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Coordinating the response to the Syria Crisis: the southern Turkey cross border experience

This views piece was developed by the ENN based on eight key informant interviews with donors, UN agencies and INGOs carried out during an ENN visit to southern Turkey in early April 2014, subsequent follow-up by email and meetings with OCHA Geneva and the Global Nutrition Cluster in June 2014. All contributors have seen various drafts but requested to be anonymous.

Note that this views piece reflects the experiences up to April 2014 (with some updates related to UN Resolutions).Other developments in the coordination mechanisms may have taken place since this time.


The onset of the conflict in Syria, which resulted in the establishment of government and opposition controlled areas (the latter are predominantly in northern Syria), has meant that to date (April 2014), the humanitarian response has largely been administered through two separate and uncoordinated programming approaches1. Firstly, humanitarian agencies based in the Syrian capital Damascus, work through the consent of the Syrian Government and with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). Secondly, agencies administering services into northern Syria do so largely through programming planned and coordinated from southern Turkey. This is referred to as the cross border programme2 and was initiated in the early months of the crisis by a number of diaspora Syrian based agencies and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) with support from a small number of humanitarian donors. The coordination experience from the cross-border programme has highlighted a number of lessons learnt and challenges for the humanitarian sector. Coordination and planning for nutrition programming, in particular, appears to have been a casualty of some of these challenges. This is the main focus of this views piece. 

Coordination in the absence of a cluster mechanism 

Within Syria, the Damascus based UN agencies opted for sectoral coordination with UN cluster lead agencies working with a government co-lead. For  nutrition, UNICEF as the cluster lead agency has been ‘double hatting’ providing technical input, as well as a crucial coordination role. In the opposition controlled areas of Syria however, there has not been any official UN coordination presence.  In southern Turkey, the national and INGOs involved in the cross border programme established a coordination mechanism known as the NGO Forum, which shared information as best it could between operational agencies(largely INGOs). A joint rapid assessment mission into northern Syria (JRAM) carried out in January 2013 was an NGO Forum led initiative. The formation of the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU)3 in November 2012 brought another prominent player in cross-border programming and it was hoped that this structure would take on operational coordination. However, a number of internal challenges prevented ACU from taking on this role. In addition, OCHA arrived in southern Turkey in February 2013 with a mandate to promote coordination of information management and needs assessments of the cross border programme. This engagement led gradually to the establishment of IASC4- like coordination mechanisms. The efficacy of this mechanism was challenged by the lack of cluster activation in Syria at that time, the constraints faced by UN agencies for their direct involvement in a response that was clearly opposed by the Syrian Government, as well as a lack of buy-in by INGOs to coordination by a UN agency (OCHA) that was not itself operational in the cross-border programme. Despite these challenges, there was an increased call for more coordination, in particular between programming from Syria and programming across the southern borders of Turkey into northern Syria. 

To date (April 2014), UN agencies present in southern Turkey have largely (with some exceptions and to varying degrees) had to operate an information ‘firewall’ system between their cross border coordination work and their operations based in Damascus. There were two main reasons for this. The first was the risk of the Syrian Government finding out about UN cross-border activities from southern Turkey, which could jeopardise their work in Government controlled areas of Syria, i.e. the Syrian Government may place restrictions on UN agencies working both sides of the divide or even stop their activities altogether. The second was the potential risk to programming activities and staff involved in the cross-border programme if information was shared with Damascus based programming staff and government counterparts5.  

The UN therefore effectively adopted an ‘indirect support’ modus operandi for southern Turkey. OCHA in coordination with global cluster lead UN agencies, INGOs and donors, set up working groups for each sector. Most of these working groups were co-chaired between INGOs and UN agencies or cluster representatives (without cluster activation) and the majority of them had dedicated coordinators, funded by donors, to chair and steer the group’s work. The working groups replaced the NGO Forum and provided a far more effective space for technical coordination within sectors – especially around information sharing and certain elements of operational coordination. The membership of the working groups was extended to cover a wider range of partners, including Turkish and Syrian NGOs which fed into a broader coordination architecture, including an inter-sector working group, as well as a strategic, decision-making body with key representatives of the humanitarian community to provide overall leadership for the response. 

