Last month, the United Nations Security Council approved resolution 2139, demanding “swift and unimpeded” humanitarian aid access in Syria. But Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a report last week that the situation “remains extremely challenging,” while humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said that “complicated approval processes” continue to block aid to 9.3 million civilians.
On Mar. 20, the first U.N. aid trucks crossed into Syria from the Nusaybin crossing on the Turkish border, after the Syrian government opened the crossing to allow aid to reach Qamishli. Though the three-day opening raised hopes for future deliveries, it proved an isolated event.
“The government has allowed the U.N. to conduct humanitarian delivery from one border crossing from Nusaybin into Qamishli, but there are concerns whether aid will reach civilians in opposition-held territories,” says Lama Fakih, Syria-Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Here, Fakih and Juliette Touma, communications specialist for UNICEF’S Syria effort, discuss how well Syria’s warring parties have complied with the Security Council’s resolution.
Juliette Touma: I went to Nusaybin crossing and oversaw a convoy of 16 UNICEF trucks that was part of the U.N.-wide humanitarian convoy, organized by the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator, to deliver aid to Qamishli.
Significant as the opening of the border was, it is only a small step towards ensuring unhindered aid access that we very much need. We have a huge task. We reached 25,000 kids out of over 4 million children inside Syria that need aid.
We sent blankets, washing power, towels, shampoo, toothbrushes, washing powder, baby rash cream – the basic stuff that can be lifesaving for people who are displaced. More importantly, we sent family and baby hygiene kits, and water purification tablets, which are very important because the water has been polluted in Syria, and it helps to limit the spread of waterborne diseases.
These supplies will serve 50,000 people (25,000 children) that are internally displaced from the Hasakah Area, and host families who have been incredibly generous and opened up their doors to the displaced. We are hoping to replicate this humanitarian operation to reach as many children as we can.
Lama Fakih: This particular border crossing continues to be held by the Syrian government, and deliveries of assistance were coordinated by the government and distributed by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other agencies affiliated with the PYD. The government continues to reject U.N. requests to ship aid through border crossings in Turkey and Jordan that are opposition-held.
The border crossings that lead into areas like Aleppo and Idlib, which are under control of the opposition, continue to be closed. This has had a devastating impact on hundreds of thousands of people who live in those areas. Opposition-held border crossings are the only effective and secure way to reach the more than 3 million Syrians that the U.N. reports need assistance in opposition-held areas.
Syria Deeply: Have extremist groups threatened aid deliveries?
Fakih: ISIS has been pushed further east from Aleppo. They are no longer present around Bab al-Salam camps and one of the camps leading into Idlib – these are two critical border crossings that should be opened, and the U.N. should be using to deliver assistance to residents of those areas.
We have heard about fighting between opposition groups that has cut off delivery routes to some areas in northern Syria across conflict lines, and there have been cases where extremist armed opposition groups have threatened aid deliveries.
The U.N. secretary-general’s report said there were two incidents where opposition fighters were restricting access to aid: Jabhat al-Nusra failed to give adequate security assurances, and in another case, an armed opposition group beat Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers near the central prison in Aleppo. But it was quite clear from the report that the humanitarian restrictions are largely caused by the government.
SD: Has there been any change in access to areas under siege or areas classified as hard to reach?
Fakih: The Security Council resolution demanded that all parties “immediately lift the sieges of populated areas,” including government sieges in Moadamiya, Homs, western Ghouta, eastern Ghouta and the Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk in south Damascus, and sieges by opposition armed groups on Nubul and Zahra.
Based upon a report presented by the U.N. secretary-general, the Syrian government “continues to block aid to an estimated 175,000 civilians in areas under government siege, while armed opposition forces block aid to an estimated 45,000 civilians in other besieged areas.”
The report also estimated that 3.5 million people in 258 “hard to access” places inside Syria urgently need assistance. Human Rights Watch conducted a field investigation in one of these locations, the Bab al-Salam IDP camp, located just across from Kilis, on the Syrian-Turkish border.
There are approximately 16,000 people living in this camp; the vast majority of them fled Aleppo city and the countryside, because of the government’s indiscriminate use of barrel bombs and aerial campaign and bombardment areas. Residents of the camp said that residents were constructing improvised bathrooms that resulted in open sewage pits across the camp.
The director of the Bab al- Salam camp also said that the hospital lacked adequate medications including for leishmania, a vector-borne disease that causes welts on the skin.
The basic needs of residents are not being met, despite the fact that the camp is located within walking distance of the Turkish border.
Touma: On my recent trip to Nusaybin, the trucks stopped just in front of a closed gate. I could not go in as I did not have a visa to Syria. I reached a metal fence and heard my colleague El-Tayeb call me from just across the fence on the Syrian side. El-Tayeb and I had never met before, but had been constantly on the phone coordinating and planning for this convoy.
I stood talking to him through the fence and thought how it was only a fence that separated humanitarian assistance from reaching children in need in Syria.
SD: What are your next steps?
Fakih: Based upon the U.N. secretary-general’s report, it is quite clear that the Syrian government is largely responsible for restrictions to humanitarian aid access.
The U.N. secretary-general has reported on noncompliance, we have reported on the Syrian government’s failure to cease the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs and its refusal to release detainees. It is the responsibility of the U.N. Security Council to take steps to show it’s serious about its need to comply with the resolution and with international law.
We are looking for the council to do things like impose an arms embargo that would ensure that other countries aren’t servicing helicopters that are dropping barrel bombs, and refer the situation to the ICC, a court that could investigate and prosecute individuals on all sides of the conflict that are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Touma: We need cooperation from both parties of the conflict, to guarantee that humanitarian teams, food and medical supplies are delivered to these areas. Sometimes we have had the chance to access these children, but it is not enough and it is not consistent.
That’s why we always advocate for unhindered access to Syria, especially to areas under siege and where heavy violence is taking place, like eastern Aleppo, Deraa, some parts of Homs and rural Damascus.
If we are not given access, children will continue to pay the heaviest price of this war – they will pay with their lives, their education, their health and wellbeing. They are gong to continue to be at the risk of becoming a lost generation.