UN decries ‘increasingly shrinking humanitarian space’ in Syria as aid convoy robbed at gunpoint

AMMAN: The United Nations is “alarmed” about the increasing difficulties in delivering aid inside Syria, a spokeswoman told Syria Direct on Tuesday, one day after unidentified armed gunmen robbed a 35-truck humanitarian convoy that had turned back from the Waer district of Homs city.

The aid delivery to the encircled, rebel-held Homs district could not be completed on Sunday following unclaimed sniper fire on the convoy as it approached Waer.

On Monday, the convoy tried again. But the 35 trucks, from the United Nations, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) turned around yet again amidst shelling and sporadic gunfire in the Waer area.

The convoy set out to return to warehouses inside government-held Homs city but was stopped en route in regime-controlled territory, with 22 of the trucks emptied of their contents, according to statements by the ICRC and the UN.

“The UN is alarmed by the increasingly shrinking humanitarian space in Syria and condemns, in the strongest possible terms, this disregard for the protection of humanitarian workers,” said a spokeswoman with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) from Damascus.

The ICRC/UN/SARC aid convoy failed to reach Waer on Monday. Photo courtesy of ICRC Syria.

The international aid convoy—which was carrying food, medical supplies and winter clothes for 50,000 people—was “forced to abort” its delivery to the last rebel-controlled district of Homs city on Monday due to “ongoing shelling and sporadic fire” in the area, UNOCHA’s Linda Tom told Syria Direct.

“Civilians and unknown armed elements” diverted 22 of the 35 trucks to a “government-controlled area,” Tom told Syria Direct.

“The drivers were detained and reportedly beaten,” she added.

Pro-opposition media accused a pro-Assad and Hezbollah-affiliated militia, Liwa a-Rida, on Tuesday of “emptying the trucks of their food and medicine” and bringing the aid intended for Waer residents back to villages the militia controls in the Homs countryside.

Neither the militia nor Syrian state media publicly responded on Tuesday to accusations of foul play in the aid delivery.

The armed individuals released all drivers and humanitarian workers “late last evening,” Ingy Sedky, a spokesman with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

“What happened yesterday [Monday] is totally unacceptable, and we remind all parties of their responsibility to protect and respect humanitarians,” she added.

The multiple obstructions of aid delivery “are all unacceptable breaches of international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles,” said UNOCHA’s Linda Tom. “Civilians in [Waer] have not received humanitarian assistance through inter-agency convoys for 117 days.”

The last time an aid convoy reached Waer was October 26, 2016.

Inside Waer on Tuesday, residents say they are pessimistic that aid will enter the encircled district.

“It’s unlikely that it will happen,” a representative from Waer’s opposition General Civil Authority told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

“Waer is a disaster area that needs to have aid air-dropped into it,” the General Civil Authority said in an online statement Tuesday.

Pro-regime forces launched at least six mortars on Waer on Tuesday, Abu Ramez of the Waer Civil Defense told Syria Direct the same day.

The attack comes amidst a two-week campaign of airstrikes, artillery, surface-to-surface rockets and heavy gunfire on Waer resulting in “23 deaths and more than 150 injuries among civilians,” Jalal Talawi, a correspondent with SMART News, told Syria Direct on Monday.

Waer is the only rebel holdout district remaining in Homs city since opposition fighters left Old Homs as part of a wide-ranging truce across the provincial capital in May 2014. Since late 2015, rebel and regime negotiators have met to discuss a surrender, but the talks remain unproductive.

 

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.