Mark Ward is the U.S. State Department's senior adviser on assistance to Syria, and when he heard the Syrian border town of Azaz was overrun by an offshoot of al-Qaida in September, he knew it was time to get creative again.
"You always have to have a plan B in this kind of work," he says.
Ward is based in Turkey. His job is to oversee a growing and unusual U.S. humanitarian assistance program in rebel-held areas in seven provinces across northern Syria.
U.S. policy toward Syria was front-page news when President Obama talked about a possible missile strike, and there's been an ongoing debate about U.S. assistance to the rebels attempting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
But the main U.S. effort, which has received much less attention, is the more than $1.5 billion that the U.S. has provided for humanitarian aid and social programs since the Syrian uprising began in the spring of 2011.
By comparison, the U.S. has spent $26 million on nonlethal aid to the rebels, though the U.S. is now undertaking a program to provide arms as well.
Ward faced a new and daunting challenge when a radical Islamist rebel group ousted another rebel faction in Azaz, less than five miles from the Turkish border. Turkey then closed the nearby border crossing, shutting down a crucial highway to Syria.
"It has definitely slowed down assistance, but it hasn't stopped it," says Ward, a Foreign Service veteran. "There are other ways into Syria, but it takes longer."
An Unconventional Program
In his signature San Francisco Giants ball cap, the lanky 57-year-old, known as "Mr. Mark" to Syrians, heads what he calls a "roving platform of about 25 different U.S. government officials" perched on Syria's borders.
"I don't think we've ever done it quite this way before," he says. "But we've never had a situation like this before."
There is no functioning U.S. Embassy in Damascus and running the aid program out of Washington was considered impractical. So Ward and his team operate from along Syria's borders.
Critics, especially those in Congress who have urged stronger support for moderate rebels, charge that the Obama administration's support is "dismally slow" and has done little to strengthen moderate rebels against the well-armed and funded Islamist fighters.
The humanitarian program's critics are dismayed that the program addresses only a small percentage of the staggering needs of Syrian civilians in rebel-held areas where U.N. agencies cannot reach.
More than 2 million Syrians have fled abroad and an estimated 4 million are displaced inside the country. Together they account for about a quarter of Syria's population of around 25 million.
Ward acknowledges that aid delivery has been slow. "But I don't think it's dismal," he counters, "and it's slow for a couple of reasons."
Vetting Aid Recipients
His team has to meet stringent U.S. government requirements and vet every Syrian partner that delivers flour, blankets, medicine and cash assistance, as well as every rebel that gets military gear — from satellite phones to night-vision goggles.
"Vetting is to prevent assistance from falling into the wrong hands," he says.
Why isn't more humanitarian aid going in?
"I don't think the answer is lack of funds," he says. "I think the answer is access."
There is intense fighting along Syria's northern and eastern borders, and often it's rebels battling other rebels, with more moderate forces pitted against al-Qaida offshoots. Checkpoints are also a problem because they are unpredictable, Ward says.
"Some of them are friendly, some are not," he says.
Only a few months ago, the Syrian regime was the main obstacle to distributing food.
"We don't hear about problems with the regime anymore," says Ward. Now, the "foreign fighters" on both sides are the "enemies" of aid delivery.
Threats To Aid Delivery
the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, the Syrian government's Lebanese ally, has checkpoints in the north and so do rebel groups linked to al-Qaida. These pop-up check points complicate deliveries.
"We don't want to see that food or equipment hijacked," Ward says.
Despite Washington's promises of lethal aid, the largest deliveries so far are 330,000 MREs (meals ready to eat), the standard military rations familiar to U.S. troops everywhere. Salim Idriss, the rebel leader who heads the Supreme Military Council, has been begging for arms and ammunition, so the first shipment of MREs was a hard sell, says Ward.
"I will never forget the first day they arrived," he says with a laugh,"a large C-17 was parked and 50,000 MREs in pallets had been unloaded." Ward was surrounded by senior rebel commanders who had never seen an MRE.
"How do we eat them?" asked the crew of commanders. Ward had to give a demonstration on the spot, heating up a package of meat stew, then, finding a "taster" among the suspicious rebel officers.
"Luckily, I found somebody who says he'll take the first bite and he likes it," Ward says.
He had passed an important test, but he says the delivery of MREs was also a test for Idriss and his commanders.
"We told them, what is important; this will show us your ability to get supplies distributed inside Syria into the right hands," Ward says.
Since that first delivery, the rebels have developed a distribution network for their fighters across the north.
The Obama administration wants to make sure that aid, nonlethal as well as lethal, does not fall into the wrong hands. The rebel factions in the Supreme Military Council have built confidence and, Ward says, more equipment is in the pipeline for delivery this month, including trucks, communication gear and portable battlefield operating rooms.
