New Concerns About Access For Aid Groups In Syria As Winter Bites

According to the UN, the Syrian Government is hindering humanitarian access. But there is little that can be done.

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Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty Images

Volunteers of Syria's Red Crescent hold flags bearing the symbol of the humanitarian movement as they cross a front line between a rebel-held area and a regime-controlled area in the northern city of Aleppo on Nov. 21, 2013.

Hunger brings desperation, so when a photo of three men crouched over the corpse of a lion taken from a Damascus area zoo started making the rounds on social media earlier this week, Syria-watchers immediately assumed the worst. After all, Syrian Muslim clerics had recently issued a religious ruling permitting the consumption of cats and donkeys, normally forbidden, in cases of acute starvation.  So the leap from cats to lions didn’t seem all that improbable. “As Starvation Mounts Rebels Slaughter Lion Instead of Cats,” read the headline on one Syrian news website Wednesday.

The true story behind the photo was sad but not quite as alarming — the lion had been wounded by shelling, and was being put down, says Syrian  anti-regime activist Qusai Zakarya — but the furor reflected a grim truth: people in Syria are starving. “Nobody I know of has eaten a lion, but I have seen people die from hunger,” Zakarya, spokesperson for an opposition group in Moadhamiya, a town on the outskirts of Damascus under siege by government forces, tells TIME over Skype. “We don’t want to eat these forbidden animals, but believe me, no man in this world can handle the pain coming from starvation.” Zakarya has embarked on a hunger strike, hoping to bring attention to the grave situation faced by Syrian towns surrounded by regime forces. The government says that it is only stopping assistance from reaching rebel strongholds, but according to the United Nations, more than one million Syrians are trapped in areas where aid deliveries cannot reach, and are at risk of malnutrition, starvation and disease.

Zakarya isn’t the only one trying to force action. A coalition of rebel groups have said that they will not attend the recently-announced peace talks slated for Jan. 22 in Geneva unless the regime of President Bashar Assad lifts what the rebels describe as sieges and opens the way for humanitarian access. Even the U.N. is having difficulties delivering medicine and food to desperate civilians. On Nov. 19, the General Assembly’s human rights committee called on the Syrian government to immediately “facilitate the safe and unimpeded delivery of humanitarian assistance throughout the entire country.” It had little effect. A week later Reuters obtained a confidential U.N. report on the humanitarian situation that described a “dangerous and difficult environment for humanitarian workers.” Some 9.3 million Syrians inside the country need assistance, the report said, pointing out that the government has denied permission for U.N. humanitarian convoys to access areas besieged by Assad’s forces. Humanitarian workers have difficulty obtaining visas to even enter Syria, and even when they do get them, aid missions to destinations outside the capital require written approval that can take days or even weeks to process, say aid workers.

Extremist rebel groups have stopped convoys in some cases, according to the U.N., but the regime is far more obstructive. The government says it is working to the best of its abilities, and blames the rebels for making the security situation too difficult for humanitarian access. That’s a convenient excuse, says pro-democracy activist Sama Masoud, speaking by Skype from the Damascus suburbs. Sometimes the government will open access to groups like the Syrian Red Crescent, she says, only to instigate clashes just as the convoys enter the area, forcing them to turn around. “The regime basically tells them ‘you can go in but it’s not my responsibility if you get hurt.’”

For all their difficulties reaching besieged areas, aid groups — even the U.N.’s humanitarian assistance wing — have until recently kept quiet about their frustrations, unwilling to risk the little access they do have by raising their concerns in a way that could provoke a backlash from the regime. That started to change on Oct. 2 when the U.N. Security Council issued a statement condemning “all cases of denial of humanitarian access” and called for the “safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance in the whole country.” The statement had little impact, it seems: two months on, access is still restricted. The problem, in part, is that any kind of binding resolution from the Security Council demanding humanitarian access is likely to get vetoed by Assad’s allies Russia and China. Human rights advocates argue that silence is tantamount to acquiescence. The U.N. “should be much more willing to point the finger at the Syrian government when they are responsible for vast blockages of aid,” Peggy Hicks, the head of advocacy for Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy. The U.N. humanitarian agency says that absent a Security Council resolution, diplomacy and quiet pressure will be more effective for the people who need it most – civilians on the ground.

But as winter sets in, the crisis is likely to worsen, says Zakarya. Towns like Moadhamiya don’t just suffer a lack of food, but also fuel to power heaters. “We are already exhausted by hunger, and too weak to hold on against the cold.” Masoud’s parents, who live in one of the besieged towns, are lucky to have one meal every three days, she says. “Sometimes they will eat tree leaves.”

Quiet pressure won’t work, says Zakarya. He wants to see the world get involved. He cites as an example the international furor that forced Assad to give up his chemical weapons in the wake of an attack on Damsacus’ eastern suburbs in August that killed hundreds. Hunger is more threatening than even chemical weapons, he says, with thousands now at risk of starvation and malnutrition. “When the international community wanted chemical weapons investigators to enter East Ghouta, they forced Assad to let the inspectors in. A similar action can be taken by the international community to push Assad to allow aid convoys to enter all the besieged towns across Syria.” If the international community waits until photographs of emaciated corpses start coming out of Syria, it will be too late to act, says Zakarya.

with reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut