Today a representative of OCHA, most likely Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-wha Kang, will brief Security Council members under “any other business” on the humanitarian situation in Syria, following the regular monthly consultations on the chemical weapons track. The UK requested the briefing to follow-up on the status of the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas in Syria and the UN’s planning for air drops.
The 17 May statement of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) called for UN air bridges and air drops if humanitarian access to besieged areas continued to be denied after 1 June. OCHA’s June plan for Syria requested access to 34 locations, including 17 of the 19 UN-designated besieged areas, since Yarmouk and Deir ez-Zor are already covered by UN Relief and Works Agency and World Food Programme-led air drops, respectively. It seems that in these requests, OCHA indicated to the Syrian government that if access via land routes was not granted by 10 June then the UN would request approval for delivery via air routes.
By 10 June, the government gave written approval for a significant majority of the 34 locations, including 15 besieged locations. These approvals did not include the besieged areas of al-Waer in Homs and Zabadani on the outskirts of Damascus. However, in the interim it seems there has been progress on securing access to al-Waer and Zabadani, and Council members will likely want an update on this development.
Council members may have several questions regarding OCHA’s plans to translate approvals into deliveries. They will also want to know whether the approvals are for full or partial access, and what types of humanitarian aid will be allowed into the areas, as the exclusion of food and medical supplies is a recurring aspect of aid deliveries. Furthermore, members will be interested in Kang’s views on the likelihood of gaining ongoing and unfettered access.
Kang is expected to convey that, in comparison to previous months, access to besieged areas has improved, with a convoy delivering food aid to Darraya on 9 June for the first time since 2012, and to Duma on 10 June for the first time since May 2014. All Council members are encouraged by the approvals and the initial deliveries.
Nevertheless, some Council members are wary of painting an overly positive picture of humanitarian access too soon. Regarding Darraya, there were media reports that the food aid was insufficient and that a day after the delivery, the government escalated its barrel bombing campaign there.
There is significant concern among many Council members about the ongoing government offensives, backed by Russian airstrikes, in Aleppo and Idlib. Given the continuing assaults on the rebel-held parts of Aleppo, Council members may be particularly interested to hear more from Kang about the humanitarian impact, and about contingency planning if the last supply route into the rebel-held part of the city is severed. This road has been subjected to intensified airstrikes for several weeks. They may also ask for more information on deteriorating access to medical care in Aleppo after two more hospitals in the rebel-held part of the city suffered airstrikes late last week.
Council members will also be interested in a read-out from Kang on the meeting of the ISSG humanitarian task-force in Geneva, also slated for 16 June, and whether there was any discussion of the WFP’s plan to deliver aid via air drops or air bridges. However, many Council members have expressed the view that the WFP plan is a contingency measure that will be unnecessary if land routes are secured. For the UN and Council members, the cost, questionable efficacy, safety concerns and difficult logistics of air bridges and/or drops make it an option of last resort, though one that remains on the table.
Finally, some Council members may want Kang’s views on a report released earlier this week by the Syria Campaign that is critical of how the UN has managed aid deliveries in Syria since the beginning of the crisis in 2011. The report states that the Syrian government has threatened to remove the UN’s permission to operate in Syria in order “to manipulate where, how and to whom the UN has been able to deliver humanitarian aid.” It further says that the UN “chose to accept the government’s constraints” creating a “culture of compliance.”
Many Council members are sensitive to the often delicate balance required of the UN in order to both pressure and cooperate with the government on humanitarian issues. To date, OCHA has responded to the Syria Campaign report by saying that the UN assisted people based on need, not location, and that it did not direct any aid to the government.
Looking ahead, Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien and Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura will deliver their regular monthly briefings to Security Council members on the humanitarian and political tracks on 23 June and 29 June, respectively.
Separately, O’Brien, de Mistura and Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic will brief the General Assembly on Syria next Tuesday (21 June). This public briefing has been organised to keep a public focus on the situation in Syria amidst diminishing prospects for resuming the intra-Syrian political talks in the context of escalating violence. The briefing is also meant to build on the momentum created by a 14 June letter to the Security Council on behalf of 59 member states on humanitarian access, air-drops, effective implementation of the cessation of hostilities, and the need for all parties to work towards a genuine political transition (S/2016/537). The letter was an initiative of Saudi Arabia. It was co-sponsored by nine Council members (the P3, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain and Ukraine) and signed by 9 member states, including Council members Senegal, Ukraine, the UK and the US. Egypt, one of the humanitarian leads on Syria in the Council, did not co-sponsor the letter.