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‘Medieval’ sieges, barrel bombs are ‘disgusting reality’ in Syria – senior UN officials

Unicef distributing water and hygiene items to Yazidi IDPs who crossed from Syria into Kurdistan, Iraq.
Unicef distributing water and hygiene items to Yazidi IDPs who crossed from Syria into Kurdistan, Iraq.

‘Medieval’ sieges, barrel bombs are ‘disgusting reality’ in Syria – senior UN officials

The recent “stuttering momentum” in delivering humanitarian aid to Syria’s besieged and hard-to-reach populations must be significantly expanded in the second half of 2016, the United Nations humanitarian chief told the Security Council today, warning that progress made to date was only “a trickle” of the country’s overwhelming needs.

“There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where attacks on hospitals and schools […] have become so commonplace that they cease to incite any reaction,” said Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, in a briefing to the 15-member body.

Violence continues unbridled in many parts of the country, he stressed. Indeed, according to the latest report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian an Arab Republic, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) is committing genocide and multiple crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Yazidis in the east.

In Aleppo Governorate, an ISIL offensive on Azaz and the surrounding area has led to numerous civilian casualties, threatening up to 200,000 of the population, and in Menbij, 45,000 people had been displaced and some 65,000 others were now encircled by the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The cruel conflict continued to tear families apart and inflicted brutal suffering on the innocent, he said, recalling that, last week, at least six children had been killed and tens of others injured in heinous attacks near the Sayidda Zeinab shrine.

Millions more are in the line of fire, facing crushing poverty and alarming physical danger. Children have been forcibly detained, tortured, subjected to sexual violence and in some cases executed. Some had been recruited by ISIL and other armed groups.

Since January, some 844,325 people have been reached by the UN and its partners through inter-agency cross-line convoys, Mr. O’Brien reported, including reaching 334,150 of the 590,200 people living in besieged areas as designated by the UN. Nevertheless, major protection concerns, needs and suffering remain. There are now an estimated five million people living in hard-to-reach areas, an increase of over 900,000 people from the previous estimate.

It is vital that the stuttering momentum sustained on humanitarian access over the past few months continued and improved, he said, expressing hope that by the end of the month all besieged locations will have been reached.

“Organizing the delivery of aid must remain the responsibility of the United Nations and its partners based on need, and not subject to political or other considerations,” he stressed.

The United Nations has submitted its July access plan to the Syrian authorities, requesting access to reach some 1,220,750 beneficiaries in 35 besieged, hard-to-reach and cross-line priority locations. That request had to be approved without any preconditions, stressed Mr. O’Brien, who is also the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator.

“As I have said numerous times before, we remain committed and ready to deliver aid – through any possible modality including air drops – for civilians in desperate need, whoever and wherever they are,” he said, but stressed that the bottom line, however, is that the real extent of the progress cannot only be measured by ad hoc deliveries to besieged communities.

That dozens of barrel bombs were reportedly dropped on 10 June in Darayya – the day after the UN and the Syrian Arab Red Cross (SARC) delivered the first food aid to the town since November 2012 – shows that the situation for people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas will not be solved by humanitarian aid delivery alone.

“The real measure will be when the sieges, these medieval sieges, are no more, when boys don’t risk sniper fire when bringing medicine to their mothers, when doctors can administer lifesaving treatments without the fear of imminent attacks, when Yazidi girls don’t have to scratch their faces out of fear of being bought and sexually enslaved. That is the disgusting reality in Syria today,” he concluded.

‘Besiegement belongs in the Middle Ages’

Meanwhile in Geneva, Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria, Jan Egeland, his Senior Special Advisor, and Yacoub El Hillo, UN Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, briefed the press on a meeting of the humanitarian task force set up by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) – consisting of the UN, the Arab League, the European Union and 18 countries that have been working on a way forward since late last year.

Mr. de Mistura said that the timing of resumption of the intra-Syrian talks would depend on the discussions he will have in New York and Washington in the coming days, and in particular the debate on Syria at the Security Council next week. He said he still hopes that the talks will resume in July.

Mr. Egeland said that altogether, 16 out of the 18 besieged areas have been reached since the Task Force started work in February. The two remaining areas are Arbeen and Zamalka, both in rural Damascus, where humanitarian aid is expected to reach next week. But the Government has cleared aid for only a fraction of an estimated 40,000 people in those places.

He said ISSG members are aware that humanitarian assistance is only alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people. “Besiegement is continuing, it should never be there in the first place […] it belongs in the Middle Ages, not in our time,” he said.

Medical relief has not gotten much better. The main reason for people dying within besieged areas is because there is no medical service for easily preventable diseases, he said.

For his part, Mr. El Hillo said that 13.5 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance today, not all of them in besieged or hard-to-reach areas. The United Nations is very much on the ground, operating in different parts of Syria with a powerful network of both international and national partners who are also working from inside Syria but also from across the borders.

But the international donor community must remember that “the cost of doing humanitarian business in Syria is very high because of all the complications and all the impediments,” he said, stressing that humanitarian appeal for 2016 is funded at 20 per cent.