UN defends impartiality of Syria aid

Annie Slemrod

Rédactrice Moyen-Orient

The World Food Programme has hit back strongly at allegations that the UN has allowed its aid operations in Syria to be controlled by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, emboldening the siege warfare tactics that have become characteristic of the five-year war.

“We act impartially, neutrally and independently, and have contact with all parties to negotiate unimpeded and safe access to all vulnerable people who are in need,” a WFP spokesperson told IRIN by email.

In a Wednesday report, advocacy group The Syria Campaign said the UN had "allowed the Syrian government to direct aid from Damascus almost exclusively into its territories,” pointing out that 96 percent of UN food aid delivered from inside Syria from June 2015-April 2016 (excluding October-December 2015) went to government-controlled areas. The report, based on interviews with current and former UN staff as well as other humanitarians and Syrians living under siege, argues that by relying on permission from the Syrian government for aid access, the UN has lost its impartiality and may be fuelling the conflict.

But the WFP told IRIN that some 30 percent of its assistance is delivered to opposition-controlled areas, through cross-border operations from Turkey and Jordan.

“WFP works to reach all those in need, regardless of areas of control,” the spokesperson said. “Hungry children don’t know or care whether they are in a government-controlled area or opposition-controlled area. They just want food and a safe place to live.”

The UN’s aid operations in Syria have been dogged by controversy from the start of the war in 2011, with aid access carefully negotiated, including a series of oft-criticised one-to-one trades into besieged and hard-to-reach areas.

Some besieged areas saw an initial uptick in aid as part of a February agreement by the International Syria Support Group that was also meant to lead to a “cessation in hostilities.” US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday called this truce “frayed”, and work to ensure humanitarian access has not been a resounding success either: by 17 May, the ISSG was calling on the WFP to begin air drops starting 1 June if entry hadn’t yet been granted to areas under siege.

The drops did not go ahead, and the statement was largely seen as a diplomatic move to pressure Assad to allow more convoys into areas his forces control.