The UN has faced mounting pressure this week to use aid airdrops to reach the hundreds of thousands of Syrians living in besieged parts of the war-torn country, but the agency’s officials have countered that the method could be dangerous, expensive and inefficient.
The UK, US and France this week urged the UN to begin airdrops of food and other aid, after Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad did not meet a demand to grant the agency land access to all besieged areas by June 1. The deadline was set last month by the International Syria Support Group, a coalition of 20 countries and organisations including the US, Russia and Iran.
Even though the UN itself was one of the organisations that supported the June 1 deadline, several of its officials are cautioning against launching airdrops without the Assad regime’s permission. There are an estimated 592,000 Syrians living in besieged areas, with different territories blockaded by either government or rebel forces.
“When people think airdrops, they think we can just fly over,” Josephine Guerrero, a spokesperson from the UN’s Office of the Special Envoy for Syria, told the FT.
One concern is that unauthorised aid flights into Syrian air space could result in a confrontation with the country’s military. There are no guarantees that aid flights that do not have the Syrian government’s approval would not be shot down — and, as of yet, there has been no nod from Damascus.
The Syrian government said on Thursday it would grant land access to more besieged areas, as calls for airdrops increased. Earlier this year, it allowed the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN’s food aid agency, to conduct aid airdrops into some areas under siege by Isis. Since February, there have been more than a dozen aid pallets dropped over Deir al-Zor, a province in the east of the country.
However, some of those pallets have missed their intended destinations — highlighting another concern over the efficiency of airdrops. Some aid experts also warn that pallets dropped from the air can fall into the hands of armed groups rather than civilians.
“Someone can rush in and take these goods,” said Catherine Bertini, a former executive director of the WFP and a professor at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. “[Airdrops are] dramatic — but it’s expensive and it’s not targeted.”
The UN Security Council held a meeting on Friday to discuss whether to attempt airdrops in Syria. This week’s debate also comes as the Iraqi army and allied forces halted their operation to retake the Isis stronghold of Fallujah, a city where an estimated 50,000 civilians have been under siege for months.
Airdrops in conflict zones are more complex than those in natural disasters, where planes can fly low and co-ordinate with teams on the ground without fear of being attacked. In Syria’s civil war, there are often multiple armed groups in a given area. Planes must therefore fly at high altitudes, making their drops less accurate as winds can blow pallets off target. Flights also only carry relatively small amounts of aid, compared to land convoys.
However, those in favour of the airdrops say there is currently little alternative. In 2015, only a tenth of UN requests to bring aid by land into Syria’s besieged areas were granted.
“The humanitarian situation here is bad and it’s getting worse every day,” said Youssef al-Bustani, an activist from Douma, a city 10km from Damascus that has been under siege by government forces since October 2013.
“People no longer trust the United Nations and its organisations. They can’t count on them any more.”
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