Syria: How Assad’s Men Block UN Aid Agencies

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Oliver Holmes and Stephanie Nebehay report for Reuters:

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It is a 15-minute drive from the five-star hotel that houses U.N. aid staff in Damascus to rebel-held suburbs where freezing children are starving to death.

Yet it is months since convoys from the United Nations and other agencies have delivered food or medical care to many such areas — prevented by a Syrian government accused of using hunger as a weapon of war against its people.

As the United Nations launches an annual appeal on Monday for funds to help more than 9 million Syrians who need aid, divisions among world powers that have crippled peacemaking are also denying U.N. staff the power to defy President Bashar al-Assad’s officials and push into neighbourhoods now under siege.

“In government-controlled parts of Syria, what, where and to whom to distribute aid, and even staff recruitment, have to be negotiated and are sometimes dictated,” said Ben Parker, who ran the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Syria for a year until last February.

“According to the Syrian government’s official position, humanitarian agencies and supplies are allowed to go anywhere, even across any frontline,” he wrote last month in the journal Humanitarian Exchange. “But every action requires time-consuming permissions, which effectively provide multiple veto opportunities.” Fighting and rebel groups are also obstacles.

The United Nations estimates about a quarter of a million Syrians are living under siege as winter bites, most of them encircled by government forces, but also including 45,000 in two towns in the north that are besieged by anti-Assad rebels.

A binding Security Council resolution could formally oblige the authorities to let aid agencies into areas like the Damascus suburbs and the old city of Homs, where local doctors say children are dying of malnutrition. But divisions between Western powers, backing the rebels, and Russia, have paralysed the world body over Syria since the conflict began in 2011.

As a result, international agencies are legally obliged to work with a government which aid workers say has used threats — say, to deny visas to foreign staff or hinder efforts to help millions of people outside besieged districts — as a way of muting criticism and discouraging attempts to break the sieges.

“It is a fundamental flaw in the international system that it is possible for a rogue state to hold its own people hostage,” said a Western diplomat who works on aid issues.

“Syria … can threaten access to its own population and say ‘millions will starve if my instructions are not followed’.

“The reality is there is a risk of being thrown out,” he said. “You have to look ultimately at what the moral obligation is to serve as many as you can.”

As far as Assad’s government is concerned, said former U.N. Syria staffer Ben Parker, aid operations are “a Trojan horse to delegitimise the state, develop contacts with the opposition and win international support for military intervention”.

To criticism that they should complain more loudly, aid workers speaking privately cited the case of a U.N. agency chief who ended a posting in Damascus last year after clashing with Syrian officials over access for aid distribution. Syria had made clear that the official’s visa would not be renewed.

An internal U.N. document seen by Reuters last month said visa applications for international staff were more likely to be turned down or put on hold in 2013 than to be approved.

It described Syrian bureaucracy hampering operations, as well as difficulties posed by fighting and a lack of cooperation from numerous, often rival, rebel groups across the country.

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