Humanitarian Access to De-Escalation Zones in Syria

By 24/02/2018Event Debrief

On 12-13 March 2018, the Center of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN), in collaboration with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and the International Humanitarian City (IHC) in Dubai, organized an informal Regional Roundtable to review and address the challenges and dilemmas of providing humanitarian assistance and protection in so-called ‘de-escalation zones’ and other hard to reach areas in Syria. This event debrief highlights the main discussion points without attribution and concludes with concrete recommendations arising from the event.


In May 2017, a memorandum signed by representatives of Russia, Iran, and Turkey in Astana, Kazakhstan, effectively established four de-escalation zones (DEZs) in Syria. The memorandum (hereinafter called Astana memorandum) called for the cessation of hostilities between selected anti-government groups and forces fighting on behalf of the Government of Syria (GoS) in those four DEZs located in opposition-held areas of the country. Russia, Turkey, and Iran, as signatories of the Astana memorandum, acted as guarantors of the agreement.

As foreseen by the Astana memorandum, the largest DEZ covers the whole of the Idlib Governorate, and comprises the neighboring governorates of Hama, Aleppo, and Latakia. The other three zones were set up in rebel-controlled areas at the Jordan-Syria border, Eastern Ghouta and in the northern parts of the Homs Governorate. From the outset, parties to the Astana Memorandum expressed their intent to privilege humanitarian access for the affected populations living or returning to these areas, as well as the rehabilitation of basic infrastructure. These arrangements have so far failed to generate increased humanitarian access, and humanitarian organizations continue to face significant challenges related to the provision of aid and protection in the DEZs.

Key challenges include: the scale of unmet needs; political pressures related to the design of DEZs; instrumentalization and diversion of aid in those areas; escalation of military hostilities; engagement with armed groups listed as terrorist organizations; the dilemmas of mass evacuations; and the challenges related to the impartial delivery of aid in besieged areas. While some innovative approaches have emerged, many challenges still remain.



On 12-13 March 2018, the Center of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiations (CCHN), in collaboration with HHI and the International Humanitarian City (IHC) in Dubai, organized an informal Regional Roundtable to review and address the challenges and dilemmas of providing humanitarian assistance and protection in so-called ‘de-escalation zones’ and other hard to reach areas in Syria.[1]

The regional roundtable is the latest in a series of events organized by the Center of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN), in partnership with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), aimed at capturing and analyzing the challenges of humanitarian negotiations in so-called ‘de-escalation zones’ and other stabilization arrangements in Syria.

The overarching aim of this process is to identify lessons learned so as to orient future policy discussion on humanitarian access to de-escalation zones and other hard to reach areas in similarly complex environments. It builds on a six-month-long research initiative by the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA) at HHI, as well as significant experience among humanitarian professionals from organizations including the ICRC, UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, MSF and several others delivering assistance and protection in Syria.


Aims and Objectives

Held under Chatham House Rules, the regional roundtable facilitated a closed, informal exchange of views and perspectives among seasoned field practitioners and policymakers, and particularly addressed the following key themes: 1) the humanitarian impact of the implementation of the de-escalation zones agreement, 2) the enablers and disablers of humanitarian assistance and protection in these zones, and 3) enhancing the humanitarian standing of relief and protection action in de-escalation zones. Specific aims were:

  • Identify key elements of effective assistance and protection programming in de-escalation and other hard to reach areas in Syria
  • Reflect on recurring tactical vulnerabilities of de-escalation zones, in light of complexities related to siege warfare
  • Review policy and operational dilemmas related to instrumentalization and diversion of humanitarian aid
  • Develop a set of practical recommendations and technical-level strategies intended to respond to the challenges of humanitarian assistance and protection in Syria.

The results and recommendations of the regional roundtable will provide a basis for the development of a CCHN field manual on humanitarian access to besieged and hard to reach areas.

Critical Review of the humanitarian impact of recent arrangements

Participants began the discussion by critically reviewing the humanitarian impact of the implementation of the Astana memorandum, focusing on besieged areas such as Eastern Ghouta. They reflected in small working groups on specific issues related to militarization and security of the zones, the lack of consent, instrumentalization of aid by besieging parties, diversion of aid by besieged parties, and freedom of movement and forced displacement within the zones.

  • Lack of consent as a tactical vulnerability

Participants acknowledged that the exclusion of certain parties from the Astana process was a major tactical vulnerability of the arrangement. The Astana process should be seen as a political one aimed primarily at fulfilling a stabilization agenda. It was hence a mistake to assume that it could yield positive results in terms of humanitarian access.

  • Demilitarization and security within the zones

The discussions noted that the lack of clarity of the delimitation of the zones, as well as the exclusion of Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) purposefully turned the de-escalation zones into zones of military confrontation. Demilitarization as a basic parameter for improving conditions for humanitarian access failed to be met, and the subsequent response of humanitarians was to intervene solely based on needs regardless of conditions on the ground. Participants also pointed to the notion of ‘fictious consent’ being built around the narrative of the de-escalation zones, which at times misled the humanitarian community. Moreover, in areas such as Eastern Ghouta and Southern Idleb, the militarization led to increased security risks to civilian populations, including kidnappings.

