1 Oct 2016 – Nick Hopkins reports for The Guardian: More than 80% of the UN’s Syrian aid convoys have been blocked or delayed this month, denying millions of people essential supplies in some of the country’s hardest-hit areas, the Guardian can reveal. Only six convoys have so far reached their destinations, and from some that did get through Syrian authorities had removed substantial amounts of medicine and surgical equipment before the vehicles were loaded.
The desperate situation will be underlined in a UN report due to be published within weeks, which has mapped the severity of the crisis and the way it has affected communities across Syria.
Helena Fraser, a senior official at the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA), said: “It is shocking. The impact of the conflict and the sustained assault on access to healthcare is what I can only call catastrophic.”
Several rebel-held areas continue to be subject to bombardment, particularly in eastern Aleppo, where on Friday medics asked for permission to evacuate some of the more than 800 sick and injured people, including 261 children. More than 300 people are believed to have died in the latest hostilities.
Aid Cut-Off to Aleppo Since Early July
The UN has not been able to access eastern Aleppo since 7 July. Following the failure of diplomatic efforts to date, the US is considering options for a “plan B” strategy, said to include more stringent sanctions against Russian and Syrian institutions and individuals.
The nationwide ceasefire agreed earlier this month briefly raised hopes that a political solution in Syria was possible and a temporary halt in fighting would make it easier for aid to get to designated besieged and hard to reach areas.
The Syrian government agreed to allow the UN and its partners to send 33 convoys in September. Fifteen had full approval and the rest were given the green light after initial disagreements about the amount of aid needing to be sent.
However, the UN has said it was not allowed to move the first convoy before 19 September.
Of the convoys that did not get through, one came under attack from what were believed to be Russian jets in a rebel-held rural area near Aleppo. Aid workers were killed in the attack, lorries destroyed and there was severe damage to a medical clinic and warehouse where supplies were being unloaded.
Since then, two convoys have had to be aborted at a final checkpoint because of security fears. One was destined for al-Rastan, 14 miles (23km) north of Homs, but turned back after reports that the route was being bombarded.
Blocking and Removal of Vital Supplies
The places that have received deliveries are the besieged areas of Moadamiyah al-sham, Madaya, Zabadani, Foua, Kafriya and al-Waer. Five of the convoys reached these six areas. One convoy also went to the hard to reach town of Talbiseh.
The convoys had the potential to provide 240,000 people with food, water and sanitation supplies, but the UN and its partners were prevented from taking everything they wanted.
*From the convoy bound for Talbiseh, surgical supplies, burns and midwifery kits and medicines were removed during loading.
*Almost half the planned medical supplies were not approved for the trip to Moadamiyah al-sham. Initially, the Syrian government wanted to remove 11.5 tonnes of medical equipment, including 48,205 treatments.
*From the convoy for Madaya and Zabadani, 1.5 tonnes of surgical supplies and medicines were removed before loading.
*The Syrian government would not allow the loading of vegetable seeds and surgical items destined for al-Waer.
Fraser, who heads Ocha’s regional office for the Syria crisis, said: “We are outraged by the denial of routine medical equipment. We chase that, both in public and in private. This is absolutely terrible, but our only choice is to carry on and keep trying.”
The UN said Syrian government approval for the September convoys came a week later than expected, and a combination of insecurity on the ground, the Eid al-Adha holiday and administrative hurdles “meant that convoys rolled very late and certainly not in the numbers we were ready for, and that we had requested and planned for”.
“We cannot just go to our warehouse, load up a truck and go,” Fraser said. “We would be prevented from doing so; we are prevented from doing so.”
Describing the situation as agonizing, she said: “Whether you are a Syrian NGO [non-governmental organisation] on the frontline in eastern Aleppo being bombed into oblivion, or a UN worker sitting in Damascus or accompanying convoys across conflict lines, we are all really taking risks and being mentally pummelled by some of the positions in which we are put.”
The deteriorating situation in Syria and continual bombardment of eastern Aleppo has raised the political stakes to new heights in recent days, with Russia being directly and repeatedly accused of war crimes because of its support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
UN Under Scrutiny
In a statement to the UN Security Council published on Thursday, the Undersecretary General for humanitarian affairs, Stephen O’Brien, said:
It is now a legitimate question to ask whether there is any level of disaster and death that can be visited upon the Syrian people that might prompt the parties to this conflict, and by extension the international community, to identify a red line that will not be crossed.
One day there will be no hiding place for the individuals and institutions callously, cynically perpetrating these war crimes….There are few words left to describe the horrors for people living under siege.
However, the UN has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, with aid organisations, human rights groups and NGOs accusing it of being too close to the Syrian government.
Earlier this month, more than 70 aid groups suspended cooperation with the UN in Syria and demanded an immediate and transparent investigation into its operations because of concerns that Assad had gained “significant and substantial” influence over the relief effort.
The Guardian also revealed that the UN has awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to individuals closely associated with Assad, including businesspeople whose companies are under US and EU sanctions.
The UN insists that it remains impartial, but it has so far resisted calls for a transparent inquiry into its relationship with Damascus.
Fraser said the UN pushed back “at every turn” when the Syrian government refused medical equipment for convoys.
“Just because we have to comply with these procedures doesn’t mean we accept them … The final step is to raise our objections very strongly with member states, behind closed doors, with the parties who have influence on the government, including the Russians, who have been helpful on occasions,” she said. “There are no easy choices, especially when you are trying to work in every area, which is what we are trying to do.”
Fraser said the UN, or its partners, had managed to reach as many rebel-held areas as government-held areas with “crossline” aid convoys.
“We can do some things that other people cannot do. But there are other actors … with whom we work extremely closely that can do things that we cannot do,” she said. “We work with those NGOs who have different forms of access, a different reach.”
The “sustained assault” on aid work in Syria and difficulties of getting help to millions of people who need it was the result of a “complete failure of political will to resolve the crisis”, Fraser said. “Every party to the fighting is violating international humanitarian law in this conflict. Everyone.” www.mesop.de