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With deadline looming, few expect aid to reach besieged Syrians
(News: 06-01-2016 )



BEIRUT — An international plan to deliver aid to hundreds of thousands of people living in besieged areas of Syria appeared to be in peril on Monday with the deadline looming closer.


Doubts about the initiative, which is backed by the United Nations and involves airdrops of food and other humanitarian relief, have been growing since it elicited guarded praise initially. Russia, the United States and other outside forces involved in Syria’s civil war agreed this month to begin airdrops on Wednesday if road convoys continued to be refused access.


The logistics of delivering food and medicine by parachute are extremely complex and unreliable, U.N. officials acknowledge. And diplomats and analysts say Syria’s government is unlikely to permit airdrops when it shows little sign of relenting on road convoys.


That risks a fight in the war-torn country’s crowded airspace. Already, warplanes from at least a dozen nations — including the United States and Russia — fly missions over Syria, though with differing aims.


The issue underscores the faltering efforts led by Washington and Moscow to halt a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced millions.


“We all know nothing will happen. This is just another meaningless red line,” said Mohammed Shihadeh, a resident of Darayya, a suburb of Damascus that has been under siege by pro-government fighters since 2012.


Meanwhile, the chief opposition negotiator at now-stalled peace talks in Geneva announced his resignation this weekend.


In a statement released late Sunday, Mohammed Alloush described the talks as “absurd” and expressed doubts about whether they would restart. He has criticized the government for refusing to release prisoners and permit aid to reach besieged Syrians who are starving and deprived of lifesaving medical aid.


The announcement is another blow to the peace initiative, which is backed by the United States and Russia even though the two powers remain divided over the conflict. Moscow backs President Bashar al-Assad and Washington funds and arms his opposition, but they still brokered a partial cease-fire that came into effect in February.


Last month, the opposition delegation to the talks, known as the High Negotiations Committee, suspended its participation because of alleged government violations of the truce. Fighting has surged in recent weeks.

U.N. officials have expressed alarm at the conditions facing the more than 500,000 Syrians in besieged communities. Most of those people are surrounded by pro-government forces, which have received air support from Russia since late last year.


On Friday, U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien criticized the Syrian government over the sieges.


O’Brien said the United Nations had asked the government to grant access to 35 convoys in May. Only 14 were given unhindered access, he said.

He said the “continued use of siege and starvation as a weapon of war is reprehensible.”


Since the start of the year, O’Brien said, warring parties have repeatedly removed medicine and other supplies from aid convoys.


This month, the government blocked a Darayya-bound humanitarian convoy supported by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Even if it had arrived, the town’s starving residents would not have received any food, apart from baby formula. The government, which initially gave the convoy permission, refused to let the trucks carry food.


Critics have repeatedly accused the United Nations of submitting to the government’s demands.


“The international community — through the U.N.’s operation in Damascus — has entered into a disastrous situation where they are allowing the Syrian government to dictate where the aid goes,” said James Sadri, director of the Syria Campaign, a nongovernment group that advocates for an end to the sieges. “That means the most vulnerable are starving to death, often only minutes away from the five-star hotel where the U.N. aid operation is run from.”


Starting last month, airdrops coordinated by the World Food Program have brought food and other assistance to 110,000 residents in government areas of the eastern city of Deir al-Zour that are surrounded by Islamic State militants.


The U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said this month that the government had permitted military helicopters operated by its other key ally, Iran, to fly aid to rebel-blockaded towns in northwestern Syria.

So far, no areas besieged by the government have received airdrops.


“This just shows you how politicized the U.N. aid system is, given that the vast majority of besieged people are being trapped by the Syria government,” said a humanitarian worker with a major Western aid organization. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concern about retribution against her organization.