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

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.