could be going to Raqqa, which is controlled by ISIS, and it’ll be fine,” Basel says, “but just one checkpoint will cause an issue because of the mood of the guy. It’s random. Now we reach places like that [by working with] local councils.”
(Surnames withheld for security reasons.)