16 June 2016
JE: We just finished a meeting of the Humanitarian Task Force, of the International Syria Support Group, and this is our findings.
After several really very bad weeks for humanitarian access in Syria, we have made progress of late in reaching the besieged areas in Syria. It was very significant that we were able to reach both Darayya and Douma in recent days with food, partial delivery of food, and full delivery of other humanitarian items, and these are the first deliveries to those places since 2012 and 2014 respectively.
It is also of great significant that we already loaded with a large convoy to go to the besieged town of al-Waer. Al-Waer is in Homs. It has been without supplies for more than three months. Conditions in al-Waer, as it is and was in Darayya, are terrible. People have died in Al-Waer because of the lack of humanitarian supplies of late.
So with this we will have reached 16 of the 18 besieged areas since we started this humanitarian task force in late February. We still need to go to Arbeen and Zamalka in rural Damascus and we are hoping to do so in the coming days. There is still disagreement between the UN and the government on the number of people in Arbeen and Zamalka in rural Damascus. We believe, we have assessed, there have been 39,000 people and the government says much fewer numbers are there. If we are able to go to Arbeen and Zamalka, we would have reached , either partially or fully, either once or several times, all of the 18 besieged areas of Syria.
Why has [there] been progress? Because of more effective diplomatic work of late of members of the task force including effective efforts, systematic efforts, valuable efforts by our two co-chairs Russia and the United States, but also the courageous work by our humanitarian colleagues on the ground.
The convoy that went into Darayya and was helped by Russian facilitation even at the last check point before entering Darayya. That convoy had to go in around midnight. It was during active shelling of the area. It was a very dangerous mission, but it was undertaken through that night.
Time and again our humanitarian colleagues are risking everything to be able to reach people. Too often it has to be during night time in active conflict zones.
Today, we also go to Afrin in northern Aleppo to reach 50,000 people and we [aim to] go to Kafr Batna area in rural Damascus for another 25,000 people.
So today alone we hope to reach 110,000 people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas with more than 100 trucks and vehicles. And it is the United Nations, it is our colleagues in the Syrian Red Crescent, and it is ICRC colleagues.
All of this happens while the fighting has gotten worse. The bombing is worse. The protection needs of the civilian population are being trampled upon, across the Syrian map.
It is therefore very positive that a truce for 48 hours was declared today in Aleppo city. We need more of this. We need it in Aleppo and we need it elsewhere.
We are acutely aware that the access we have now can end tomorrow. We are acutely aware that we still have, with the convoys of today, only reached some 330,000 people with full rations out of the more than 590,000 people that are across the 18 besieged areas of Syria.
We are also acutely aware that it is partial delivery. Medical supplies are still being unloaded, and especially surgical kits, surgical equipment, burn equipment to treat burn wounds, etc. And there is still no freedom of movement for the civilian population. So the sieges have not been lifted. Not a single siege has been lifted on our watch. It is the one area of humanitarian access where we have very significant progress. If we are reaching 16 out of 18 areas, [it] is a big step forward, compared to 2 out of 15 areas throughout 2015.
Question: I would like ask more about this 48-hour truce in Aleppo please. Why is it only 48 hours? Who has organized it? Is it one of these cynical moves to do something and then the fighting will start again? What is going on?
JE: Well, as far as I have understood, and this falls under the other task force, the cessation of hostilities task force, but it was announced in our task force, this is really a confidence building measure. It is the first step towards getting quiet; getting progress between the parties in the Aleppo area and it is a very important move for us to be able to do our humanitarian work.
Aleppo is among the areas where it has been impossible to do humanitarian work in many areas, for too long. It is too dangerous both for the civilians and for the aid workers to be able to reach each other.
Question: Who called for this truce? The US or Russia?
JE: This is what the Co-chairs have announced.
Question: What is being done to get access to Kefraya and Fouah for the UN assessment group? Can the Humanitarian group influence this process? I mean, making pressure on the fighting parties there, if it is possible to do something.
JE: Fouah and Kefraya are part of the “four towns” agreement that was negotiated even before this taskforce started. The good thing about the agreement is that it did allow the first assistance to the four towns, including to Madaya where people were starving to death at the time. Since then there has been multiple problems in implementing the agreement, in part because there is also a tit-for-tat. A bleeding child cannot be evacuated from one town because the other side would like an evacuation to happen simultaneously from another place and the bleeding boy dies, and it happened on our watch.
