The Cable

Exclusive: Yes, Syria's Humanitarian Crisis Can Get Worse. Much Worse.

It is hard to fathom the humanitarian crisis in Syria getting any worse than it already has.

But it is, with the number of Syrian civilians residing mostly beyond the reach of United Nations relief workers swelling from 3.5 million to about 4.7 million, according to new U.N. estimates.

Those enduring the brunt of the misery are civilians trapped in rebel-controlled terrain, cut off from life-saving assistance by a dizzying array of bureaucratic regulations and subjected to a relentless barrage of indiscriminate barrel bomb attacks by the Syrian Air Force, according to the internal U.N. data as well as a June 20 report to the U.N. Security-Council by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Last April, the Syrian government introduced procedures ostensibly designed to speed deliveries to civilians in hard-to-reach areas. Damascus maintains the steps were necessary to prevent aid trucks from smuggling weapons or other assistance to armed rebels or extremists.

The new measures -- which involved placing seals on the cargo hold of aid trucks so they could pass quickly through government checkpoints -- helped prevent some "petty pilferage" at the checkpoints but "failed to improve the reach of humanitarian aid" and "resulted in fewer people being reached," Ban wrote in his 18-page report on Syria's humanitarian crisis. The government is now planning to impose additional bureaucratic impediments -- including a requirement that the Syrian government's National Security Office sign off on every aid shipment -- that "will result in lengthier, rather than reduced, approval processes," according to Ban.

"Efforts to expand humanitarian assistance to those most in need have been met with continued delays and obstruction," Ban wrote. Conflict has played a part in the delays, "as has the government of Syria's refusal to ease bureaucratic obstacles imposed on humanitarian work," Ban added. "Far from improving access, new procedures rolled out two months ago have resulted in more delays and reduced the reach of humanitarian partners further."

Internal U.N. estimates indicate that the scale of need in opposition areas in Syria is far greater than previously acknowledged by the United Nations. The figures paint a picture of a sharply divided society, with those living outside of government-controlled territory deprived of the basic necessities needed for survival, including food and medicine. In Aleppo, for instance, about 250,000 residents of rebel-held and contested areas were receiving U.N. food in March 2013. In March, practically none were.

The imbalance was caused in part by the flight of Syria's displaced from rebel-held conflict zones to safer government-controlled areas. But the new internal U.N. figures show that a significant percentage of civilians have been left behind, and they have access to a dwindling share of international aid entering the country.

The U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, is scheduled to brief the 15-nation council Thursday morning on Syria's humanitarian crisis and appeal for council support for U.N. plans to ship relief to the neediest areas across Syria's across battle lines and border crossings into rebel strongholds.

Infighting between Syria's rebel groups, including the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, in northeastern Syria has killed thousands of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands more. Rebel groups have continued to lay siege to about 45,000 people in pro-government towns surrounding the government-controlled city of Aleppo. In one particularly bloody incident in May, insurgents fired mortars at pro-government election workers in Daraa, killing 43 and wounding many others. Ban wrote that the deliberate targeting of civilians by both sides "is a war crime."

Beyond the fighting, the Syrian government's bureaucratic red tape has exacted a heavy toll on the civilians living in rebel strongholds from the suburbs of Damascus to Aleppo. 

Over the past three months, humanitarian relief deliveries to opposition areas throughout the country have fallen by 75 percent compared to the quantities of aid delivered in the first three months of the year. According to Ban, the Syrian government has systematically blocked the delivery of medical supplies -- particularly syringes and blood supplies -- to civilians in rebel-held areas. This was "in clear violation of international humanitarian law," Ban wrote. "Tens of thousands of civilians are being arbitrarily denied urgent and life-saving medical care."

For instance, the share of food deliveries to residents in rebel-controlled territory dropped from 40 percent of overall aid distributed throughout Syria in March 2013 to 14 percent in March 2014, according to confidential estimates -- here and here -- produced by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance. Food shipments to civilians in government-controlled territory climbed from 60 percent of overall aid distributed throughout Syria to 86 percent during the same period.

The sharp difference between the quantities of aid delivered to citizens of government-held areas and rebel-held ones was particularly striking in Aleppo, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the years-long civil war. Food assistance in government-controlled areas in the city surged from 100,000 people in March 2013 to more than 860,000 a year later. During the same period, about than 250,00 civilians living in rebel-controlled or contested neighborhoods in Aleppo received food aid. In March, that figure was approaching zero.

