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1 December 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 2:04pm

Humanitarian airdrops are already happening in Syria. So why can’t we do more?

The international community is sitting on its hands. 

By Haid Haid

While airdropping aid to besieged areas in Syria comes with logistical challenges and potential risks, it is still the best peaceful option available. However, the lack of will among international actors meet their responsibility remains the main obstacle to its implementation.

The United Nations aid chief recently reported that the number of besieged Syrians has more than doubled over the past year to nearly a million. The vast majority of besieged areas, around 50, are encircled by the Syrian regime, while one area is besieged by Isis and one by some rebel forces. The most recent besieged area has been the rebel-held eastern Aleppo in which more than 250,000 people are trapped without access to food or medicine. A UN official stated that people in Aleppo received aid for the last time at the beginning of July and estimated that people began running out of food in mid-November. The ongoing Syrian regime offensive – supported by Russian and Iran-backed forces – to capture the rest of the eastern side has worsened the situation. Intense airstrikes have killed at least 500 people and wounded more than 1,000 more in the past two weeks alone – and put all hospitals in that area out of service.

The international community is dramatically failing to end the widespread use of siege tactics for military gain in Syria. The existence of three UN Security Council resolutions on Syria – 2165, 2191 and 2258 – give its agencies permission to cross conflict lines to deliver aid wherever needed without asking for permission from the Syrian regime. Just 10 per cent of requests made by its agencies to dispatch aid convoys to besieged or hard-to-reach areas in Syria received approval last year – but UN officials remain cautious about delivering aid without government consent, due to the increased risk of attack on aid convoys.

The UN could not get permission to deliver lifesaving aid to besieged areas, but it did not want to risk sending unauthorised aid convoys to help people. This dilemma led to growing calls for airdrops instead. As a result, the International Syria Support Group, a coalition of 20 countries and organisations, threatened to begin aid airdrops if the Syrian regime failed to grant the UN land access to all besieged areas by the start of June. Although the Syrian regime did not comply, the international community failed to enact the pledge. Countries gave their reasons ranging from risk to logistical factors.

The main concern is the possibility of aircraft delivering aid being shot down. The same risk, theoretically, applies to all the fighting jets operating inside Syria, without the regime’s permission, as part of the US-led international coalition against Isis. Yet, that did not stop any of the countries operating inside Syria on that front. The Syrian regime and Russia are the two actors capable of downing rival aircrafts, which makes such risks calculable. These actors know that attacking any international plane will have serious consequences, which is what has forced them to stay away so far. Therefore, convincing the Syrian regime and its allies not to attack a civilian plane carrying aid, should be easier that convincing them not to attack a hostile fighting jet.

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The lack of visible drop zones to reduce the lethal risk of dropping aid on civilians, is a frequent logistical concern – as is distribution once they’ve been dropped. Although these concerns are valid and are important to work through, the engagement of local civil society groups and administrative bodies will help to overcome them once a decision on the policy level is made. Moreover, the UN’s programme to airdrop aid to the regime-held area in Deir Ezzor, a city besieged by Isis in eastern Syria, has been successful and effective.

According to Valerie Szybala, executive director at The Syria Institute, airdrops to Deir Ezzor have been regular since April this year – happening several times a week, with a tremendous impact on improving humanitarian conditions there.

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The Security Council’s authorisation to airdrop aid to besieged areas in Syria allows the UN to do so without violating any laws. The UN has also been successfully airdropping aid in Syria to a regime-held area for several months, which demonstrates its capability.

So if airdrops are already happening, there can be only one conclusion – it is a lack of will from the international community that is hindering the delivery of a lifeline to a million starving Syrians.

Haid Haid is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House and a Syrian columnist and researcher.