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Aid groups struggle to deliver food, medical supplies

Bruce KonviserJune 11, 2016

Syrians are growing increasingly desperate for food, with one report claiming people had traded a car for rice. The Assad regime has also denied aid requests for medical supplies, including burn kits and surgical tools.

Truck of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent SARC carries food and other supplies as it enters the besieged town of Daraya.
Image: picture alliance/AP

The delivery of food aid to a besieged suburb of the Syrian capital is supposed to be the start of a series of deliveries to as many as 19 besieged towns across the country that remain home to nearly 600,000 Syrians. This initial delivery is an important step in bringing humanitarian aid to the war-torn region, but given the vicious nature of the Syrian conflict, no one is taking subsequent deliveries for granted.

The food was delivered by the World Food Program (WFP) in conjunction with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations humanitarian organization - the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Jane Howard, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program (WFP) in Rome, described conditions in Daraya as they were relayed to her from fellow aid workers who delivered the food supplies.

"Clearly there was no electricity, and people looked pretty thin," she said in a phone interview with DW. "They're in a slowly deteriorating state of being, both physically and psychologically."

No sooner had food been delivered to Daraya, which lies just 5 miles (8 km) southwest of downtown Damascus, than government bombs began falling on the town. But for a town that has been besieged since late 2012, the food comes as an enormous help.

'Starvation as a weapon is a war crime'

"Nine trucks managed to get enough flour and family rations to feed 4,000 people for a month," Howard said. "We're absolutely delighted to be able to do that."

The aid organizations are providing regular food aid to 4 million people across Syria, according to Howard, but the government of Bashar al-Assad has denied safe passage for aid deliveries to 16 towns under siege, while rebel groups are reportedly denying aid access to three other besieged towns.

"The problem is when food is being used as a weapon of war," she said. "We're a humanitarian agency and we should be allowed access at all times under international law."

Law and war

But international law tends to be one of the first casualties of war, and the grim reality is that food deprivation is a very effective weapon, according Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"The key element of a siege is to deny the area you are besieging, and to bleed it of supplies," he said. "It's a very effective weapon. It's all about controlling territory."

A food shortage makes combatants under siege miserable, Cordesman said, adding that it dims morale and disrupts military cohesion. Unfortunately, civilians end up suffering the same fate as the fighters.

Citing an unconfirmed report from elsewhere in Syria that illustrates people's desperation, Howard said "some people sold their car for a couple of kilos of rice."

The UN humanitarian agency OCHA is the aid organizer, said spokesman Jens Laerke in Geneva.

"We coordinate what the other organizations deliver," he said. "We coordinate the convoy and try to ensure that it makes a comprehensive response."

The agency also prods the warring sides to adhere to international law and let aid deliveries into besieged areas. It is an uphill battle.

Belatedly they are having more, albeit modest, success, according to Laerke.

"We had 81 convoys that moved in the first five months of 2016, versus 50 for all of last year," he noted.

Pressuring the warring sides

But those modest gains are not the result of a sudden bout of moral enlightenment on the part of the warring factions but rather international pressure.

The members of the International Syrian Support Group (ISSG), which is made up of nearly 20 countries and regional organizations, including the United States and Russia, "have come together to help us influence the warring parties," Laerke said.

"They help us pave the way," he continued. "We get guarantees of free passage."

The WFP says it has already delivered food and medical aid "to more than 1.4 million people across Syria as part of the organization's monthly plan to reach 4 million displaced and vulnerable people."

That goal includes delivering food and medical aid to the remaining 18 towns under siege across Syria. The warring sides have agreed to allow aid into 16 of the beleaguered towns, but whether they follow through on their agreement remains to be seen.

"We look at this on a day-by-day basis," Laerke said. "There's no way we can know the future. This is beyond our control."