By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Damascus wants to manage the delivery of all humanitarian aid to a million people in need of assistance as a result of the 14-month-old conflict in Syria, but the United Nations insists on having some control, envoys say.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Syria have been negotiating for weeks on a plan for the distribution of aid throughout the country, but U.N. envoys familiar with the talks said the government and the U.N. agency are deadlocked on the issue of who will be in charge.
"The Syrians want to maintain control of the distribution networks," a diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"That position is a non-starter for OCHA, as it should be," he said. "OCHA can't allow the Syrian government to use it as a way to get people (they want to arrest) or to deliver aid only to government supporters."
Valerie Amos, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said it was in the middle of discussions with Syria on how to get aid to those who needed it.
Asked during a trip to Canada whether the talks had hit deadlock, she told Reuters: "We're continuing to discuss and negotiate so that's not the terminology I would use, no."
Amos said she did not know when the outstanding issues would be resolved.
"I certainly would not expect it to be months. I mean, these are people that we identified toward the end of March as needing help, so we need to get help to them as quickly as possible," she said in a phone interview.
The U.N. aid office has sent a letter to the Syrian government emphasizing the importance of the United Nations being at least partly in charge of the aid operation, diplomats said.
A U.N.-backed peace plan between Syria's government and rebels determined to oust President Bashar al-Assad calls on the government and opposition to "ensure timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting."
That plan, which was brokered by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has failed to bring an end to the fighting despite promises from Damascus and opposition groups that they would respect a ceasefire announced on April 12.
A U.N. official said Amos was keen to avoid linking the aid issue to political disputes on other aspects of the Annan plan. "She wants to keep aid separate from politics."
U.N. aid groups remain active in Syria, but they lack the kind of unfettered access throughout the country that they need to carry out their work effectively, diplomats said. The envoys all declined to be identified due to the confidential and sensitive nature of the talks between the U.N. aid office and Damascus.
Syria is insisting that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent be in charge of aid distribution, but the U.N. office is against that. Having the Syrian organization in charge would jeopardize U.N. neutrality, diplomats said, adding that it was not up to the task of coordinating aid distribution to more than a million people.
Asked whether the Syrians were trying to manage the delivery of all the aid, Amos replied: "In any aid operation there are some principles that are very important to adhere to. So yes, we will use operating partners on the ground ... but it's also important that you are able to monitor what is happening so you have to be present in the field to plan and monitor distribution. Aid has got to be delivered based on vulnerability and without discrimination."
U.N. officials and diplomats say the U.N. aid office would be willing to compromise by managing aid distribution jointly with the Syrian Red Crescent, but it is determined to maintain a measure of control over the delivery of aid throughout Syria.
The officials and diplomats, speaking before the interview with Amos, said aid distribution could be hijacked by those in the Syrian government who would like to use it as a means of getting access to opposition strongholds currently off-limits to government forces or for punishing rebel-held areas by denying them access to humanitarian aid.
There had been other sticking points in the talks between the U.N. aid office and Syria, but those have largely been resolved. The Syrian government had been concerned about U.N. demands that the human rights of aid recipients would be guaranteed, that they should have freedom of movement and would not be arbitrarily arrested.
Despite compromises on those and other issues, Damascus has refused to budge on the question of who will be in charge of distributing aid, diplomats said.
"We hope to reach an agreement on this question, too, soon," an envoy said.
(Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; editing by Mohammad Zargham)