BEIRUT – The flames enveloping a humanitarian convoy in rural Aleppo burned for hours on Monday, turning medical aid, food and basic living supplies to ash.
It was an unprecedented sight. Aerial attacks and ground assaults are a common occurrence in the province, which houses Syria’s largest contested city, but this particular attack targeted a humanitarian aid convoy en route to deliver much-needed supplies to some 78,000 people. At least 20 civilians, including one aid worker, were killed.
The attack was considered a final blow to the cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and Russia the previous week in an attempt to allow humanitarian aid deliveries into Aleppo. U.S. officials have accused Russia of targeting the humanitarian convoy. Russian officials denied the accusations, saying the destruction was the result of a fire that began “simultaneously” with an opposition offense in the area. The jury is still out about where to place blame, but for those still in Aleppo one thing is indisputable: Aid may never be coming.
Mercy Corps, an international aid agency that has the largest operation in Syria, announced this week that despite the obvious threat to humanitarian workers and the U.N.’s brief suspension of all aid deliveries to Syria, it would continue to attempt to make much-needed deliveries.
Mercy Corps had supplies stockpiled on the Turkish border with Syria ready to cross the border when the cease-fire came into effect last Monday. The NGO, which reaches roughly 680,000 people in Syria every month, has been unable to make deliveries to Aleppo city for weeks because of unstable conditions. The cease-fire did nothing to alleviate this danger.
Syria Deeply spoke with Dominic Graham, the Syria response director for Mercy Corps, about the reasons for the cease-fire breakdown and what the organization is hoping to see come out of the United Nations General Assembly discussions on aid deliveries to Syria.
Syria Deeply: At the start of the cease-fire last Monday, Mercy Corps announced it was ready to deliver aid into besieged Aleppo, after weeks of delays. What was Mercy Corps granted permission to do under the terms of the deal?
Dominic Graham: With roads into Aleppo City closed for weeks, Mercy Corps had not been able to resupply needed humanitarian aid, including food, to the people there who depend on us. We had stocks pre-positioned to deliver aid into Aleppo City, but it had been too dangerous to make the deliveries and the bombing had been too relentless. We’ve sadly seen a resumption of that level of violence this week. When the agreement was reached, we were hopeful that it might provide a window for safe passage of supplies.
Initially, there were some positive signs that came out of the U.S.-Russia agreement. We were grateful to see the cease-fire largely respected over the first week and there was a tangible sense of relief among civilian populations due to the pause in the fighting and airstrikes. The proposal was for aid to come into Aleppo through U.N. convoys at first and, once those convoys had delivered their cargo safely, NGOs like Mercy Corps were to follow.
Syria Deeply: Aid never made it into Aleppo and the cease-fire is essentially broken. What factors contributed to its failure?
Graham: It was never a perfect agreement, and certainly there were a lot of things that contributed to its failure. We weren’t privy to the negotiations, but as we understand them, one issue was that the United Nations was waiting to receive letters of authorization from the Syrian government, guarantees of safety from armed opposition groups and permission from the local council of Aleppo before entering the city.
Syria Deeply: What needs to be in place for aid to be successfully delivered into Syria’s besieged areas?
Graham: It’s important to be aware that each community is different. Besieged Aleppo has been inaccessible to aid organizations for some weeks, but other parts of northern Syria continue to receive aid. Even in hard-to-reach or besieged areas, Syrian organizations are often able to support their communities through remarkable and heroic efforts. Mercy Corps feels the international community should look at these localities individually and provide greater resources to those local aid organizations that are most effective in each area.
Syria Deeply: What are your expectations coming out of the UNGA when it comes to facilitating cross-border aid deliveries into besieged and hard-to-reach areas in Syria?
Graham: This is a really challenging and crucial moment. The cessation of hostilities agreement is in tatters, we’ve just witnessed a horrific attack that appeared to directly target aid workers and airstrikes have increased significantly in the last 48 hours. In more than five years of conflict in Syria, we have seen attacks on hospitals, schools, markets and even playgrounds. But we can still be shocked by the brutality of this conflict. Our hearts go out to the families and colleagues of those aid workers. It could just as easily have been Mercy Corps team members lost in this tragedy; we work in many of these rural areas around Aleppo.
We hope the United Nations will investigate this incident – as we hope they will investigate all attacks on aid workers and medical personnel. At the same time, we urge world leaders gathered in New York to reconfirm their commitment to greater protection for Syrian civilians and the brave aid workers who risk their lives each day to serve the Syrian people.
It is difficult for anyone watching this tragedy unfold in Aleppo to be anything other than frustrated, saddened or even outraged. As violence rages once again and warplanes fill the skies of Aleppo, we urge the international community to find a solution. The Syrian people need to see political action, not just political noise.