  • The enduring challenge of Instrumentalization

At the outset, participants highlighted that all parties across the spectrum of the Syrian conflict were involved at some point in besiegement tactics, and hence responsible for instrumentalizing aid. For instance, Madaya and Zabadani were besieged by GoS-affiliated actors, while Foa and Kefraya were besieged by opposition groups. The reciprocity of besieging tactics as part of the wider military-political strategy of belligerents led to humanitarian aid being instrumentalized and used as a bargaining chip. Participants pointed to the challenge faced by humanitarians of having to deal with parties that constantly shift allegiance, which consequently makes it particularly complex to assess the degree or level of potential instrumentalization of aid.

 The discussions also tackled the rapid shift in military dynamics, and how, for instance, certain areas in rural Damascus that were quite accessible turned overnight into besieged and hard to reach areas. These shifting dynamics greatly fueled the instrumentalization of aid in Syria. Participants stressed that the lack of information on needs within besieged areas led at times to fueling the perception that humanitarian aid is being instrumentalized.

 Participants also mentioned that instrumentalization was a challenge faced by both cross-line and cross-border actors at an almost equal level. It was highlighted that strong coordination between cross-border and cross-line actors proved to have a positive effect in terms of mitigating the risk of instrumentalization, however this approach was often adopted on an ad-hoc basis rather than as part of an overarching institutional strategy.

  • Diversion of aid by besieged parties

The discussions first noted that it is important for humanitarian organizations not to be coopted into political terminology, since de-escalation zones actually refer to opposition-held areas. Participants suggested that the de-escalation zones did not exacerbate the diversion of aid in Syria, since it had already been a critical challenge before the Astana memorandum.

 Participants acknowledged to the difficulty of measuring the actual extent of diversion of aid, since the lack of information and access acted as a measure. Although some innovative approaches have emerged, it remains a very difficult phenomena to quantity. Participants also pointed to the lack of adequate tools and methods to monitor the diversion of aid and its impact.

 Participants highlighted that political and military imperatives drive the types of assistance being allowed into de-escalation zones, which has generally led to perpetuating diversion and the war economy. The lack of coordination and exchange of information between agencies on cross-line and cross-border operations was seen as a risk-driver of diversion of aid.

  •  Freedom of movement: The de-escalation zone narrative and shrinking asylum space

The roundtable discussion generally noted that the de-escalation zones agreement led to displacement of populations and an increase in humanitarian needs. Several key components of evacuations were identified for further review: mass evacuations, medical evacuations, the safety of humanitarian workers, protecting the right to return, and the preparation for evacuations—including calling for adherence to international demining standards during initial negotiations. The discussion focused on the issue of mass evacuations, and noted that humanitarian agencies were instrumentalized in evacuation operations aimed at shifting the military balance in certain areas. Participants also noted that evacuations are being used as a tactic to create significant demographic changes in certain parts of the country.

Furthermore, lack of documentation, screening, and detention, as well as the challenges of post-relocation monitoring, are serious deterrents to successful evacuations. In terms of medical evacuations, participants emphasized that this should only be used as a last resort. The priority should be to provide adequate care within the zone itself by ensuring that supplies and services are able to enter.

Participants also noted that the de-escalation zones narrative was used as a pretext to shrink asylum space in neighboring states. The discussions also noted that the right to return to areas that have been evacuated, such as Aleppo, has so far been completely ignored by the Astana and Geneva processes.


  1. Discussing enablers and disablers of humanitarian assistance and protection in de-escalation zones

Following a thorough diagnosis of the humanitarian impact of the Astana agreement and similar arrangements in Syria, participants then reflected on actions and elements that have either enabled or disabled humanitarian assistance and protection programming in besieged and other hard to reach areas. The following section will highlight key themes that emerged from the discussion.

  • Situation analysis and proactive engagement

Participants noted that a key challenge faced by humanitarians was that the primary influencing actors of the Astana agreement were not the so-called traditional ‘Western supporters’ of humanitarian action. Hence, engagement with those actors proved to be more difficult than usual. It was argued that engagement with ‘non-traditional’ actors was essential today more than ever to be able to reach the necessary breakthrough in humanitarian diplomacy. Proactive engagement with real powerbrokers active on the ground was identified as an enabler of humanitarian assistance. The discussions stressed that early engagement with the guarantors of the Astana agreement could have ensured the inclusion of ‘protection standards’ that were completely absent during the Astana talks.

