Security Council to Syria combatants: Let in humanitarian aid, fast

The UN Security Council on Wednesday moved to formally urge all sides in Syria's civil war to let humanitarian aid flow freely into the country. International relief for Syria has been sparse, and Western nations say the Assad regime has deliberately blocked it.

Nour Fourat/Reuters
A man distributes bags donated from UNICEF to young students in Raqqa, eastern Syria, September 29.

After nearly three years of stalemate, the United Nations Security Council has acted on Syria for the second time in just a few days – a move that suggests the road to international action on the deadly civil war there may be opening up.

The council on Wednesday voted unanimously to urge all combatants to allow humanitarian aid to flow freely into the country, and it asked the government of Bashar al-Assad specifically to “lift bureaucratic impediments and other obstacles” to international relief aid and workers.

Wednesday’s approval of a council “presidential statement” follows adoption Friday night of a Security Council resolution on implementation of an ambitious international plan under which Syria is to give up all of its chemical weapons. The resolution, based on a US-Russia plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, was approved after more than two years of diplomatic standoff during which Russia – a staunch supporter of Mr. Assad – vetoed three Syria resolutions and blocked other presidential statements.

The UN has already declared the Syria conflict the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis, but Wednesday’s statement underscores what the council says is a “rapid deterioration” in conditions on the ground. More than 6 million Syrians now live as internally displaced people, with claims mounting of starvation in pockets of the population – even in the Damascus suburbs – stuck in no-man’s-lands between warring forces.

More than 110,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, while more than 2 million Syrians have fled and are now living in refugee camps in neighboring countries. 

While the statement calls on all combatants to facilitate humanitarian assistance, it also places a particular onus on the Syrian government, noting that the authorities “bear the primary responsibility to protect their populations.”

The statement also condemns the “widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by the Syrian authorities.” For much of the conflict, Western officials and international aid groups have charged the Syrian government with blocking outside humanitarian aid and refusing to issue visas to aid workers and humanitarian groups.

A coalition of 16 international humanitarian organizations, including Save the Children and World Vision International, is calling on the war’s combatants to heed the council – by among other things agreeing to “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting to allow access to trapped civilians – and is urging the Security Council to ensure that its demands are implemented.

Others are urging the Security Council to hold the Assad regime to the statement’s demands.

“If the Assad government continues to drown humanitarian agencies in red tape, including by refusing cross-border aid from neighboring countries, it will be a direct challenge to the Security Council’s authority,” says Philippe Bolopion, UN director of Human Rights Watch in New York. “The UN should quickly test the willingness of Syrian authorities and rebels groups to let the aid flow wherever it’s needed, and promptly report back any noncompliance to the council for action.” 

Whether Russia would allow any action aimed at Assad is another matter.

Russia may be signaling that it is not all about protecting Assad, some regional analysts say, and will allow action when its core interests are not threatened – or are indeed served by action, as with the chemical weapons accord. Another scenario, others say, is that Russia is willing to take steps now because it believes that Assad is no longer as threatened as he once was.

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