May 4, 2016

UK government responds to airdrops appeal

The Syria Campaign disagrees with the response, read why

Three weeks ago, The Syria Campaign launched an appeal to countries flying over Syrian airspace to airdrop food and other aid to besieged areas in Syria. Thousands of people sent messages to governments with the power to do this.

The following is from Gareth Bayley, UK Special Representative for Syria. The Syria Campaign’s response follows below:

I want to thank all those who wrote in with The Syria Campaign on airdropping aid in Syria. This is a vitally important issue and needs to be discussed.

The UK and our international partners share your concern for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians living under siege in Syria. Across Syria, Asad and other parties to the conflict wilfully impede humanitarian access on a day-by-day basis. The UK has always been clear that it is unacceptable and illegal to use starvation as a weapon of war. We are pushing hard through the International Syria Support Group and our position on the UN Security Council for humanitarian access to be granted to besieged and hard-to-reach areas. The goal is safe, reliable and above all sustained aid access.

Aid delivered by road, by trusted humanitarian partners who can ensure it gets to those who need it most, remains the best approach. While greater progress is needed, we cannot ignore the fact that more than 500,000 civilians have been reached during the cessation of hostilities, and hundreds have been medically evacuated from several besieged areas. Progress, while currently too slow, is possible.  

As the Syria Campaign’s petition rightly points out, some besieged areas like Daraya are only a few miles from central Damascus and road delivery would be straightforward if the regime permitted it. This is why we focus our efforts on applying pressure on the regime and its backers to allow access that could save countless lives quickly and sustainably. On the specific case of Daraya, it is worth noting that Khawla Mattar, a spokeswoman of the UN Special Envoy for Syria, led a mission for the first time since 2012 to Daraya last month. Since then, the UN has made clear the need to follow-up this mission with sustained humanitarian access. The UK will continue to support the UN in their efforts to follow this through.

The use of air drops to deliver aid is high risk and should only be considered as a last resort when all other means have failed and if it recognised as the most effective way of getting humanitarian supplies to people.  Air drops require certain conditions to be met for successful delivery that are unlikely to be present on the ground in Syria.  There is a requirement to identify clear drop zones, ensure safe access for the intended recipients, and to co-ordinate with authorities on the ground.  

Crucially, air drops do not provide the sustained access that humanitarian actors normally need to conduct needs assessments, oversee distribution, provide medical treatment and conduct evacuations. They are also limited in capability: for example, water cannot be dropped on the scale required and there is no way of ensuring items dropped will reach the most vulnerable. The UN is not currently calling for their use.

In Deir Ez Zour, which is besieged by Daesh, it is impossible to gain access by road.  So the World Food Programme (WFP) is undertaking airdrops of aid with the support of the international community. While the current WFP airdrop programme is fully funded, the UK is ready to provide further support should a requirement emerge.

The UK will continue to work closely with the UN and other international partners to push the Asad regime and its backers to immediately allow humanitarian agencies rapid, safe and unhindered access throughout Syria by the most direct routes. This commitment is clearly outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which was unanimously adopted, including by the regime’s biggest sponsor, Russia. It is vital the regime and its backers honour their commitments.

Gareth Bayley, UK Special Representative for Syria

Response from The Syria Campaign

Thank you Mr Bayley for replying to the campaign.

We agree that the ultimate goal is “safe, reliable and above all sustained access”. However, we cannot sit by in the meantime while the most vulnerable are at risk of starvation.

Here are a few key issues we have with your response:

  1. A ‘better than nothing’ approach to progress is a recipe for starvation

You rightly point out that there has been limited aid access during the cessation of hostilities. When you say “more than 500,000 civilians have been reached” that feels significant. But that figure (which is a total of those reached in besieged and hard-to-reach areas) is only 10% of the number of those in need in these areas. Similarly, 500,000 people reached does not mean they have had their needs met by these deliveries. It only means that they have received some form of assistance, irrespective of whether it was what they needed and how long it will last them.  

Similarly, as you are aware, medical kits – including anesthetics and midwifery kits – are removed from these deliveries. The Munich agreement promised full aid deliveries within days. Two months on, many have seen nothing. This is not “progress”, it is failure.

  1. The UN has not gained genuine access to Daraya

You point out that the UN was recently permitted by the Assad regime to drive vehicles into Daraya for the first time in three years. However, that convoy was not allowed to carry any relief to the people of the area, some of whom according to the World Food Programme are eating grass to stave off hunger.

Yesterday the Assad regime blocked UN and Red Cross convoys from going into Daraya. Before that, they hadn’t even allowed the trucks to carry food. Two people were killed waiting for the aid at the entrance to the town. 

In Deir Ezzor the airdrops are delivering items such as beans, chickpeas, rice and medical kits. Why is the UK not doing all it can to get similar items to other besieged areas?

  1. The conditions for airdrops have been met in Daraya

As you rightly articulate, certain conditions need to be met for successful airdrops, such as clear drop zones, safe access and coordination with authorities on the ground. However, we disagree when you say these “are unlikely to be present on the ground”.

In Daraya, for example, the Local Council has agreed to coordinate airdrops as have the rescue workers of the Syria Civil Defence. They have the means to get this aid reliably to those who need it most.

The final criterion, that airdrops should only be considered as a last resort, has surely been met in Daraya. Nobody can credibly argue that after more than a thousand days of denial of access, and the return of yesterday’s convoy, that these hungry Syrian civilians should be expected to wait longer. 

The siege of Daraya started more than two years before the siege of Deir Ezzor, and yet the latter has airdrops. Yes, Daraya may only be a few minutes drive from the headquarters of the UN aid operation, but this makes no difference. If that road is blocked for meaningful aid delivery, then there is little use wishing it could be opened.

  1. This shouldn’t be conditional on the UN leading the call

Back in January when pictures of children starving to death in Madaya became international news, the UN pushed against pressure to conduct airdrops in Syria, saying:

“What we need is unimpeded access, and we can’t consider airdrops at this time. Airdrops require approvals for use of airspace, staff on the ground to organise and distribute, and a drop zone that is clear of obstacles. Those conditions are not met in besieged areas of Syria.” [emphasis added]

Now the UN has conducted 22 airdrops and counting in Deir Ezzor. Airdrops are possible.

As the second largest bilateral donor to the Syria aid effort, are you pushing the UN to conduct airdrops to other areas in Syria?

  1. The elephant in the room

Airdrops are happening today in Syria. However, they are only happening in Deir Ezzor, where the Assad regime controls the area besieged externally by Isis.

Why are we only dropping aid to places Assad says are ok?

It is this politicisation of aid that we need to resist. The principle of impartiality demands that aid reaches those most in need, not whoever we can reach most easily. You say that Deir Ezzor is impossible to reach by land because of Isis. At this point, so are areas like Daraya. The regime’s snipers have made it impossible.

The situation of aid in Syria is deeply compromised. We have reached a point where international donors – including the UK – are putting money into an operation where one side, the Assad regime, has overwhelming authority in deciding where that aid goes. This is why we have witnessed hundreds of deaths from starvation. More money and aid will not stop the most vulnerable from dying unless we take steps to restore impartiality in aid delivery.

The UK government and others have the means to get food and medicine to the most vulnerable. This aid has been paid for in large part by British taxpayers who trust their government will take all possible measures to get that aid to those most in need.

We urge you to act now and stop waiting for a broken system that has failed Syrian civilians for years.