  • Alignment vs. partnership between humanitarian actors

A consensus emerged between participants that collective positioning between humanitarian actors at the Astana talks could have been beneficial to push a common line on IHL language to be included in the agreement. Participants made a clear distinction between alignment, which is setting a common red line between humanitarian agencies, and partnership, which is unrealistic to achieve given the needed diversity in humanitarian programming. Mobilization of the humanitarian community along those lines is seen as an enabler of humanitarian assistance in besieged and hard to reach areas. Participants also noted that information-sharing between humanitarian agencies doing both cross-line and cross-border operations was a key enabler of humanitarian assistance in besieged and hard to reach areas. Systematic documentation and information sharing allowed for thorough analysis and understanding of the humanitarian situation and appropriate humanitarian response.

  • Independent monitoring mechanisms

Participants noted the need for independent monitoring mechanisms of the implementation of the Astana agreement to ensure unhindered humanitarian access. The discussions highlighted that guarantors, who themselves are a party to the conflict, monitoring humanitarian access contributed to the lack of information around the situation in those zones. The discussions noted the need for humanitarians to push for the establishment of independent monitoring mechanisms as part of Astana and similar agreements. However, other participants were rather skeptical and saw that it was not the role of humanitarians to call for the establishment of such mechanisms.

  • Documenting diversion and instrumentalization of aid

Participants pointed to the necessity of humanitarian organizations making a commitment to track the diversion and instrumentalization of aid, including on prices and tax regimes. The importance of establishing feedback mechanisms with beneficiaries was also noted, and the subsequent sharing of this information was seen as a vital mitigating strategy of the diversion of aid by besieging parties.

  • Exploring the leverage of humanitarian organizations

The discussions went on to assess the leverage humanitarian organizations have in influencing the humanitarian dimensions of arrangements such as the de-escalation zones. Participants considered that warring parties bring in humanitarian agencies to deliver aid in besieged areas in sub-standard conditions to add a layer of legitimacy to their efforts. In that sense, the ‘humanitarian branding’ should be seen as a point of leverage by humanitarian organizations. Another point of leverage is information gathering and evidence-based advocacy efforts. Participants considered that communicating numbers and statistics on vulnerable populations had at times coerced parties to grant access to besieged zones.


  1. Practical recommendations

In the final session, participants built on the above-mentioned findings to develop a set of practical recommendations and technical-level strategies intended to respond to the dilemmas related to operating in de-escalation zones, besieged and other hard to reach areas.


Technical-level recommendations

  • Humanitarian organizations should enhance consultation technical-level programming. Information on needs within besieged and other hard to reach areas are usually scarce, hence information-sharing between different actors helps bridge the information gap.
  • Invest in situational analysis and early proactive engagement with non-traditional parties that have influence over the humanitarian situation (the ‘real power brokers’) in hard to reach areas. Coalition-building between humanitarian organizations and collective advocacy is recommended to sensitize powerbrokers on assistance and protection concerns.
  • Invest in innovative tools and methods to monitor aid delivery and impact for hard to reach areas and remote control management
  • Siege warfare is by essence a tactic based on discrimination, and hence principled humanitarian programming within these zones is near impossible. Humanitarians should work with the logic of limiting compromise on principles, and finding pragmatic solutions to mitigate instrumentalization and diversion.
  • Continuously monitor and document diversion of aid, through documentation of prices and tax system in place by besieging parties.
  • Invest in civil-military cooperation for humanitarian assistance and engage with different military actors (i.e Russia, Turkey, Iran) to understand the siege dynamics, in order to appropriately set programming standards.
  • Mass-evacuations consistently amount to forced displacement. Humanitarians should accordingly plan their participation and anticipate inevitable protection concerns.
  • Create standardized operating procedures and minimum standards for evacuations at the beginning of the conflict. Humanitarians should find ways to maintain access to evacuees throughout the process.


Negotiation-level recommendations

  • Define clear red line within humanitarian organizations and with stakeholders about the level of diversion of aid.
  • Working with local communities to assess humanitarian needs, and not solely with besieging parties, is recommended to mitigate diversion and instrumentalization of aid.¨
  • Mass evacuations are an integral part of siege warfare. In case of a decision to participate in a mass evacuation, humanitarian organizations should seize it as an opportunity to continue negotiation for access of staff throughout the evacuation process.
  • Advocate for the unconditional evacuation of people out of besieged and hard to reach areas for medical purposes, and sensitize belligerents on the lack of medical response capacities within the zones.


Diplomatic-level recommendations

  • Participating in diplomatic and political talks to reiterate IHL and humanitarian language so as to balance and mitigate the risks of dominating counter-terrorism rhetoric. Establishing a collective humanitarian position is beneficial.
  • As the de-escalation agreement was built around a narrative of ‘safe returns’, it is important for humanitarian organizations to continue advocating to maintain asylum space.
  • Engaging donors on pre-positioning strategies, to secure the necessary resources for full-fledged humanitarian programming ahead of a siege’s implementation.
  • Work on controlling the narrative on de-escalation by reporting on the situation on the ground and ‘calling things what they are.’

[1] The event brought together field practitioners from organizations including ICRC, MSF, OCHA, UNHCR, HI, and policy experts specializing on Syrian affairs from Carnegie Endowment and Sciences PO CERI.