Between 400,000 and two million Syrians (depending on who’s counting) are living under siege. Madaya forced their plight onto the international stage. Since then, voices calling for airdrops to save starving civilians have only become louder.
A petition to “start aid drops to the starving people of Syria” has garnered more than 59,000 signatures, prompting the predictable reply from the British government that “airdrops cannot operate effectively” in the complex Syrian warzone.
But is it that simple?
International organisations likely have cover for airdrops under UN Security Council Resolution 2165, which says “United Nations humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners are authorised to use routes across conflict lines” for aid delivery, with notification to the Syrian authorities.
However, airdrops are usually only the humanitarians’ last resort. Ideally, they require safe access to airspace, and an infrastructure on the ground to collect and distribute supplies to those who truly need it.
That’s why the UN’s World Food Programme has effectively ruled them out, telling IRIN that the conditions aren’t right.
“WFP acknowledges that the humanitarian situation in besieged areas of Syria is critical,” the organisation said by email.
“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.”
The counter-argument is that you don’t know until you really try. Airspace approval would be difficult to achieve for sure, but it might not be impossible. Conditions on the ground aren't perfect for distribution, but even a flood of goods into the black market would presumably drive down prices and still be of some benefit to civilians.
If airdrops are too risky for the UN, could the countries bombing in Syria step in instead?
UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien certainly doesn’t appear opposed. In a recent letter responding to a British government minister, he suggests that Britain shouldn’t feel constricted by UN guidelines – seeking permission from Damascus – if it was to consider such a move. O’Brien recommends that “all options be considered, as we must find a way to break this impasse.”
Perhaps, the strongest argument in favour of taking a harder look at the airdrop option is that they’re already being done, just not on an equitable basis.
Across Syria, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces use planes to get aid where they want it to go, helping out civilians in loyalist communities but not others.
Russia says it has been also dropping aid into the besieged city of Deir Ezzor, where so-called Islamic State surrounds part of the town and Assad’s forces are preventing aid delivery to some 180,000 people. Critics point out that this appears to be a PR move. A local activist group reported that Russian supplies were only being collected by pro-government forces.
To help weigh up the pros and cons of attempting airdrops in Syria, here’s a quick look at airdrops elsewhere:
Starting in 1992, WFP began regularly running planes over southern Sudan and Darfur to people displaced by conflict or who were otherwise inaccessible because of flooding. Between 1992 and 2005, it transported nearly 500,000 metric tons of food and non-food aid from Loki Airbase in Kenya. WFP shut up shop there anticipating increased road access to South Sudan with independence in 2011, but due to renewed conflict, the airdrops have continued. In May 2015, WFP carried out its first successful drop of vegetable oil, for thousands displaced around the South Sudanese town of Ganyiel. In the last two years, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which rarely delivers aid in this way, also dropped food rations and other supplies into remote areas of South Sudan accessible only by boat or aircraft.
Attempts to bring aid to those affected by Angola’s bloody civil war were hampered by long negotiations and interference by warring parties. The effort to drop help by air got off to a rough start – the first sortie in June 1993 was shot at. For some time, private aid agencies chartered planes into Angola, often with UN aid on board. Later, the UN was able to commence aid flights in earnest to besieged populations on both sides of the war. Unable to access large parts of the country because of landmines or poor road infrastructure, the WFP conducted airdrops into Angola again in 2003.
Violence following East Timor’s pro-independence vote from Indonesia in a 1999 referendum sent tens of thousands of East Timorese into mountains and forests. The UN dropped rice, high-protein energy bars, and blankets.
In 2001, a woman was killed and a child injured when humanitarian aid from a US Air Force plane carrying wheat, blankets and cold weather equipment hit a home in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Mount Sinjar, Iraq
Some 50,000 Yazidis, a Kurdish religious minority, fled an IS advance into their Iraqi hometown for nearby Mount Sinjar in August 2014. US and British planes dropped food, water, and medicine, flying low and picking up desperate people. The scenes on the ground were sometimes chaotic, but this offers one example at least when the United States stepped in and even said it was breaking a siege.
“Because of the skill and professionalism of our military, and the generosity of our efforts, we broke the [IS] siege of Mount Sinjar, we helped vulnerable people reach safety, and we helped save many innocent lives,” US President Barack Obama said at the time.