JERUSALEM, 29 March 2016
Annie Slemrod

Middle East Editor

A month into an internationally brokered cessation of hostilities in Syria, violence has decreased in some parts of the country but aid agencies are far from having the unhindered aid access they had hoped for.

The “cessation of hostilities” – notably not a ceasefire or a truce – does not include all of the country, the so-called Islamic State group or the Nusra Front. It came into effect on 27 February, after an agreement in Munich by the United States and the Russian-led International Syria Support Group.

By the important measure of civilian deaths, the break is a success. The Syria-based Violations Documentation Center counted 367 civilian deaths in March, as of Tuesday. That’s the fewest number of civilian deaths per month since July 2011, a few months after the war began.

But the war has certainly not ended. Numerous violations of the ceasefire have been reported. Forces allied with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime notably took the city of Palmyra from IS over the weekend.

The ISSG stressed humanitarian access as a major part of the Munich deal, and as a metric of success this has been more of a mixed bag.

In the first three months of 2016, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body OCHA said agencies managed to help 32 percent of the people in need in UN-designated besieged locations. That’s 155,744 of a total 486,700, up from zero in the first three months of 2015.

“Access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas has improved in 2016, albeit from a very low base,” OCHA told IRIN by email.

There were 18 convoys to areas the UN classifies as besieged, hard-to-reach or other "cross-line priority" areas in March (as of 22 March), 18 in February, and eight in January. UNRWA, the UN's agency for Palestine refugees, has also had 18 succesful deliveries so far this year, including to the besieged Yarmouk camp.

But “access has to go beyond allowing more aid convoys to deliver limited supplies,” OCHA added. “While welcome, we need to move beyond one-off, ad-hoc distributions of assistance to a given besieged or hard-to-reach location [and towards] an end to the use of siege tactics and safe, sustained, unconditional and unimpeded humanitarian access so that we can meaningfully reach all those in need as often as is required and by whatever routes necessary [emphasis OCHA's].”

For its part, the World Food Programme – which failed in a late February attempt to airdrop aid to the besieged city of Deir Ezzor – told IRIN by email that “following the Munich Agreement, WFP and its humanitarian partners have reached more people in besieged areas than at any other time since the beginning of the conflict.”

And yet it may once again attempt airdrops for those areas that aren’t reachable by land, a sign that access is far from easy.

The organisation told IRIN that it is “working on securing new parachute systems or changing the type of the aircraft,” it uses, and is dealing with its partners on the ground to improve the drop zone conditions.

There have been some major breakthroughs. On 23 March, a 27-truck convoy reached Houla, a region in northern Homs Province with a population of 70,000 people that has not seen aid in months. Some surgical equipment was removed from the convoy by the Assad regime, a common issue. 

But on the same day, International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman Pawel Krzysiek said the deal hadn’t made a major difference on the ground because of the web of permissions and coordination required to deliver help.

"The cessation of hostilities: honestly I don't see the difference. The hard-to-reach areas continue to be hard to reach, for several reasons: humanitarian negotiations, security, coordination on the ground, the procedures,” he said.

On the political front, Western and Russian diplomats have been expressing cautious optimism ahead of peace talks, set to begin on 11 April in Geneva. 

“We are all encouraged that there is a sense of momentum now in the political process that we haven’t seen before,” US State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday.

But US Secretary of State John Kerry has said the next step is discussing political transition. With Assad showing no signs of a willingness to leave, it is anyone’s guess where the talks will lead.