The United Nations will formally ask the Syrian government Sunday to allow airdrops of humanitarian aid to besieged areas where access by land has been denied by the regime, diplomats said.
UN aid chief Stephen O’Brien told a closed meeting of the Security Council on Friday that consent from the Damascus regime was needed to carry out the airdrops of food and medicine to civilians trapped in those areas.
At least 592,000 people live under siege in Syria – the majority surrounded by regime forces – and another four million live in hard-to-reach areas, according to the United Nations.
During the month of May, aid convoys were able to reach only two locations, and O’Brien told council members that this was “simply not enough.”
World powers decided last month that if aid continued to be blocked, the United Nations would begin airdrops on June 1, although such an operation would require Syrian approval and present high risks.
Russia, Syria’s ally, said it was prepared to support the request, but stressed that delivery by land was the most effective and safest way to reach those in need.
“We are open to everything if it’s effective and can be done properly and safely,” Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters after the meeting.
British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said the council should be prepared to consider “further measures” if food, medicine and other relief supplies continue to be denied.
Syria told the United Nations that it had approved aid deliveries to 12 besieged areas for the month of June, but UN officials said this fell short of full access.
“We need to see full approval of the June plan for humanitarian access,” O’Brien said in a statement after addressing the council.
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Jaafari denied that his government was blocking aid and refused to answer questions on whether Damascus would allow the airdrops.
“It’s not about yes or no,” Jaafari told reporters.
“The Syrian government has been engaged with the UN for years in delivering humanitarian aid.”
French Ambassador Francois Delattre, who holds the council presidency this month, said that on Sunday the United Nations “will ask Damascus to authorize humanitarian airdrops to reach localities for which land access was denied by the Syrian regime.”
Diplomats said they expected Damascus to take some time to respond to the request – if it responds at all – and UN officials have said the airdrops are not imminent.
“What is at stake here is the necessity to put an end to a humanitarian disaster,” Delattre told reporters.
“The Syrian regime is continuing to systematically starve hundreds of thousands of civilians and use them as weapons of war. These are war crimes.”
France and Britain called on Russia to ratchet up pressure on Syria to allow access for aid.
“We talk to them all of the time,” responded Churkin. “They are listening. Sometimes they are accepting things but they do not happen during implementation.”
US Ambassador Samantha Power said the sieges must end and accused the Syrian regime of “picking and choosing who eats and who starves to death.”
Britain, France and the United States are calling on the United Nations to forge ahead with plans for the airdrops, even if the operation presents major security challenges.
The United Nations said Thursday that helicopters would have to be used for air bridges to 15 of the 19 besieged areas because they are densely populated.
Peace talks to end Syria’s five-year war stalled in April after the opposition walked out over escalating fighting on the ground and lack of humanitarian aid.