Between a Rock and a Hardline Place: The Conundrum of Providing Humanitarian Aid to HTS-Controlled Idlib

UN aid convoy heads to Idlib province in October, 2018.  Photo Credit: Andolu Agency 

By: Jodi Brignola, Columnist

Humanitarian action is grounded in the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence.[i] In theory, these principles seek to protect all civilians outside of a political framework. In practice, however, divorcing humanitarian aid from the geopolitical and military context is not only impractical, it is impossible. Any type of aid is exploitable and capable of shifting the balance of power on the ground. Whether it comes in the form of material assistance or service provision, belligerents have historically used aid for their military and political gain. Some scholars, like Edward Luttwak, go as far as to argue that humanitarian efforts can “[help] prolong the warfare whose consequences they ostensibly seek to mitigate.”[ii] Luttwak claims this is the case because international institutions do not have the capacity to exclude armed actors from their provisions, they impede the progress of the likely victor through their interventions, and some even help both sides, which prevents mutual exhaustion that can lead to a settlement.[iii]

In substate conflicts, especially those involving a fractured opposition with extremist elements, the ethics of humanitarian aid are even murkier. Terrorist organizations have historically exploited this lack of clarity to capitalize on aid intended to alleviate civilian suffering. As Jessica Trisko Darden argues, in the current international environment “humanitarian assistance has a terrorism problem.”[iv] Trisko Darden, echoing Luttwak, notes how terrorist groups can gain from humanitarian assistance in a variety of ways – such as charging humanitarian actors for safe access to areas they control; taxing or stealing the provided goods; and entrenching themselves in, or gaining control over, aid organizations that operate in their areas of influence.

This is precisely the situation in Syria’s Idlib province today, where Hayat Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) – an armed group linked to al-Qaeda and listed on the State Department List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations – dominates the landscape. In the first weeks of the new year, HTS expanded its military and political control to encompass the entire province.[v] Through its control of territory and borders, HTS is benefitting from humanitarian initiatives in all of the ways that Trisko Darden mentioned. Additionally, HTS has a history of weaponizing even service-provision and human-capital based aid projects by kidnapping aid workers and holding them for ransom.[vi] Military and political developments in Idlib create an environment in which many international aid organizations must choose to either abandon some of Syria’s most needy civilians or continue assisting them with the risk of bolstering a terrorist organization.

Faced with this choice, several aid organizations have abandoned or suspended projects in Idlib. Most recently, international donors pulled funding for over 50 ‘medical clinics in HTS-dominated Idlib, northern Hama, and western Aleppo.[vii] Scholars like Trisko Darden encourage a reconsideration of providing aid given the political realities in the age of terrorism:

Now is the time to seek a middle ground between the noble principles of humanitarian assistance and the operational realities of the counter-terrorism mission. This requires accepting that, in many conflict-affected areas, the delivery of humanitarian aid is shaped by political realities and not by need alone. The longer that both state and non-state actors are able to manipulate humanitarian assistance — including where and to whom it is provided — the more intractable conflicts may become.[viii]

Others, however, argue that aid efforts must remain apolitical in its protection of civilians and human rights. For example, Larry Minear argues that, “Faced with terrorism and national security as the twin issues of the day, the humanitarian enterprise will once again be forced to make a case for the independence and neutrality of humanitarian action – but also for the importance of such action to U.S. national security and the country’s standing in the world.”[ix] Minear highlights humanitarian aid’s inherent relationship with some of the root causes of radicalization: poverty, underdevelopment, ethnic conflict, and societal violence.[x] He also notes the threat of non-cooperation with terrorist organizations that begin providing social services and governance (e.g. Hezbollah, Hamas, and now HTS, through its Salvation Government). This discussion makes the international community’s decision vis-a-vis Idlib appear even more paradoxical. Either humanitarian assistance continues to directly benefit a terrorist organization, or international neglect for the causes of radicalization in one of the world’s most at-risk populations will result in a surge in terrorist recruitment. By abandoning Idlib’s civilians, the Western world risks fueling the very narrative that Salafi-jihadi groups promote.

So how should the international community resolve this conundrum? Jerome Drevon argues that we must provide an off-ramp for HTS through increased engagement. Instead of approaching the group’s alleged divorce from al-Qaeda with empty skepticism, he challenges policymakers to provide the organization with measurable milestones to prove its ideological shift.[xi] One incentive could be the provision of aid, as long as HTS agrees to separate its governance and military wings. The EU’s separation of Hezbollah’s political and military wings — with the inclusion of the latter, but not the former, on their list of terrorist organizations — could serve as a model.[xii] HTS itself proposed such a split in cooperation with the remaining factions of armed opposition during a unity conference this week.[xiii] This option could potentially be in the interests of both parties; the West could provide civilians with aid while the HTS governance project in Idlib could stay afloat, as the strains of meeting the needs of the population alone has the potential to ruin the organization. HTS signaled that it is understands the benefits of the continuation of western aid, even if the group is unable to continue to exploit it, when the group announced the suspension of taxes on aid convoys at Bab al-Hawa crossing at the insistence of the international community.[xiv]

Ultimately, meaningful separation between governance and the military seems highly unlikely and counterproductive to the HTS project in Idlib, which centers on entrenching itself in the local populace and creating a long-term base of support. Moreover, all of these proposals involve politicizing aid and using civilian suffering as collateral for terrorist compliance. No options seem fair or hopeful for civilians in Idlib, who face a grave situation merely because they had the misfortune of coming under the rule of a military faction with a jihadist agenda.


[i] Jessica Trisko Darden, “Humanitarian Assistance Has a Terrorism Problem. Can It Be Resolved?,” War on the Rocks, January 3, 2019,

[ii] Edward N. Luttwak, “Give War a Chance,” Foreign Affairs, July 1, 1999,

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Jessica Trisko Darden, “Humanitarian Assistance Has a Terrorism Problem. Can It Be Resolved?”

[v] Barrett Limoges and Waleed Khaled a-Noufal, “With Evacuations of Turkish-Backed Rebels Ongoing, Hardline Coalition HTS Cements Control over Majority of Syria’s Northwest,” Syria Direct, January 17, 2019,

[vi] Alaa Nassar and Jodi Brignola, “For Ransom or for Rule: Local Aid Workers Describe Risks amid Wave of Kidnappings in Syria’s Rebel-Held Northwest,” Syria Direct, November 1, 2018,

[vii] Alice Maleh et al., “Local Councils, Civil Society Brace for HTS Takeover after Cuts to Healthcare Funding in Rebel-Held Northwest,” Syria Direct, January 20, 2019,

[viii] Jessica Trisko Darden, “Humanitarian Assistance Has a Terrorism Problem. Can It Be Resolved?”

[ix] Larry Minear, “Humanitarian Action  in an Age of Terrorism,” Working Paper, New Issues In Refugee Research (Medford, MA: Humanitarianism and War Project Feinstein International Famine Center Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy Tufts University, August 2002),

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Jerome Drevon, “Renouncing Al-Qaeda and the Prospects for Engagement,” Middle East Institute, February 6, 2019,

[xii] “Hezbollah,” Counter Extremism Project, accessed February 16, 2019,

[xiii] “General Conference of the Syrian Revolution,” Facebook, accessed February 16, 2019,

[xiv] Sarah Dadouch, “Some Aid Agencies Halt Use of Syrian Border Gate, Citing Jihadists’ Taxes on Trucks,” Reuters, October 4, 2018,

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