Exclusive: U.N. Docs Expose Assad’s Starvation Campaign in Syria

While food aid begins to flow into the country, many Syrians are heading into the arms of the dictator to get it. 

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Internal United Nations documents show modest improvements in the delivery of desperately needed food inside rebel-controlled areas of Syria. But the documents also point to a mass exodus of Syrians into areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad in part because the dictator is the only reliable source of life-sustaining food.

The documents obtained by Foreign Policy track the success of the U.N.’s World Food Program in the two months since the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding that Assad provide immediate access for relief workers. The new data shows that the years-old U.N. effort has made some recent progress, with food supplies reaching a total of almost 415,000 people in hard-to-reach areas since the resolution was approved in February. In the country as a whole, WFP was able to reach 4.1 million persons in need in March, up from 3.7 million in February. However, in a country where 9.3 million people are in need of steady humanitarian assistance, that means that many more remain outside the U.N.’s reach.

More distressingly, the documents show that Assad’s campaign to bring rebels to heel by cutting off food supplies in opposition-controlled areas is succeeding. The WFP’s increase in food distribution into the war-ravaged country was largely due to distressed Syrians fleeing into government-controlled areas where food aid is more readily available. “The increase in distributions … was to a large extent a result of large population movements from non-government controlled areas” to government-controlled areas “as people sought refuge,” reads a U.N. document. Syria experts said that could only mean one thing.

“Only by coming over to the regime areas can internally displaced peoples receive food,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “That’s in keeping with the Assad regime’s campaign to only provide food into regime controlled areas and starve out besieged opposition controlled areas.”

The U.N. documents describe a mass displacement of Syrians from hard-hit opposition strongholds in recent months: individuals in rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo moved to the government-controlled western half of the city; those in south and south-eastern Quneitra moved to the region’s center and eastern parts; those in rebel-controlled Homs and rural Hama moved to government-controlled Hama City and Salamiya.

Abeer Etefa, a spokesperson for the WFP’s Middle East Region, said it was possible that Syrians had multiple motives for relocating. “People move for a variety of reasons including problems of food supply, high food prices and access to assistance (including food), as well as fleeing from fighting or persecution,” Etefa said in a statement. “Increasingly they move because of the difficulty of earning a living, particularly as the conflict drags on.”

Other analysts emphasized the grim fate that some of the Syrians may face who fled to government-controlled areas for food. “There is an element of people turning [themselves] over to the regime who will be tortured,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University.

The new details about Syria’s humanitarian emergency come at an important time in the three-year-long civil war. It’s been nearly two months since the Security Council adopted its first-ever resolution demanding that Assad and the rebels provide access for aid workers. Russia, which has an itchy trigger finger when it comes to vetoing Syria resolutions, grudgingly agreed to allow that motion through to avoid an unwanted public relations headache to cloud the ending ceremonies of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

The chart below tracks every location that received new humanitarian access since the February Security Council resolution, including who controlled the area at the time of the aid delivery. (The figures are up-to-date as of April 11). 

As you can see, some of the new delivery areas include opposition strongholds such as Douma and the province of Raqqa, which is in the grip of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, a vicious jihadist group.

The document set obtained by FP also includes a set of maps that show the breakdown in aid delivered to rebel-controlled areas versus opposition-controlled areas between December 2013 and March 2014.

Although the maps show increases in aid to non-government regions, it also gives a broader view of how much more aid is delivered to government-controlled areas — data that has alarmed observers.

“The WFP data is shocking and a major scandal,” said Oubai Shahbandar, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian Coalition. “The WFP has marginally, though not by much, improved its ability to get into a small percentage of liberated territories.” He emphasized that a majority of the aid is still filtered through the Assad regime.

Daniel Gorevan, a Syria specialist at the humanitarian aid organization Oxfam, said any news of increased food deliveries is positive, but its equally important for aid workers to have regular access to distressed Syrians, particularly near rebel-held territory. “We need to see a much broader sea change in humanitarian access that goes across different areas,” he said.

The report doesn’t lay all of the blame at the feet of the Assad regime. Rebels, it says, also deserve blame for sometimes blocking humanitarian access. In the documents, the U.N. says the reduction in aid distribution points between June and February “was due in no small measure” to infighting between opposition groups controlling northeastern areas of Syria. This is a point the WFP spokeswoman stressed again on Thursday.

“Both sides have prevented assistance from reaching people,” Etefa said. The WFP representative said the rebel groups controlling parts of Deir Ezzour and Ar Raqqa prevented WFP from delivering food into northeast Syria — all but isolating that part of the country.

“Meanwhile, there are areas besieged by the Syrian government where access is denied or where both sides have been unable to negotiate a compromise that will allow access, as is the case in eastern and rural Aleppo,” she said.

The humanitarian aid crisis is playing out against a backdrop of deadly violence in the country, with the death toll recently estimated at 150,000 and the number of displaced persons climbing to 9 million. But with an influx of al Qaeda-affiliated fighters and hardcore Islamic radicals, Washington has been reluctant to offer lethal aid to rebels beyond small arms, ammunition and training. (Although Western-backed rebels have been spotted with increasingly sophisticated anti-tank weaponry in recent days).

As a result of sensitivities over the provisions of lethal aid, the issue of access for humanitarian aid has become a uniting cause in Washington and Turtle Bay. That’s why the inability to fully implement February’s resolution, the biggest victory yet for the conflict’s human rights activists, is so distressing. Stuck between a brutal regime willing to use food as a weapon and radical rebel groups who haven’t shied away from attacking NGOs in the region, the U.N. is in a tough spot as the vast majority of its aid goes to the Assad regime. “It’s a terrible dilemma for the international community and World Food Program,” said Landis. “Do you stop providing all aid because it goes through the hands of Assad and legitimizes him or not?”

Colum Lynch contributed reporting.