Country Background

Against the backdrop of a devastating three-year drought, extensive socioeconomic unrest, and rising non-state insurgency, Syrian protestors sought to end President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The government responded with harsh military measures that only accelerated the call for change. Defectors from the military loosely organized the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and many civilians took up arms to join the opposition. Today, the FSA is still embroiled in a battle with the Syrian Government’s army, or the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).  The FSA is supported by the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf countries. The Assad regime and the SAA, with the help of Russia, Iran, and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, have recaptured most of Syria’s territory. An effective ceasefire proves to be elusive as Syria’s civil war is perpetually complicated by scourges of terrorism and the evolving five proxy battles. The U.S. government has placed economic sanctions on the Assad regime. 

What Nonprofits Need to Know

Below in the blue is an overview of the humanitarian and peacebuilding needs in Syria. In the red are the primary sanctioned groups presently operating there. Because U.S. law prohibits the provision of “material support” to listed terrorists individuals and groups as well as engaging in trade with sanctioned persons and entities, the presence of these groups and sanctions programs can impact the delivery of aid and peacebuilding programs. The list below is non-exhaustive and changes frequently, so it is important for nonprofits to check all partners and those with whom they engage in transactions against, at a minimum, the U.S. Specially Designated National (SDN) and the United Nations Security Council Consolidated lists. Below the charts is information on OFAC licenses, where applicable, and links to our research and advocacy, and other relevant information.  

Humanitarian &
Peacebuilding Needs

According to OCHA’s 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview, an estimated 11.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria. 

Displacement: An estimated 6.2 million people remained internally displaced

Restricted Access to Healthcare: The Syrian government is carrying out a deliberate and systematic assault on hospitals and other medical facilities in Idlib and Hama. The attacks have increased displacement and at least 16 humanitarian organizations have suspended some operations. 

Natural Hazards: Freezing temperatures, snowfall, heavy rain, and flooding have destroyed shelters and forced the movement of tens of thousands. 

Food Security and Nutrition: third of the population in Syria is food insecure, with pockets of acute and chronic malnutrition persisting in certain areas.

Disease: Outbreaks of measles, acute bloody diarrhea, typhoid fever, and leishmaniasis were reported in various areas of the country throughout 2019. 

Gender-based violence (GBV): Adolescent girls, women-headed households, especially those divorced and widowed, seem to be bearing the brunt of the crisis. 

Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS): While ISIS has lost most of its territory, it still controls pockets of land along the Syria-Iraq border and in southern Syria. Formed in 2013, the group is designated as an FTO by the U.S. and under the UN ISIL (Da’esh) & Al-Qaida Sanctions List. More information here.

al-Nusrah Front/Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS): Since its formation in 2011, the al-Nusra front was considered Al-Qaeda’s ideological successor in Syria. The group changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and has been operating as a part of the HTS coalition. It mainly operates in northern, western, and Southern Syria and is designated as an FTO by the U.S. and under the UN ISIL (Da’esh) & Al-Qaida Sanctions List. More information here.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — Qods Force (IRGC-QF): Formed in the 1980s, this group assists government forces in suppressing opposition forces and ISIS forces. It operates throughout Syria and is designated as an FTO by the U.S. More information here.

Hezbollah: Officially formed in 1985 and active in Syria since 2012. This Iranian-backed Islamist Group aims to preserve Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The group is designated as an FTO by the U.S. and it fights alongside Syrian Government forces. More information here. More information here.

Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK):This group formed in 1974 aims to advance Kurdish autonomy, political, and cultural rights in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Designated by the U.S., it operates mainly in northern and eastern Syria. More information here.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA): Both the U.S. and UN have placed economic sanctions on the Assad regime.

Primary Terrorist Presence &
Other Sanctioned Groups

See U.S. Syria sanctions and Syria-related sanctions. Access UN ISIL (Da’esh) & Al-Qaida Sanctions committee’s list here.

“Children in the Syrian Arab Republic have been robbed of their childhood as they are forced to participate in a brutal war and endure numerous violations of their rights by all parties to the conflict”

UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria Report, 16 January 2020

Licenses offered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)

The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) within the U.S. Department of Treasury enforces sanctions programs. It has a licensing process that allows transactions with sanctioned entities, including listed terrorist groups, that would otherwise be unlawful. Nonprofits that operate in areas affected by sanctions often apply for licenses from OFAC so that they are able to provide services to civilians in conflict zones around the world without running afoul of U.S. sanctions law, engage in peacebuilding activities and more. Find more information here.

  • OFAC General License No. 11A: allows nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to engage in certain not-for-profit activities in Syria in support of humanitarian projects, democracy-building, education, and non-commercial development projects directly benefiting the Syrian people.
  • Apply for an OFAC License Online –  Authorization from OFAC to engage in a transaction that otherwise would be prohibited.  

Policy Reform

The Charity & Security Network advocates for change in national security measures to better support nonprofits working around the world. In fragile contexts, counterterrorism measures often impede humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding organizations from accessing finance for their programs and serving populations in need. Find out more on our key issues below:

Useful Links

last updated: April 15, 2020