A promise to deliver food from the sky runs into logistical and political snags.
- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
A coalition of Syrian-American organizations blasted the United States, Russia, and the United Nations on Wednesday for failing to drop food into besieged areas of Syria following Damascus’s refusal to provide unfettered ground access to humanitarian aid organizations.
The criticism comes in the wake of an agreement last month by 20 countries to support World Food Programme airdrops if the Syrian government continued to block ground convoys to deliver aid to Arbeen, Darayya, Douma, and elsewhere by a June 1 deadline.
Against Wednesday’s looming deadline, the Syrian government allowed convoys into two of Syria’s 19 besieged areas. But according to initial reports, the aid for the distressed Damascus suburb of Darayya included medical supplies, vaccines and baby milk — but no food. And 17 of Syria’s other 19 besieged areas continued to suffer from a lack of access.
“It is now obvious that without aid drops, the regime will continue to besiege areas containing over a million civilians languishing without access to food,” the Coalition for a Democratic Syria (CDS), an umbrella group of nonprofit organizations, told Foreign Policy in a statement.
“The CDS condemns the all-too-familiar dynamic of international institutions backing down in the face of regime intransigence — this time abandoning their commitment to conduct aid drops to all besieged areas facing the most dire humanitarian circumstances,” the group said.
The Syrian government’s failure to fully comply with the May 17 agreement of the 20 countries, known as the International Syrian Support Group, presents difficult questions for Western governments and its NGO partners on the ground with few clear-cut answers or easy solutions.
State Department spokesman John Kirby rejected suggestions that the ISSG pledge to support the aerial aid delivery was an empty promise. He insisted the organization “will start preparing for the necessity of airdrops and air bridges.” But he could not offer a date for when that would begin, or why countries hadn’t already begun preparing to deliver air drops two weeks ago when the threat was originally issued.
“I just don’t know when they would begin and I wouldn’t speak for the World Food Programme in that regard,” said Kirby.
For members of the Syrian opposition, the failure to follow through is another dangerous capitulation to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which has consistently defied Western and Gulf powers over the five-year conflict. “We are definitely looking for those airdrops to happen as a sign of the commitment of the international community,” Basma Kodmani, a negotiator with the opposition High Negotiations Committee, told FP and two other journalists Wednesday.
For a handful of European countries, especially Britain, which lobbied aggressively for the airdrops during the last ISSG meeting in May, not following through would also be an embarrassing letdown. On Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond noted that on the day of the deadline, the Assad regime “cynically allowed limited amounts of aid into Darayya and Muadhamiya, but it has failed to deliver the widespread humanitarian access called for by the international community.”
“The U.N. should launch a program for emergency deliveries by air,” he said in a statement.
But aid organizations and U.N. institutions look at the situation very differently.
Airdrops often face technical and logistical difficulties, exorbitant costs, and the risk of prompting inadvertent violence. Typically, the U.N. only approves airdrops as a last resort, and only if there are assurances the aid will reach the intended targets — a standard aid groups say is impossible to meet in the environment of Syria’s civil war.
“You don’t want kids going for food that will be taken from their hands by Assad’s armed henchmen,” a veteran NGO worker said on condition of anonymity. “People get killed that way.”
Aid organizations also worry the civilian aircrew risk getting shot out of the sky during the food drops.
Recent reports suggest the World Food Programme, the organization that would carry out the airdrops, is also opposed to the effort if the Assad regime refuses to cooperate, which most anticipate. On Tuesday, a World Food Programme spokesperson declined to say whether the organization would comply with the ISSG’s call for delivering the aid through airdrops.
A day later, on Wednesday, Kirby reiterated Washington’s hope that Assad’s regime would allow ground convoys to deliver the aid. “Ground delivery is still the best kind of delivery, get the aid there more directly,” he said.
But for members of the Syrian opposition, airdrops serve an important political purpose, even if the humanitarian benefits are marginal or expensive. By defying Assad’s objections and violating Syrian airspace, the move sends a message about the strongman’s international credibility.
“It seems ludicrous that the international community believes rhetoric has real impact on the Assad regime,” said CDS board member Muna Jondy. “Regime officials didn’t blink when we threatened to bomb them. Why would they believe we would do what it takes to break the sieges?”