March 31, 2014
By Elizabeth Parker-Magyar, Raneem Qubatros and Firas Abd
AMMAN: One month after the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2139 demanding all parties, “in particular the Syrian authorities,” allow unhindered humanitarian access inside Syria,hundreds of thousands of Syrians remain behind government- and rebel-imposed barriers.
“Things continue to get worse from a humanitarian angle,” said Sarah Case, the Regional Advocacy Officer for the International Rescue Committee whose mandate includes aid for Syria. “Despite this resolution, we really have not seen a whole lot of progress on the ground.”
Though the Syrian government has made minor allowances, no substantial change has been made in its policy of encircling rebel-held areas and forbidding the entry of humanitarian aid convoys, forcing rebel groups to lay down their weapons or watch citizens starve.
Last week, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos told the Security Council that Resolution 2139 had had little effect.
“The situation for millions of desperate people has not improved,” Amos said in her remarks, as quoted by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
For Syrians who remain in the country, more than one-third of whom are displaced,that means that March looked a lot like the months before it, the UN resolution notwithstanding.
On March 20th, the Syrian government granted permission for a humanitarian convoy to pass through the Nusaybin border crossing in Syria’s far eastern majority-Kurdish Qamishli province, the first time it had done so in three years of war.
But that one-time delivery “is a drop in the ocean,” said Case, adding that the Syrian government needs to allow aid through all the border points under its control.
“We heard about the Security Council’s decision on aid entering Syria, but we have not seen anything from it,” said Laith al-Asi, speaking from Idlib, further west on Syria’s northern border with Turkey. Al-Asi is a humanitarian aid coordinator with Suqour a-Sham, a faction of the Islamic Front, one of Syria’s largest rebel groups.
In southern Syria on the Jordanian border, “nothing has reached Daraa province,” said Mohammed Hesham Jaber, a spokesperson for the pro-opposition Syrian Media Center, saying the government had confiscated any and all aid.
One of the hardest-hit areas in Syria is East Ghouta, the string of mostly rebel-controlled towns east of Damascus. Total blockades have been ongoing for many months, with those unable to flee trapped inside the towns.
“All the independent civil institutions are practically incapable of providing any service to the residents of the city due to the high population and tremendous need caused by the siege,” said Bara’ Abdul Rahman, 28, a citizen journalist in East Ghouta.
“The aid that arrives from the UN is not enough for even 1 percent of the population,” he said.
The challenge within
The United Nations estimates 245,000 Syrian citizens are encircled by military blockades, the vast majority imposed by government forces. Reaching those Syrians, the IRC’s Case says, constitute a “high priority.”
Outside government restrictions, humanitarian organizations also contend with the dozens of shifting rebel formations, some extremist, and the logistical chaos of reaching tens of thousands of civilians in intermittent windows.
Since mid-February, encircled towns in the Damascus suburbs, effectively starved into submission, have reached numerous tentative ceasefire agreements to allow safe passage for civilians and the entry of humanitarian aid, only to have those ceasefires collapse.
In Yarmouk camp, where a photograph that went viral in January brought attention to thousands of Syrians and Palestinian refugees on the brink of starvation, 14 rebel factions agreed to uphold a civilian-negotiated ceasefire, allowing United Nations aid workers intermittent access throughout March.
“People are looking at Yarmouk as a barometer of the parties' intentions toward implementing” U.N Resolution 2139, United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) spokesperson Christopher Gunness told Syria Direct in mid-March. His organization is responsible for distributing aid in the Palestinian and Syrian community.
A child awaits an aid delivery in Yarmouk camp.
But the peace was broken when extremist group Jabhat a-Nusra re-entered the camp on March 2, accusing the Syrian government of not upholding its end of the bargain, illustrating what Case refers to as the challenge of “changes in interlocutors.”
Later, when Yarmouk-based groups scraped together another truce, UNRWA had to abandon distribution as a result of sheer chaos, as no civilian of rebel organization was able to organize the thousands of starving civilians.
Monday, UNRWA was able to deliver 280 food parcels, but Gunness announced in a public statement that, for unknown reasons, “distribution may not recommence for four days.”
“There's a lot of very frayed nerves, bad tempers, anger, grief—all the emotions that accompany wars,” he told Syria Direct earlier this month.
Meanwhile, in the rebel-held Damascus suburbs where no ceasefires have been reached, citizens either starve or rely on cross-checkpoint smuggling for food and medical needs.
“A woman smuggled in an anti-inflammatory injection in a loaf of bread through one of the checkpoints,” said Sa’er, a doctor in a rebel-held Damascus suburb. “We have not received any medical supplies from any official source.”
For humanitarian organizations struggling for access to struggling civilians, the status quo is unsustainable, said the IRC’s Case.
“Every new day for those civilians who are in need is the worst day yet,” she said.