However, major challenges remain due to the absence of an official mandate for stronger UN operational involvement6. As a result, UN agencies provide support and guidance on humanitarian standards, training and planning of humanitarian programmes in support of NGO operations. WFP, in particular, has managed to use its regional hub in the capital of Jordan, Amman, as a forum for information sharing, thus overcoming to some extent the firewalling constraint7. According to many stakeholders interviewed during the course of the ENN visit, this has resulted in better ‘gap’ analysis by WFP, its implementing partners and the food security sector in general. The lack of operational involvement of the UN in southern Turkey for the cross border programme has meant that implementing agencies do not have access to financing mechanisms such as the Emergency Response Fund (ERF) or stocks of non-food items (NFI) and medicines. Furthermore, the absence of the cluster mechanism has also meant that there is no agency identified in the role as provider of last resort - a key feature of the IASC cluster mechanism and important to ensure accountability to both beneficiaries and to donors.  

There are ongoing tensions for many agencies working on cross-border programming who believe that OCHA and the UN agencies could have operated more effectively. One view is that OCHA interpreted its role as one of reporting information rather than coordinating the meaningful assessment and analysis of information and the mapping of key gaps to ensure more equitable access to food and non-food assistance. An opposite view from within the UN family is that the refusal of many INGOs to share information with the UN has made it impossible to do meaningful assessments and analysis. Whilst NGOs have been advocating for better coordination, there have been sensitivities and dynamics with OCHA that have continued to constrain  strengthened coordination. To some degree, personality clashes have been a part of this problem yet other sectors, notably education, food security and child protection have done well, highlighting that sectoral coordination with concomitant donor support can lead to enhanced coordination even in the most challenging situations. This, however, has not been the experience thus far with the nutrition sector.   

The firewalling of information between the cross-border programme in southern Turkey and the Syria programme has meant that southern Turkey based INGOs have had little information about programming being coordinated and implemented from the Damascus side, while agencies in Damascus do not know what  is being planned and implemented cross border8.  As a result, there have been examples of duplication of aid where the so called cross-line programme into northern Syria has been implemented in areas where NGOs operating from southern Turkey have already worked. In addition, there are also concerns that areas exist where both the cross-line and cross border programme have not reached areas in need.  

The passing of UN Resolution 2139 in February 2014 raised expectations about greater freedom to share information amongst all stakeholders, as well as opening up more border crossing points from southern Turkey. However development in this regard needed the subsequent Resolution 21659 – considered a “breakthrough in efforts to get aid to Syrians in need10” - with the first UN convoy which crossed into Syria from Turkey through the Bab al-Salam border crossing on 24th July 2014. Food, shelter materials, household items and water and sanitation supplies for approximately 26,000 people in Aleppo and Idleb Governorates were transported. The Syrian authorities were notified and more convoys anticipated. Nonetheless, at the time of interviewing (April 2014) there was still considerable mistrust between INGOs working in southern Turkey and the UN agencies. Although INGOs and donors understood why the UN agencies have operated in the way they have, there is constructive criticism about how they could have combined the maintenance of their ‘safe’ position in Damascus whilst working more effectively with agencies in southern Turkey. This has been referred to as the ‘anonymisation of the response’ and links to a widespread view that the UN agencies could have reached out more to INGOs, found better ways to share information (perhaps using the WFP regional hub model) and also connected more fully with Syrian NGOs working cross border. Syrian agencies are increasingly becoming involved in the working groups but this greater engagement has been a slow process. There is also a strong view amongst the donors and INGOs interviewed that as the UN is non-operational, their legitimacy for coordination is intrinsically diminished and that the UN should have been clearer from the start about what they could, or could not do. INGOs and donors have therefore been lobbying to have an INGO co-chair on the inter-sectoral working group in order to strengthen operational coordination. However, OCHA have been unable to grant this request as this arrangement would not be in line with IASC guidelines.  

