International NGO Safety Organisation
A man drives through a destroyed neighbourhood in NW Syria. Credit: A. Hammam/INSO

A decade of conflict: risks persist for NGOs in Syria

Conflict in Syria began a decade ago today. Throughout that decade aid workers in the country have faced extreme risks. Today, while conflict is somewhat stagnating, many of those risks persist.

In 2020, at least 15 NGO workers were killed in Syria, and a further 32 injured. All were national staff. Both figures are higher than the number reported in 2019. This indicates that the risks faced by NGOs are not decreasing but they are evolving.


INSO has been working in Syria since 2014 to help NGOs prepare for and mitigate those risks.


“When the conflict started in Syria, safety and security mechanisms for humanitarians were ad hoc and often insufficient,” explains Scott Bohlinger, INSO’s Country Director in Syria.


“There were a number of high profile and sometimes tragic incidents involving aid workers. Teams often didn’t have the necessary resources or information to operate safely. It was really difficult to get a full understanding of the security situation.”

A boy walks through a displacement camp in NW Syria. Credit: A. Hammam/INSO

A boy walks through a displacement camp in NW Syria. INSO has been working in Syria since 2014. Credit: A. Hammam/INSO

Changing risks and growing support

As the conflict evolved the risks to NGO staff also changed.


Scott explains: “Early in the conflict, threats from airstrikes and kidnapping dominated the perceived risks to NGOs. Today we see that many of the threats to NGOs are localised both in their nature and impetus.”


INSO’s teams currently support organisations operating across the country. Each region of Syria brings with it its own conflict dynamic and therefore its own risks to NGOs and their staff.


“For example in the north, many of the incidents that we see are related to organised armed groups, often from IEDs, whereas previously the Government of Syria or Russian initiated activity accounted for the vast majority of incidents,” Scott says. “In the east of the country, we often see NGO staff involved incidents that are non-life threatening disputes that relate to their local community.”


He continues: “While frontlines are currently static, the resumption of large-scale ground offensives continues to remain a possibility”.

Understanding these differences between regions of the country and the associated changing risks is vital to the work of INSO and partner NGOs alike.

A Country Director who leads an international NGO supported by INSO in Syria, and wished to remain anonymous, explains: “In the past, we were facing huge challenges related to indirect fire, mainly mortars. This trend stopped in around 2018, when most of the frontline was contained to the to the northwest.”


“What we still face is mainly related to the presence of unexploded ordnance or remnants from conflict. A lot of locations are still contaminated.”


“More recently, and due to the fact that more governorates are accessible, we spent a lot of time on the road. And with that came new risks. Now we are exposed to the threat of attacks on the road.”


“Generally criminality is also significantly increasing in Syria. Up to now, Syria saw little criminal activity. Now with the economic issues, it is rising,” the INGO Country Director adds.


A destoyed SAMS ambulance in NW Syria. Credit: A. Hammam/INSOA destoyed SAMS ambulance in NW Syria. Credit: A. Hammam/INSO

INSO today

To provide the most accurate and comprehensive services, INSO has significantly grown its footprint of support for organisations working in Syria.


“When INSO began supporting the Syria response in 2014 we were operating from a small office in Turkey. Today, we’ve grown and adapted as the conflict itself has changed,” Scott outlines. “Now we are a fully regionalised team with staff in Lebanon, Jordan, and of course inside Syria itself.”


INSO currently provides services to more than 200 registered NGOs in Syria.


“Even today we are still adding local NGOs to our partner lists,” Scott explains. “Our teams spend time networking to make sure that as many organisations as possible can access our services. This is particularly important for local NGOs who may not have the same capacity as larger organisations.”


“Our priority is to be able to provide the best services for our partners. We want to be anticipating how the conflict might evolve in the months and years ahead, what risks and challenges that will bring and ultimately how aid workers will be impacted.”


The INGO Country Director remarks: “The quality and the granularity of the information provided by INSO to partners is always very high.”


“Without INSO, we would have a lot more work! I would basically have to write the reports that the team receives from INSO. So it makes everything a lot more efficient and time effective.”



To find out more about INSO’s services and how to register please visit this link. INSO Syria is gratefully funded by the European Union (ECHO), Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), USAID Bureau of Humanitarian Aid (BHA), German Ministry of Foreign Affairs (GMFA) Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and Global Affairs Canada (GAC).