First UN Syria airdrop lands in trouble

Bumpy landing for aid "breakthrough"

By Annie Slemrod

Middle East Editor

Only a few hours after UN aid chief Stephen O’Brien told the UN Security Council that a 21-tonne World Food Programme airdrop had successfully been made to the besieged Syrian city of Deir Ezzor Wednesday, the WFP said something had gone wrong and local activists said the aid was either damaged on landing or fell wide of its mark.

“The operation faced technical difficulties and we are debriefing crew and partners in Deir Ezzor to make necessary adjustments,” the WFP told IRIN in an emailed statement, which continued: “...the team will try again when possible… High altitude drops are extremely challenging to carry out and take more than one trial to develop full accuracy.”

Some 200,000 people live in besieged parts of Deir Ezzor, a government-held city surrounded by the so-called Islamic State.

WFP would not provide any further details, but a well-placed source told IRIN that “some of the cargo was damaged when it hit the ground". UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric also told reporters the WFP was still trying to get information on where the aid ended up. “They're trying to reach local partners to ensure that the aid was received...There may have been some difficulties in terms of the pallets," he added.

The Justice for Life Observatory in Deir Ezzor, an activist reporting group, also said the cargo was significantly damaged and that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) had only been able to collect 3 of 6 containers because half had fallen into areas that are difficult to access.

Humanitarian negotiator Jan Egeland said on Twitter that "SARC and local NGO in charge of securing drop zone, assembling aid and distributing according to needs". 

For its part, the well-established Local Coordination Committees activist network claimed the Syrian army had siezed some of the aid.

Earlier in the day, O’Brien told the Security Council that the UN’s first airdrop in Syria had apparently gone to plan. He said initial reports from SARC were that “pallets have landed in the target area as planned.” IRIN understands the cargo was mixed, not only food. Despite operational risks, O’Brien told the council, there were benefits in some parts of the country to using airdrops “as a last resort”. 

Between 480,000 and two million Syrians are living under siege (the numbers differ depending on who is counting), and until recent talks led by the US and Russia, aimed at a partial ceasefire and better humanitarian access, aid organisations had effectively ruled them out because aid drops, even at low altitude, are notoriously difficult to carry out.

See: How to do a food airdrop

Just last month, the WFP told IRIN that it wasn't considering dropping aid to Syria.

“What we need is unimpeded access, and we can’t consider airdrops at this time,” the organisation told IRIN by email at the 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.”

See: Should airdrops be tried to save starving Syrians?