Brushing aside vague threats from
the United Nations Security Council, the Syrian government continued over the
past month to lay siege to more than 220,000 of its own civilians, block the
delivery of life-saving medicines to opposition areas, and maintain
bureaucratic restrictions making it extremely difficult for U.N.
relief workers to reach hundreds of thousands of needy Syrians, according to an
unpublished March 22 report by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The impediments to the international relief effort come one month after
the Security Council adopted its first-ever resolution demanding that Syria's combatants provide immediate
access to relief workers or face the threat of "further steps." The
resolution called on the U.N. chief to report to the 15-nation council on
progress every 30 days.
Ban's report, a copy of which was
obtained by Foreign Policy, will present the United States and its European
allies with one of the first major tests of their ability to work cooperatively
with Russia on a major international crisis since Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's
Crimean peninsula sent relations into a nosedive.
Russia, which has vetoed three
resolutions on Syria, grudgingly agreed to support the council's resolution on
humanitarian access on the eve of the Sochi Winter Olympics closing ceremony,
avoiding a potentially embarrassing diplomatic collision. But Russia's U.N.
envoy, Vitaly I. Churkin, made clear even before the international crisis over
Ukraine that Moscow had no intention of rushing to impose penalties on Syria,
its closest Middle East ally. Churkin, echoing the line taken by Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, said the Syrian government was battling Islamist militants
with ties to al Qaeda.
In his report to the Security Council, Ban expressed "regret" that stalled
U.S., Russian and U.N. diplomatic efforts in Geneva have "produced such
poor results" in reducing Syria's bloodshed and called on the Syrian
parties, and their foreign backers, to "refocus" their efforts on
revitalizing the talks. "Syria is now the biggest humanitarian and peace
and security crisis facing the world," he wrote. "It requires an immediate
end to violence and a negotiated political solution to the conflict."
The report credits the Syrian government with providing some additional
access to previously inaccessible areas, and allowing goods to enter the
country through Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and a rare-cross border delivery of
humanitarian assistance across the Turkish border. (However, Syrian authorities
on Friday blocked the first aid delivery from Turkey to Syria, Reuters reported.) Damascus has long considered aid deliveries from Turkey a "red line"
given the prospect that extremist groups could smuggle weapons into the country
in aid convoys.
The report also accuses armed
opposition groups, particularly those affiliated with al Qaeda, of impeding the
delivery of assistance. In Aleppo, for instance, armed opposition groups have
refused to lift a siege on 45,000 people in two Alawite towns, Zahra and Nubl,
unless the Syrian government lifts its siege of civilians in the town of
Eastern Ghouta, where 160,000 people have been besieged by pro-government
forces since late 2012.
A surge of intra-rebel fighting between armed factions the moderate
Free Syrian Army and the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Ban says,
has also cut of vital aid routes in northern Syria. "As the conflict
intensifies and fighting between armed groups increases, more people are
slipping out of the reach of humanitarian organization," Ban writes. "Around 3.5 million people are now
estimated to be in need of assistance in hard to reach areas, an increase of 1
million since the beginning of 2014."
But the report sharply criticizes
the Syrian government for refusing to lift its bureaucratic vice on the aid
Early this month, the Syrian government
established a "working group" to discuss ways to improve aid
delivery. Since then, "there has been no progress in streamlining and
speeding up procedures to facilitate inter-agency convoys during the reporting
period and the process for approval remains extremely complex and time
For instance, the U.N. still must notify the
Syrian Foreign Ministry 72 hours in advance of plans to send out an aid convoy.
If the request is approved, the U.N. must acquire "facilitation"
letters from the Syrian Red Crescent and from the Ministry of Social Affairs.
If the convoy is delivering medicine the Health Ministry needs to sign off, too.
None of this assures that aid can
actually get delivered.
"Significant challenges to the delivery of assistance remain
including: the need for multiple requests for approval of inter-agency convoys,
which often go unanswered," according to the report. "Since the
adoption of the resolution, medicines and medical supplies have been removed by
government officials from inter-agency convoys to al Houla (Homs), Adra (rural
Damascus) and Madamiyet Elsham (rural Damascus) which would have assisted
around 201,000 people."
The end result, the report said,
was that there have been "several instances in which
aid convoys either could not proceed or were prevented from carrying essential
items, such as medicines."
Violence has returned to Homs
since the United Nations oversaw the evacuation of 1,366 people in early February, which
had been a rare glimmer of hope that a
break in the year-and-a-half long siege marked a turning point, according to
the report. While the U.N. has evacuated an additional 200 people since mid-March,
"shelling and bombing returned to pre-ceasefire levels." About 150 male
evacuees continue to be held at a government "screening facility,"
which was hit by a mortar early this month, forcing the U.N. to suspend its
monitoring of the site to ensure the detainees human rights are being observed.
Other besieged areas remained
primarily beyond the reach of U.N. aid efforts. In Eastern Ghouta, where more
than 160,000 people have been cut off by the Syrian government from
international assistance since 2012, only a trickle of aid has made it into the area, including a large
one-off vaccination program for 40,000 children. "On 27 February, three
separate Notes Verbales [diplomatic
appeals] were submitted to the government that were not answered." When
the U.N. issued a fourth appeal, Damascus responded that the U.N. should first
work on lifting the siege on rebel-controlled villages of Nubl and Zahra.
Ultimately, the Syrian government agreed to approve a convoy delivering limited
supplies, including 600 food rations, to the town of Douma.
The humanitarian aid crisis is
playing out against a backdrop of increasing violence in Syria, with more than
500,000 fleeing Aleppo since January, and more than 200 people, including
civilians, dying each day in Syria, according to the report.
"During the reporting period,
indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, including aerial bombings,
shelling, mortars and car bombs in populated areas, caused mass civilian death
and injuries and forced displacement," the report stated. "There were
continued reports of artillery shelling and air strikes, including the use of
barrel bombs, by government forces. Car bombing and suicide attacks, including
against civilian objects resulted in civilian deaths and injury during the
reporting period. Many of these attacks were claimed by the Islamic State of
Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) and Jabhat al-Nusra."
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