Syria deal needs to work for aid agencies on the ground

Annie Slemrod

Middle East Editor

With aid a key component of the cessation of hostilities scheduled to begin Monday at sundown in Syria, humanitarians say they’ll need more than just words if they are to bring help to Syrians in need.

In announcing the US-Russia brokered deal on 9 September, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the latest ceasefire includes “unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to all of the besieged and hard-to-reach areas, including Aleppo”.

But as the details were still being hammered out hours before the fighting was set to stop (and bombs continued to fall), the International Committee of the Red Cross told IRIN by email that “fundamentally, action must follow on from these decisions and pledges so that humanitarian agencies… can safely access communities and assess and respond to their needs, in an independent and impartial manner”.

The group's spokeswoman said the ICRC welcomed “any step that can bring about a reduction in the violence on the ground – if it can give civilians some desperately needed respite, and allow for greater humanitarian access to different areas heavily affected by the fighting”.

The International Rescue Committee, a major aid organisation headed by former British foreign secretary David Miliband, echoed this sentiment.

While it welcomed the news, the group said in a Saturday statement: “It will be deeds, not words, that will determine if the ceasefire is a turning point in the war.”

Speaking to the BBC on Monday morning, Miliband said he had assurances about humanitarian access “from the highest level” at the UN, the US, and Russia, but that progress on the ground would be “dependent on the follow-through by different sides to the conflict”.

“If there are enough short-term interests that join the Americans and the Russians, then those of us on the humanitarian side have got a chance to try and make a difference,” he added.

These assurances have been tricky to negotiate in the past – convoys cannot move without promises of safe access and airdrops are impossible without clear airspace.

A spokeswoman for the World Food Programme told IRIN by email that the agency's trucks need time to move into a location, offload deliveries, and depart safely.

“This is a time-consuming and complex process,” she continued, emphasising the particular complexity of the delivery process. “When a convoy is sent to a besieged area, it requires a minimum of six hours and can take up to 37 hours to receive security clearances to be able to advance through checkpoints. Three hours is often the amount of time we wait at a checkpoint. A 48-hour pause in hostilities is the minimum that WFP and other agencies need to be able to reach some of these areas and deliver to those affected by this crisis. "

The UN now estimates there are more than 590,000 Syrians living under siege (other groups put the number closer to one million), and while aid has occasionally been allowed into these areas there has been no deal on sustained access.

Rebel groups have reportedly said they will allow aid into Aleppo, but are also insisting it is given to all Syria’s other besieged areas.

Aleppo will be a key test of the deal’s strength. The city has not officially been declared besieged by the UN but supplies are said to be running low in the rebel-held east. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said his country has more than 30 aid trucks ready to deliver humanitarian supplies into the city, under UN supervision.

WFP said trucks for an interagency convoy are being loaded in Turkey right now.

“We stand ready to assist the hundreds of thousands of residents inside eastern Aleppo who are suffering from the escalating violence and dwindling food and medical supplies.  WFP’s trucks are part of an inter-agency cross-border convoy, which will set out from the Turkish border and make its way to eastern Aleppo via [the] Castello Road,” WFP said.

The convoys to Aleppo would include 40 trucks of food, the agency added.

Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the UN’s aid coordination body, OCHA, told IRIN by email Tuesday the UN was standing by to provide humanitarian assistance.

“All parties to the conflict and member states with influence over them must now ensure that the cessation of hostilities is respected to enable unimpeded, unconditional and sustained access without delay,” he said.

In addition to the planned food deliveries to east Aleppo, Laerke added that the next convoys would be prioritised according to a plan already laid out for September, with aid going to the "four towns" of Fua, Kefraya, Zabadani, and Madaya, as well as Moadamiyet al-Sham.*

The ceasefire will not apply to the so-called Islamic State or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the Nusra Front’s name since it formally split from al-Qaeda in July.

This may be a major sticking point in the ceasefire as rebel groups worry that Nusra’s exclusion will be used as an excuse to bomb other rebel groups, including those in and around Aleppo and Idlib.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has signed up to the deal, but his latest words suggest his longer-term war goals are unbending. On Monday state media reported him as saying: “the Syrian state is determined to recover every area [of Syria] from the terrorists”.

*(This story was updated to add OCHA comment)

(TOP PHOTO: A convoy delivering humanitarian supplies waits at the last checkpoint before besieged Madaya in January 2016. Omar/UNICEF)

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