Aleppo isn't the only conflict zone being hit hard. In total, more than 5 million Syrians living in opposition-controlled territory -- including more than 1 million living in areas where extremist groups, including ISIS, yield influence -- needed food aid, according to internal U.N. estimates - here and here. By contrast, some 4.8 million Syrians living in government-controlled areas are in need of international handouts, according to the U.N. figures.

The gloomy assessment comes nearly nine months after the U.N. Security Council issued its first call to Syria's warring parties to grant humanitarian aid workers unfettered access throughout the country, and about four months after it passed a resolution demanding it do so or face unspecified "further steps."

The United States, Australia, Britain, France, Jordan, and Luxembourg have been trying to negotiate a new follow-up resolution that would require Syria to allow U.N. aid workers to deliver aid directly into rebel-controlled areas across Syria's battle lines and across Syria's borders with neighboring countries.

The U.N., Ban wrote in his report, is prepared to "put in place speedy, pragmatic and practical arrangements at critical border crossings to facilitate delivery of humanitarian aid."

"Such arrangements," he added, "would allow United Nations convoys to cross the border into Syria -- in their own vehicles, without the need for specific permits or visas -- to deliver urgently needed relief to people in need."

Those talks are stalled because of resistance from Russia and Syria, which has insisted that any cross-border aid deliveries be approved and coordinated by Syrian authorities.

The negotiations are playing out against a backdrop of increasing violence. The Syrian conflict has left more than 150,000 people dead, destroyed the country's economy, displaced 6.4 million people, and placed 10.8 million in need of international handouts. Two hundred and forty thousand people live in besieged areas, including nearly 200,000 prevented by Syrian government forces from leaving their villages.

"I am particularly concerned that the government of Syria, a signatory to the U.N. Charter, continues to indiscriminately drop hundreds of barrel bombs on defenseless men, women and children in populated neighborhoods," Ban wrote. But he also faulted the armed opposition, saying, "I am equally concerned at the relentless and indiscriminate use of mortar and shelling of residential neighborhoods by armed opposition groups. These actions are flagrant violations of international law."

In Aleppo, about 250,000 residents of rebel-held areas and neighborhoods where insurgents were battling government forces received U.N. food aid in March 2013. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the only Aleppo residents receiving those supplies lived in rebel-held areas. 

Stan Honda/ AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Syria's Declared Nerve Agent Is Gone. So Why Is Nobody Celebrating?

The world's chemical weapons watchdog this week announced a landmark in the fight against weapons of mass destruction: Syria became the first country to voluntarily surrender its entire stockpile of declared chemical weapons agents in the midst of a civil war.

So why, then, is the world so reluctant to call it a victory and move on? Even as they applauded the chemical weapons milestone, U.S. and European officials made it clear they would continue to closely monitor Syria's chemical weapons program. "It should not be lost on anyone that our work is not finished," Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday.

There are three reasons for the West's caution. First, President Bashar al-Assad is widely believed to be taking advantage of a loophole in his agreement to rid Syria of chemical weapons by using chlorine gas on the battlefield (chlorine, which is widely available commercially, isn't considered to be a chemical weapon but its use as such is banned under international law because it is a toxic substance). Western officials also allege that Syria is refusing its obligation to destroy chemical warfare production and storage facilities. The United States, Britain, and France, meanwhile, informed the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) months ago that they suspect that Syria has failed to declare secret stockpiles, raising the possibility that Damascus still possesses chemical weapons, according to Security Council diplomats.

"The regime's history of lies and obstruction make it impossible to take its claims at face value," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday.

The British diplomat's remarks were reminiscent of an earlier era, when U.S. and British officials leveled similar accusations -- later proven false -- against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi dictator's alleged mendacity -- as well as his efforts to limit the access of U.N. inspectors -- served as a justification for maintaining sanctions on Iraq for well over a decade after it had already largely dismantled and destroyed its weapons of mass destruction program, and it later served as a pretext for the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.

Syrian diplomats noticed those similarities as well.

Last year, Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar al-Jaafari, said that Western efforts to deploy chemical weapons inspectors to Syria were designed to give Western powers an excuse for a never-ending search for Syrian armaments that could fuel efforts to overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad's alleged use of sarin, a deadly nerve agent, in an August 21 attack on the town of Al-Ghouta that killed about 1,400 of his own people brought the Obama administration to the brink of ordering airstrikes against Syrian targets. Instead, Russia helped broker a deal under which Assad pledged to turn his chemical weapons over to the international community for destruction by the middle of 2014 in exchange for Washington halting its plans for a military intervention.

