February 19, 2014
Long a prime target of al Qaeda-inspired attacks, the United Nations has been discreetly cultivating informal contacts with the terror organization’s Syrian affiliate in hopes of persuading the militants to allow aid workers to safely deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians in opposition-controlled territory, U.N. officials told Foreign Policy.
The contacts with leaders from the Jabhat al-Nusra terror group, which have not previously been reported, are mostly informal and sometimes involve little more than conversations between U.N. relief workers and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters at a specific checkpoint. In other cases, the U.N. funnels requests for safe passage through other more moderate armed opposition groups. Other more direct communications remain a closely-held secret. “We don’t talk about the details,” said a senior U.N. official who confirmed the contacts. “These are not face-to-face contacts — they usually take place on telephone or Skype.”
The outreach is highly sensitive within the U.N. and the broader international relief community. U.N. officials fear that the disclosure of any dealings, however incidental,with terror groups could fuel criticism that the world body is conveying such groups a kind of political legitimacy they don’t deserve. Still, U.N. officials say they have no choice but to deal with the militants. The world body is racing against time to get food and aid to the hundreds of thousands of civilians who are facing starvation in Homs, Aleppo, and other besieged Syrian towns and cities. It has been pressing the Syrian government to allow aid workers to cross through military-held territory, but senior officials say such permissions — even if granted by Damascus, which is far from certain — would be insufficient if Jabhat al-Nusra and other armed opposition groups didn’t make similar guarantees.