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Published: May 13, 2021

Breaking a Culture of Silence – counter-terrorism legislation’s impact on humanitarian access negotiations in north-west Syria

By: Lena Schellhammer

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Counter-terrorism (CT) legislation has presented a significant obstacle to humanitarians delivering aid to those in need in north-western Syria. Drawing on lessons from her working paper ‘Breaking the silence - Lessons from humanitarian access negotiations under counter-terrorism legislation in north-western Syria’, Lena Schellhammer discusses the challenges humanitarians face when having to negotiate access with the designated ‘terrorist’ group Hayʾat Taḥrīr al-Shām (HTS). She highlights how we can better adopt a joint approach to tackle CT legislation’s negative impacts.

Why is CT legislation impacting humanitarian access?

When humanitarians want to provide assistance to affected populations living in areas controlled by a non-state armed group (NSAG), they need to negotiate humanitarian access. Despite the necessity of interacting and negotiating with an NSAG to do this though, there is only minimal support for humanitarians doing so. More often, when humanitarian access needs to be negotiated with a designated ‘terrorist’ group, there is a lack of open dialogue and hesitance to start one.

Due to CT legislation, negotiating with a designated ‘terrorist’ group to secure access to civilians in need is a significant challenge for humanitarians. CT legislation is based on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 and intends to combat terrorism by preventing and suppressing the financing of designated ‘terrorist’ groups. But the resolution does not include an objective and internationally accepted definition of the term ‘terrorism’. This leads to governments’ arbitrary designation of certain groups as ‘terrorist’ groups, which significantly impacts the working environment of humanitarians. For example, providing material and non-material support like training, expert advice or even rehabilitation projects that indirectly ease logistical issues for HTS could be considered a diversion of aid. This could make humanitarian staff and organisations subject to sanctions.

CT legislation and humanitarian access negotiations with HTS

In north-western Syria, humanitarians need to engage with HTS/SSG in order to operate because the group controls parts of the Idlib governorate and runs quasi-state functions. Without interacting with HTS/SSG, aid organisations cannot maintain the humanitarian imperative, gain access to civilians in need and deliver humanitarian assistance effectively and safely. This means that saving lives and alleviating human suffering can only be achieved by cooperating with all relevant actors on the ground, including a designated ‘terrorist’ group like HTS.

Humanitarians use so-called ‘coping strategies’ to fulfil their individual and organisational objectives. These can take the form of individual, isolated, clandestine and intransparent negotiations with HTS/ SSG. Another coping strategy is to include intermediaries to bypass the CT legislation through entering indirect negotiations with the help of intermediaries. However, intermediaries’ role and position can significantly affect the negotiating process. Both HTS and humanitarians use this approach: for example, independent intermediaries such as local councils might support humanitarians and the provision of assistance within their area of influence. Intermediaries who are dependent and joined HTS voluntarily or by force might argue and negotiate in favour of HTS and are chosen by HTS. Having a third party with additional objectives and motives enter the negotiations can become highly relevant for the negotiation’s outcome.

CT measures highly constrain humanitarians in their negotiating power and ability to secure access to civilians in north-western Syria. The absence of an open dialogue on access negotiations and strategies works in favour of secretly gained individual wins and leads to a culture of silence which further weakens the broader humanitarian negotiation position.

Joint approaches are necessary to tackle CT legislation’s impact on access

Because of the criminalisation of negotiation activities with ‘terrorist’ groups, the lack of international support and the resulting culture of silence, coping strategies remain necessary. Humanitarians can only tackle CT legislation’s impact on access if they overcome the lack of transparency and share context knowledge by:

  • entering into an honest and sustained dialogue around the implications of legislation, including all stakeholders from the field level up to high policy level,
  • becoming part of so-called power networks, i.e. aligning with other stakeholders who are already in negotiations with HTS to take a better negotiating position,
  • considering joint activities and strategies, including red lines and lines of compromises among NGOs distributing assistance on the ground and
  • joining forces vis-à-vis donors and their counter-terrorism legislation.

Through a coordinated advocacy approach towards donors and decision-makers within humanitarian organisations, the decriminalisation of (some) negotiation activities could be triggered. A joint humanitarian strategy, including humanitarians working at the field level and donors, would result in risks being shared more equitably between implementing NGOs and their partners/donors and further encourage a strengthened joint negotiation position.


You can read Lena’s working paper ‘Breaking the silence – Lessons from humanitarian access negotiations under counter-terrorism legislation in north-western Syria’ here.

About the Author

Lena Schellhammer is a humanitarian working currently for a humanitarian NGO in access and security for the north-western Syrian context. Her background is in research and she worked for three years at a peace and conflict research institute, focusing on non-state armed groups, humanitarian access and Syria.






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