Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

No humanitarian surge for Syria

By failing to launch a full humanitarian relief effort the UN is still failing besieged Syrians, writes Hanan Elbadawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Over the past few weeks there have been high hopes of bringing about a drastic change in securing humanitarian aid for millions of people inside Syria.

On 17 May, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) demanded “immediate, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access throughout Syria” by 1 June or the next step will be to overrule the Syrian government and ask the UN World Food Programme to make airdrops in all the areas in need. This raised hopes of a “humanitarian surge” reaching out to the 10.8 million Syrians whom the UN’s Syria Humanitarian Response Plan is supposed to help.

On 10 June, the Syrian town of Daraya was in the news headlines. After four years of receiving absolutely no food aid supplies, the town received a relief convoy dispatched in a joint operation by the UN and the Syrian Red Crescent.

While this convoy had the Syrian government’s seal of approval, the country’s military shelled the town shortly after the convoy reached it, making the actual distribution of the aid impossible. However, UN statements still found reasons for considering the dispatch of the convoy “a successful operation”.

I beg to differ. Daraya, a single town among the 19 besieged areas identified by the UN, is just eight kilometres away from downtown Damascus, which means around eight kilometres away from the UN resident coordinator’s office in Syria.

For four years, the UN system has stood by, watching starvation used as a weapon against hundreds of thousands of Syrians and waiting for permission from the Syrian government to dispatch aid convoys to besieged areas in which more than 500,000 people are trapped as a result of siege conditions. This is because most of them reside in pockets of the opposition surrounded by government-controlled areas. Fourteen of these besieged areas are just an hour’s drive from Damascus.

“If the government controls half the territory you do not want to lose access to half the territory,” said one UN employee with experience working in Syria. “Access is the number-one consideration for the UN.”

Access should indeed be the number-one consideration, but has the UN approach been effective in securing access to besieged Syrians? Most of the time the UN does not receive the authorisations it requests from the Syrian government. In 2015 the UN was able to reach, on average, less than three per cent of the population of besieged areas with assistance in any given sector.

In the same year, the UN presented 113 requests to the Syrian government to dispatch aid convoys to besieged and hard-to-reach areas inside Syria. Eighty of the 113 requests simply went unanswered. The UN system did nothing in response.

What is an office in downtown Damascus worth if for four years the UN has stood by, unable to dispatch an aid convoy to besieged civilians a few kilometres from that office? What’s the rationale for keeping close ties with the Syrian government if the authorisations that are requested are ignored?

Managing to dispatch some aid convoys to besieged areas is not the same as “immediate, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access” throughout Syria. Delivering some aid convoys to besieged areas does not qualify as a “humanitarian surge”.

The UN system is still far from achieving this much-needed surge, and it is still reluctant to describe a failure as a failure. Dispatching a convoy to Daraya with food aid sufficient for 2,400 people for a month in a town of at least 8,000 people in need of food assistance was described by one official as a “successful delivery”.

It seems the UN system can still watch silently as still more heartbreaking images of starving children come out of Syria, as it awaits the next authorisation from the Syrian government to dispatch an aid convoy.

The humanitarian system today remains UN-centred. Numerous NGOs could do a great job inside Syria, especially in areas where they have managed to get cross-border access, but it is the UN that has the capacity, the mandate and therefore the duty to deal with an entire country as a single operation. It is the UN that is supposed to get full access to besieged areas inside Syria, meaning that we should blame the UN, and not any NGO, when starvation is used as a weapon of war against besieged Syrians.

It is now time for the UN to push the limits, to make full use of its mandate, and to stand up to its responsibilities in securing humanitarian aid inside Syria. A comprehensive programme of airdrops for all the areas in need is the commitment that the international community has to fulfil. This option might have its imperfections, but the job of the UN system is to come up with ways to make airdrops a more efficient tool of delivery instead of shying away from using them.

In May, Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy to Syria, referred to airdrops as “a last resort.” It is probably now high time to use this last resort, as it is becoming more and more evident that the cessation of hostilities in Syria is turning into mere ink on paper and that the Syrian government is not cooperating to facilitate full humanitarian access throughout the country.

Yielding to one side’s manipulation of humanitarian aid and standing helplessly by watching civilians suffer from starvation will only put the credibility of the UN system further at risk.


The writer is an analyst.

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