Nutrition sector coordination and leadership

Many actors working in southern Turkey are of the view that there has been an absence of leadership around nutrition programming and coordination. This has meant that there has been a lack of thorough sectoral analysis of the main nutrition problems faced within Syria and amongst the refugees. Added to this has been the limitation of the global benchmark for defining a nutrition emergency, which requires high or increasing levels of GAM for funding to be activated.  In essence, donors wanted to see a higher GAM before agreeing to a dedicated nutrition working group and programme of funding. Whilst there are examples of low GAM and nutrition cluster activation in emergencies such as Haiti and the Philippines, the donor focus in the Syrian crisis has been largely confined to other sectors such as WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) and child protection. There is no doubt that the Syrian crisis has lacked a well-articulated and coherent analysis of nutrition risk and needs and this has constrained the level of attention to the sector.   

Between September 12th and 20th 2013, the GNC undertook a scoping mission to “assess the nutrition context and potential nutrition information-sharing mechanisms within the humanitarian response for northern Syria”. It was undertaken by a two person team – one member of the GNC Rapid Response Team (RRT) and a nutritionist seconded from an INGO. It was prompted by a lack of information and data about ‘nutrition in emergencies’ programming in northern Syria and by concerns regarding lack of understanding regarding infant and young child feeding (IYCF) in this context. It identified that coordination on nutrition needed to be enhanced, with particular emphasis on IYCF. Suggestions were made regarding potential coordination structures and systems. Subsequently, from mid December 2013 to mid- Feb 2014, a GNC RRT member (hosted by an INGO) was deployed “to provide coordination, technical and information management support” on nutrition to the cross-border Turkey based operation. Whilst inroads in raising the profile and engagement on nutrition between agencies was reported11, the profile of nutrition remained hugely constrained and was essentially short lived given the short term nature of the deployment. The mission placed considerable emphasis on IYCF (particularly breastfeeding support) as a priority issue for response and the need for a nutrition survey to establish whether acute malnutrition was a problem. Many stakeholders disagreed with these recommendations and also felt that the three month period should have resulted in more robust nutrition data and analysis to inform programming. 

The absence of nutrition data in northern Syria has been a constant anxiety for implementing agencies that are aware of high levels of food insecurity and lack of access to health care and clean water for many internally displaced people and in the besieged areas. A nutrition sub-group has recently been set up as part of the health working group for the cross-border programme and is working to provide the analysis and programming recommendations needed for the nutrition sector. However, there are very few agencies involved directly in nutrition programming and added to this, the absence of a UN agency presence in the nutrition sub group has reduced the level of authority typically needed to influence donor financing allocations and their response. 

A question is raised as to how, in a ‘level 3’ emergency, which is in its fourth year, there is not a standalone nutrition sector working group  in southern Turkey with a lead agency providing credible assessment and analysis of the overall nutrition situation. There is also a related question as to why the GNC was not enabled to sustain a presence in southern Turkey in order to provide coordination for nutrition analysis and operational planning for the cross border programme.

Show footnotes

1 See end of this section for updates in this regard with respect to UN Resolution 2165.

2 At the time of writing, programming across other borders, such as from Iraq and Jordan, existed but at much smaller scale and are not covered in this views piece.

3 Created in November under the initial leadership of Suhair al-Atassi, a vice president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces

4 Inter Agency Standing Committee

5 Some INGOs have also adopted a similar approach, i.e. basing themselves in Damascus and not implementing cross-border programming.

6 This situation has changed since the adoption of Resolution 2165, see later in this article.

7 Subsequent and further actions by WFP to coordinate and align cross border and cross line operations following Resolution 2165 are shared in an article in this 48th edition of Field Exchange. Of particular note, all WFP operations in Syria, whether cross border or cross line, is now planned from Damascus.

8 See footnote 7

9 Resolution 2165, unanimously adopted by Council members on 14 July, authorised the United Nations and our partners to use routes across four additional border crossings with Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. The resolution also authorised the establishment of a monitoring mechanism to confirm the humanitarian nature of supplies brought through those crossings points. 

10Under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs/emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos, executive director of the WFP Ertharin Cousin and Executive Director of UNICEF Anthony Lake, Statement on Security Council Resolution 2165 on humanitarian access in Syria.

11 GNC End of Mission Report (Feb, 2014)

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ENN (). Coordinating the response to the Syria Crisis: the southern Turkey cross border experience. Field Exchange 48, November 2014. p138.



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