Russia stands in the way of humanitarian air drops in Syria

People wait to leave the besieged town of Madaya, northwest of Damascus, Syria, where Doctors Without Borders says dozens of people have died of starvation since September. File Jan. 11, 2016. (Credit: AP)

With roughly 20 towns and cities under siege in Syria, the best possible way to provide assistance to people cut off from food and other supplies is through air drops. The U.N. wants to begin dropping in supplies, but it will not go ahead without support from Russia. So, for the time being, tens of thousands of people are still at risk of starvation and health problems because of the siege tactics employed by Syrian forces.

“At this point in time as long as the World Food Program has not yet finalized its plan, I don’t think there is something imminent, but I think that the process that will lead to air drops has already started, so we just have to wait and see when it will be put into effect at the earliest possible date,” said U.N. Deputy Special Envoy for Syria Ramzy E. Ramzy at a news conference Thursday.

The coalition of countries that make up the International Syria Support Group, which includes countries like the U.S. and the U.K., called on the World Food Program to make humanitarian air drops in besieged areas identified by the U.N. However, it appears that the global body is unwilling to make the unilateral move without the support of other countries, notably the Syria-supporting Russian government.

Deliveries may not happen soon. A senior adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied the need for U.N. intervention. Bouthaina Shabaan said in a news conference at the National Press Club that there is no humanitarian crisis in the country. Shabaan went as far as to say that “nobody is starving” in the city of Daraya, despite widespread reports and evidence to the contrary.

An aid convoy carrying vaccines led by the U.N. and the International Committee for the Red Cross reached Daraya earlier this week. It did not carry food, but the fact that it happened with the support of Russia was considered a positive development by U.N. Senior Adviser Jan Egeland. It was also the first time aid reached the city since 2012. Egeland told the media that food aid will reach the city soon and that the U.N. plans to go to 11 besieged areas in the coming days.

There are differing estimates about the number of people living in besieged areas of Syria. The official U.N. figure is 592,000. But the advocacy group Siege Watch said the real number is much closer to 1 million. Regardless of the numbers, the fact is that the Assad regime is using a tactic to cut off areas from supplies – a direct violation of the rules of war.

“The United States supports the WFP moving forward with their plan to carry out air operations to provide additional aid,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby at a news conference earlier this week. “We urge and expect Russia to use its influence with the regime to fulfill commitments already made for continued ground delivery of aid, and if needed, supporting international air operations going forward.”

The International Syria Support Group set a deadline of June 1 for the Syrian government to allow food and other humanitarian aid to reach people in need of assistance. That deadline came and passed without the access that the group demanded. The Daraya delivery was one positive outcome, but there are still many other regions not being reached.

Ramzy indicated that air drops may occur if the International Syria Support Group is unhappy with the pace of progress. But they are not a long-term solution to the humanitarian crisis that many Syrians face.

“While humanitarian air drops may offer short-term help, they are not a long-term solution when fighters themselves restrict humanitarian access, such as in Syria. Unimpeded ground access is urgently needed to effectively deliver aid to those that need it most in Syria,” explained Peter Giugni, in a blog post for the  International Committee for the Red Cross.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]