While the agreement has succeeded in eliminating Syria's declared chemical weapons stockpiles, several of its facilities have yet to be destroyed, which means the overall program is running several months behind schedule.

More ominously, Syria has found dangerous loopholes that could further undermine the effectiveness of the deal.

For instance, Syria is not required to account for its stores of chlorine, a commercially available substance that Assad has allegedly used as a chemical weapon. An OPCW fact-finding mission recently concluded that "toxic chemicals, most likely pulmonary irritating agents such as chlorine, have been used in a systematic manner in a number of attacks."

The United States has blamed Syria, with Robert Mikulak, the American representative to the OPCW, arguing earlier this month that "the systematic nature of the attacks, the intended targets and other publicly available information all point to one likely perpetrator -- the Syrian government."

"Who else would benefit?" he asked. "Who else could carry out such systematic attacks?"

Syria has strenuously denied accusations that it has used chlorine gas on the battlefield.

Questions about Syria's potential use of chlorine gas have been playing out as the last consignment of 1,300 metric tons of declared chemical precursors and nerve agents -- including sarin and mustard gas -- were packed and loaded Monday onto a Danish ship, the Ark Futura, in the Syrian port of Latakia.

Some of the most toxic agents will be transported to an Italian port, where they will be loaded onto the American Navy vessel, the MV Cape Ray. Once at sea, they will treated using a chemical process -- known as hydrolysis -- that bombards the most lethal agents with massive amounts of water and other chemicals. The diluted chemical waste will be shipped to facilities in Britain, Germany, Finland, and the United States for incineration.

Damascus will miss its June 30 deadline for fully eliminating its chemical weapons program and still needs to destroy all of its chemical weapons facilities and to answer some outstanding questions about its overall program.

Still, Ahmet Üzümcü, the Turkish director general of the OPCW, said that Damascus had completely turned over its chemical weapons stockpiles and said that Syria's cooperation has been "commensurate with the requirements" of the international community. Üzümcü said it could be another three to four months before the actual chemicals themselves will be destroyed, while other analysts say it's unlikely that the total destruction of Syria's chemical warfare program -- including all of its facilities -- will be completed before the second quarter of 2015.

Üzümcü also said his agency would continue to examine claims of chlorine's use, noting that while the possession of chlorine is legal, its use as a chemical warfare agent is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The debate over the future of Syria's chemical weapons program is playing out behind closed doors in The Hague, where the United States and Russia are locked in discussions over what to do in the months ahead if the OPCW declares its work effectively over.

Russia wants the U.N. Security Council to step aside and leave the OPCW -- which has a tradition of working consensually with governments -- in charge of monitoring Syria for any signs it seeks to go back on its word. Syria, according to the Russian argument, should be treated like any other country that has sought the agency's support in scrapping its weapons program.

But the United States and European powers argue that Syria is a special case, given its distinction as the first country to use chemical weapons against its own people in 25 years. They want the U.N. Security Council, which has the authority to compel countries to abide by its demands, to remain at the center of any future efforts to ensure the total elimination of Syria's chemical weapons.

There are also a number of other unanswered questions surrounding Syria's program.

In March 2013 -- several months before it agreed to scrap its entire chemical weapons program -- Syria claimed to have destroyed about 200 metric tons of mustard gas in three sites in Syria, said Jean Pascal Zanders, an expert on chemical weapons who writes an influential blog called The Trench. He said that the OPCW established a special team to verify precisely what Syria had destroyed.

Syria, meanwhile, has resisted calls for the destruction of a dozen former chemical weapons facilities, including tunnels and production and storage facilities, according to Security Council diplomats.

For instance, Syria has maintained it has the right under the Chemical Weapons Convention to spare its chemical weapons storage facilities from the wrecking ball. It argues that it should be allowed to preserve parts of the facilities for use in commercial enterprises.

But the United States and other key Western powers insist that Syria destroy it entirely and fill the tunnels with cement so they can never be used to produce chemical weapons in the future.

"We must ensure the destruction of all of Syria's chemical weapons production facilities," Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said Monday. "We cannot waver in our resolve to make sure Syria's chemical weapons program is fully and finally dismantled and eliminated so these weapons can no longer threaten the Syrian people or the rest of the international community."

Nigel Treblin/ Getty Images