It is indeed a concern that we have not been able to have a UN assessment to enter into Fouah and Kefraya. We are still working on that. There are multiple groups, armed opposition groups, that we need to negotiate access with, we are working on that and I am hopeful that it will indeed happen and indeed members of this task force should and would and can help us with this access.
Question: The Syria Campaign came out with a report a couple of days ago talking about how the UN in its aid deliveries is too bound to the Syrian government and this is in some ways subject to overly great demands by the Syrian government. I just want to know what is your reaction to this if you could. You categorically denied that the UN is doing too much to help the government controlled areas and not enough for the opposition held areas.
JE. I know and I admire many of the groups in this Syria Campaign. These are groups that work in opposition held areas. Courageous people doing fantastic work under very very difficult circumstances. I share their frustration also with the general situation of late, including that we are as humanitarians having supplies in Damascus and elsewhere and we have been, still are to some degree, prevented from delivering to places like I mentioned now, Arbeen and Zamalka, for example. We still have not been able to give full deliveries to Darayya and Douma either.
I do not agree that our courageous colleagues on the ground, those who spend the night under shelling to go into Darayya, who have multiple times had confrontations with the government, to be able to reach areas, are in any ways not impartial. I admire what humanitarian colleagues are doing on the ground, including UN, SARC and also our colleagues on the opposition side. It is also not reflected well, I think, in the reportthat the UN has actually delivered to millions in the opposition held areas, both cross border and cross line, since the Security Council belatedly agreed to authorize cross border operations in July 2014.
JE.I believe the question is that progress is because of Ramadan and that it may even turn bad again after Ramadan. Well, we were assured today by the Co-Chairs and the members of the task force that a systematic and coherent effort [was in place] to ensure us [that] humanitarian access will be sustained. And several, including Russia, feel that a psychological barrier has been broken by being able to go to Darayya and Douma among other places. So yes we should be able to continue now sustaining access, well beyond Ramadan, and well beyond, we hope, beyond this momentum that we have had in the last week. But I am saying again, it could end tomorrow. We had progress in February and March, then less in April, and no progress in May. June is again a good month. We can’t continue with stop-and-go (inaudible). We have to have sustained access and for the sieges on the civilian population have to be lifted. So in many ways the logical next step is to get help from these sponsors of the parties to say end the sieges of the civilian population, full freedom of movement for civilians and full humanitarian access all the time for us.
Question: Did you already submit a plan for the July month of what could be requested and made in July?
JE: The July plan is being finalized now. It will be submitted, usually it is about ten days before the end of the month, then they have seven working days to respond back to us. But I can assure you that we will apply for access to all besieged areas and all hard-to-reach areas for the next month of July and we take it now for granted that we will have full and unimpeded access and permits to go to all of these places and we will appeal to the co-chairs Russia and the US and all of the others to help us to ensure that this happens. I really hope that this was a turning point for humanitarian access to besieged areas and also to hard-to-reach areas. But we should not be naïve, the war is continuing and in a war zone everything is fragile.
Question: When you talk about a turning point and Russia sort of feeling that a threshold has been crossed, is it an implication that it is enough for the peace talks to get back on track again? This is the first question. The second question I was wondering if you can say a little more about Aleppo, but are you hoping to get some aid into Aleppo during this ceasefire? And thirdly, are air drops now off the menu? You haven’t mentioned air drops.
JE: Air delivery, which would in very many cases, is actually only helicopters, but air delivery is really on the table. We now have a plan. It can be implemented if there is no land access. But in one helicopter [there] is much less than in one truck and it is 100 times more expensive. So if we have land access that is definitely the preferred option.
In Aleppo, we need all of the humanitarian partners and that is also including cross-border partners, who often get too little attention, non-government organizations do a lot of cross border work, we all need to use this window of opportunity which would be the 48-hour truce. I hope and pray that it is extended and that the people of Aleppo can get the respite that they need now and we can get aid to them.
We are going to Afrin today -- that is 50,000 people and it is an area in northern Aleppo that hasn't had help for a very long time.
The other part of the question: well that's beyond my remit. Certainly Staffan de Mistura said that progress on cessation of hostilities and humanitarian work is important to get peace talks. But also for us humanitarians it is important for us to have peace talks to sustain the humanitarian process. So in a way these two are inter linked. I feel, we feel like Sisyphus here -- as if Sisyphus had an easy job compared to the one we have in trying to [deliver] every single month to all of these places that are in need because of this terrible war.