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Why major powers can't manage to air drop supplies to Syria

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The US and Russia backed a deal to begin airdrops June 1, but appear unable or unwilling to enforce the decision to begin an emergency humanitarian intervention.

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    A Syrian refugee woman shops after receiving humanitarian aid shopping vouchers in the al-Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq, Jordan, near the border with Syria.
    Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
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The inability of major powers to implement a modest aid airdrop to more than 500,000 Syrians, set to begin June 1, suggests their unwillingness to intervene forcefully in the unfolding humanitarian crisis.

The US, Russia, and other outside forces involved in Syria had agreed last month to begin airdrops of food and other emergency supplies if overland aid convoys continued to be stopped. 

But hopes dimmed this week that the conditions to begin airdrops would be met. Among other things, the countries sending aircraft to make the aid drops need assurances their forces won’t be shot down.

On one level, the inability of the international community to impose the delivery of food, medicines, and other supplies to encircled and trapped civilian populations spotlights the near-collapse of international efforts to end Syria’s civil war, now into its sixth year.

More broadly, the sputtering Syria airdrop plan underscores the wider and mounting failure of the major powers of the international community to address rising global humanitarian needs.

Last week United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon used the stage of the World Humanitarian Summit to castigate the world’s most powerful and wealthiest leaders for turning their backs on what the UN calls the worst global humanitarian crisis since World War II: 60 million people displaced and an estimated 125 million people in need of some form of humanitarian assistance.

Mr. Ban noted that of the world's leading powers, only German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended the summit, which he envisioned as a forum for delivering new initiatives for addressing the humanitarian crisis.

Assad under no pressure to guarantee safety of aircraft

The UN’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan dae Mistura, said last week that "in order for airdrops to become concrete either by delivery at high altitude or by helicopters, there is a need for the cooperation of the government of Syria."

As of Tuesday, the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the principal reason the overland aid convoys haven't gotten through, had issued no such statement. Nor does President Assad appear to be under any pressure from Russia, its principal ally in the war, to guarantee the safety of the aircraft dropping supplies.

The apparent unwillingness of the International Syria Support Group countries – led jointly, at least nominally, by the US and Russia – to enforce their April 17 decision has surprised few Syria experts and activists. The group has a poor track record on tempering and ultimately resolving a war that has cost at least 250,000 lives and displaced millions of Syrians.

Some political leaders blame the Syria Support Group, also known as ISSG. 

In the US, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona has blasted President Obama for failing to create humanitarian corridors and safe zones in Syria, enforced by US air power, that he says could have prevented the worst of Syrians’ suffering.

Credibility of international powers on the line

Others warn that world leaders undermine their own legitimacy when they fail to back up the decisions they make.

"Are the words of the international community meant to mean anything?" Britain’s former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown asked last week as it looked increasingly likely the ISSG would miss its own June 1 deadline for airdrops.

"Not only are lives on the line," Mr. Ashdown added, "so is the credibility of the ISSG."

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