His bigger concern is the coming winter when the civilian population will again face severe cold, food and fuel shortages in a war that shows no slow down. Planning for winter began in June.
Over the past few months, Ward's team has delivered big items — including ambulances, garbage trucks, large generators and water tanks — to four cities in the north. Rebel radio and TV stations are poised to broadcast practical messages, including how to use carpeting and plastic sheeting to stay warm. Ward's team is now positioning heaters and blankets on the border for when the cold weather sets in.
"The virtue is, this is the second winter, and we learned from the first one," he says.
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
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And I'm Audie Cornish. In a rare show of unity, the UN Security Council has called on the Syrian government to allow immediate unfettered access for humanitarian aid shipments to millions of needy civilians. The council's statement says aides should be allowed to move across battle lines and international borders, even those the government no longer controls.
Some aid groups and governments have already launched cross-border programs, working quietly behind the scenes. One of the largest operations is run by Mark Ward, the State Department's senior advisor on assistance to Syria. NPR's Deborah Amos reached him in Istanbul.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: When Mark Ward heard the Syrian border town of Azaz was overrun by an offshoot of al-Qaida last month, he knew he was going to have to get creative again.
MARK WARD: It's definitely slowed us down, but it hasn't stopped us and it has reminded all of us that you always have to have a plan B in this kind of work.
AMOS: His work is to oversee a growing U.S. assistance program across seven provinces in northern Syria: $250 million in humanitarian aid and another $26 million in non-lethal aid for vetted units of the rebel Free Syrian Army. Last week, the Turkish government shut down the border near Azaz after radical Islamists seized the town and kicked out local rebels.
WARD: It's certainly gotten in the way. Azaz is quite a crossroads in northern Syria on the way to Aleppo, on the way to Idlib, two areas that are getting a lot international assistance. But it hasn't stopped it. It's just - it takes longer because the assistance has to travel further once it gets inside Syria.
AMOS: It's all part of the job for this veteran Foreign Service officer known as Mr. Mark to Syrians. The lanky 57-year-old works out of border hotels, wears a San Francisco Giants baseball cap and heads an unprecedented government aid program.
WARD: I don't think we've ever done it quite this way before, but then we've never really had a situation like this before.
AMOS: The situation, no functioning embassy in the Syrian capital, a Washington-based program was considered too far away so Ward and his team, about a dozen U.S. officials based along Syria's borders, direct assistance through partners, Western and Syrian, to deliver aid in rebel-held areas. And it's not just food and medicine.
WARD: We do garbage trucks, ambulances, fire trucks, big generators that could, you know, run a school, big water tanks that a school might need.
AMOS: But there are critics in Congress who urge even stronger support, especially for the rebels, moderate rebels. Critics also charge that aid for U.S.-backed fighters is dismally slow.
WARD: Well, certainly slow. I don't think it's dismal. And it's slow for a couple of reasons. We have to vet who gets the aid.
AMOS: Every Syrian that delivers U.S.-funded flour, medicine or cash assistance, every rebel that gets U.S. gear, from satellite phones to night-vision goggles, has to be vetted, says Ward.
WARD: The vetting, after all, is to prevent our assistance from falling into the wrong hands, which is exactly what we don't want.
AMOS: What the rebels want from the Obama administration: arms and ammunition. But despite promises of lethal aid, the largest delivery so far, thousands of meals ready to eat familiar to any U.S. soldier as standard military rations. Ward acknowledges it was a hard sell.
WARD: Well, I'll never forget the first day they arrived, and 50,000 - 50,000 - MREs in pallets had been unloaded.
AMOS: He was surrounded by suspicious senior rebel commanders who had never seen an MRE before.
WARD: Yeah, it looks like a small parcel from Amazon or something.
AMOS: They wanted to know if this is food, how do we eat it? Ward had to give a demonstration on the spot, heating up a package of beef stew.
WARD: And in just a minute or so, the steam is rising, the meal is getting heated and luckily, I found somebody who says, OK, he'll take the first bite. He takes the first bite and he likes it.
AMOS: Since that first delivery, Ward has handed over 330,000 packaged meals and rebels have earned U.S. confidence, he says, so more nonlethal aid is in the pipeline, including trucks, communication gear and portable battlefield clinics. But his biggest worries come in a few months when civilians face another punishing winter with food and fuel shortages.
WARD: I'm often asked, why isn't there more humanitarian aid going in? There's such a need. And I don't think the answer is lack of funds. I think the answer is access.
AMOS: Access, says Ward, to civilians in need blocked by hostile checkpoints manned by the regime or radical rebels. For the first time, the UN Security Council has called for cross-border aid, exactly what Ward's been doing on an expanded scale before the winter makes the crisis even worse. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.