Facing cuts in U.S. aid, Aleppo Stabilisation Committee tightens links with Turkey

In March 2018, US President Donald Trump announced a decision to freeze $200 million allocated for recovery efforts in Syria. The State Department said it would continue to work with partners on the ground to provide support for vulnerable areas, but that does not necessarily apply to areas under Turkish control, the head of Aleppo’s Stabilization Committee (SC) told Ahval.

“The American decision to stop support for humanitarian projects in northwestern Syria hit us hard. Especially because countries like the United Kingdom and EU member states have already halted their support as well. The funding for ongoing projects will end in late August and will inflict the financial situation of the SC, meaning that we have to wind down our activities,“ Munzer Al Sallal said.

Recent reports point to the danger the abrupt financial vacuum by the U.S. cut in aid has left. In the province of Idlib, hundreds of employees of civil society organisations have already lost their jobs. Finding themselves in a precarious war economy, many joined armed groups to earn a living.

Syrians in northern Aleppo could face the same fate, warned Rao Komar, a Middle East and Eurasia analyst working for Atlantic Media.

“Given the high level of unemployment in much of opposition-held Syria, civil society groups, like SC, serve as one of the few alternatives to joining an armed group or militia. If funding remains frozen for an extended period of time, unpaid employees could be forced to turn towards militias for employment, an event that would certainly destabilize northern Syria further,“ he said.

The SC’s activities include the restoration of infrastructure, mine clearance, the rebuilding of schools and the empowerment of local activists. According to a 2017 report, the SC paid the salaries for more than 100 teachers in northern Aleppo and provided four bakeries.

“The Stabilization Committee plays a key role in humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in Turkish-controlled northern Aleppo. Unlike some of the smaller local councils in the area, SC has the capability and resources to carry out more technical or complicated stabilisation projects,“ said Komar. “The SC also operates throughout Turkish-held northern Aleppo and is not limited to one particular town or city, allowing them to stabilise the whole region, rather than just certain towns and cities as local councils do,“ he said.

Since August 2016, a coalition of Syrian armed opposition groups and Turkey has seized large swathes of territory in Syria’s northwest. The area under Turkish auspice now includes a stretch of land between the towns of Jarabulus and Azaz in northern Aleppo province, the Afrin region and Idlib province which is part of a nominal de-escalation zone.

Asked why support had been halted, Sallal pointed to rifts between the United States, European countries and the Turkish government: “They gave us several reasons for their decision. One is that they fear that their efforts would influence their relationship with Turkey. We try to convince them that the stabilisation and rebuilding of areas that have been liberated from ISIS (Islamic States) need international support and also that they should support the Syrian opposition so that the opposition won’t lose the little influence it has left“.

The SC was founded in late 2015 in order to facilitate humanitarian and civilian government efforts in areas liberated from the ISIS. Describing itself as an independent organisation, the SC maintains relations with both the Turkish state and the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), a Turkey-based opposition body founded in 2013 that has received U.S. funding and maintains its headquarters in Azaz.

“We are independent from the Syrian Interim Government, both financially and politically. However, we inform the SIG about our activities and we also try to support them, because there is a need for an inclusive political institution in order to stabilise the region,“ Sallal said.

In January 2018, Turkey launched an offensive against the Afrin region, an enclave in northwestern Syria that was under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish party, and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

After the bulk of fighting ended, the SC immediately started working in the area. “The SC has been active in Afrin since the region was seized. We try to help the civilians and provide conditions that enable the return of displaced people. We launched a campaign called “We are Family“, cleaning the city and removing the rubble in the streets. We also set up an ambulance and distributed bread to the civilians because the city’s oven was no longer in operation. Additionally, we engaged in the rebuilding of water infrastructure and provided furniture to the local councils. We also offered workshops for those councils to increase their skills when it comes to the implementation of projects,“ Sallal said.

Such local councils replaced PYD government structures with councils affiliated with Turkey. The SC “even contributed to the establishment of some of the seven councils in the Afrin region,“ he said.

Before the YPG was expelled from Afrin, the SC reached an agreement with the militia that would allow the SC to travel from Azaz to Darat Izza, a town in Aleppo province’s northwest under the armed opposition’s control. But the agreement failed due to sabotage by the YPG, Sallal said.

“At first, they let us pass but they only exploited the agreement for their media. They took photos and afterwards they started to hinder our convoys by shooting in the air and frightening the passengers. That’s why we stopped travelling after five such experiences,“ he said.

In 2017, the Turkish government launched a crackdown on humanitarian aid groups, detaining some foreign aid workers and expelling international NGOs. But even though the SC received funds by the United States, Turkey did not restrict its work.

“We are in close contact with Turkey as the Turkish government is active in the region and provides services. We are also reliant on the government’s help when it comes to border crossing. We didn’t have problems with the Turkish government because we are an independent organisation. They respect our work and consider us as part of the Syrian opposition,“ he said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.