Home > Columnists > Why Aren’t Besieged Syrians Getting Airdrops? | Stanley Heller

Why Aren’t Besieged Syrians Getting Airdrops? | Stanley Heller

About The Author

Stanley Heller Administrator of and writer for Promoting Enduring Peace and hosts “The Struggle” TV News, at www.TheStruggle.org. He can be reached at stanley.heller@pepeace.org.

Deir Ezzor Gets Air Drops, Why Not Other Parts of Syria?


Nov. 16, 2016   The sieges in Syria are a horror.  In January the skeletal images in Madaya pricked world consciences British activists raised the question of airdrops of food and got 65,000 signers on a petition.   A CODEPINK petition got near 2,500 signers and the slogan Drop Food, Not Bombs was also mentioned in a joint letter (with Promoting Enduring Peace) published in the New York Times.   A number of Syrian cities and towns received food and the issue receded.

Yet the sieges did not end.  In the spring the International Syria Support Group (that included the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and others) issued a statement calling for a lifting of the sieges and “humanitarian access throughout Syria.” Specifically it said, “Starting June 1, if the UN is denied humanitarian access to any of the designated besieged areas, the ISSG calls on the World Food Program to immediately carry out a program for air bridges and air drops for all areas in need.”

This never happened.  Only one Syrian city does get U.N. airdrops of food and medicine

What follows is my interview with a spokesperson for the U.N.’s World Food Program, a spokesperson for The Syrian Campaign  and my own thoughts.

What the U.N. Says:

I spoke by phone on Nov. 2 to Gerald Bourke, a spokesperson for the World Food Program.  He explained that the airdrops to Deir Ezzor began in April of this year.   He said that the World Food Program sends in the basic staples of the Syrian family diet, chiefly, rice, flour, beans and oil.  In Deir Ezzor they’re attempting to help feed some 110,000 people surrounded by ISIS in the area controlled by Assad forces.

Bourke said there’s been very many flights, 153 aid flights from April to date.  The planes drop 20 one-ton pallets filled with food from a height of seven kilometers. 2,831 metric tonnes of food and non-food items delivered (of this 122 tonnes non-food, including 10.2 tonnes of medical aid). The WFP is the logistics arm of the UN.  (One tonne is a metric measurement, 2,240 U.S. pounds).

I asked if ISIS had ever tried to shoot down any of the planes and he said that that hadn’t happened as the planes are up so high. (7 km is a bit over 4 miles up).  He said helicopter flights for other besieged areas had been considered. Such airlifts to places where overland access is not granted – essentially active war zones – would require a cessation of hostilities, the necessary clearances and permits and reliable security coordination.

I asked why the WFP was airdropping food in this Assad controlled area since Assad has an air force and of course its allies Russia and Iran have air planes. I asked why they didn’t take care of the problem on their own.  His answer was that WFP provides assistance on the basis of need, and that based on the assessments of partners on the ground there was evident need in Deir Ezzor. He said that WFP repeatedly urges parties to the conflict to guarantee unimpeded and unconditional access to those in need including in besieged areas, and that in the absence of such access,  gives careful consideration to how best to deliver to them. When it is possible, delivery by road is safer, more efficient and much less costly than by air. A plane could drop what amounts to one truckload of food, but a convoy could be 30 to 40 trucks.

Bourke confirmed that the U.N. is not air dropping food to any other areas.  When asked why, he said that in Deir Ezzor a sufficiently large and safe drop zone for the release of cargo and its collection by a team on the ground had been identified. He said those conditions are not met in the case of Aleppo or other besieged areas and that airdrops cannot be carried out over densely populated urban areas.

He brought up the International Syrian Support group proposal to airdrop/airlift food (that was to go into effect by June 1) and said WFP looked at the options, considered helicopter landings and airdrops, but all that needed security and that they had to talk to the Syrians (i.e. Assad forces) and the Russians for their permission.  He said that in the ensuing weeks, overland access to besieged areas improved considerably, with all of them receiving WFP food assistance by mid-July.

Some food does get into besieged areas from time to time especially from cross-border areas of Turkey and Jordan, but it ebbs and flows.  Bourke said that in September, about 30 percent of WFP assistance went to besieged and hard-to-reach areas through cross-border and cross-line deliveries.

The Syria Campaign:

On Nov. 15 I spoke to Kathleen Fallon, the Senior Humanitarian Advocacy Lead of the Syria Campaign. She said the number under siege in Syria ranges between 1.1 and 1.9 million people.  She calls the situations “dire” and “desperate.”  Fallon said that she is being told that for many in East Aleppo there’s only 12 to 15 days of food left.  She said Madaya today is totally cut off, surrounded by 12,000 land mines, and 65 checkpoints.   The most recent humanitarian convoy was at the end of September. However, the shipment was contaminated. Inside 200 bags of rice were glass and animal feces. The contamination almost surely happened at a checkpoint “inspection.”  This is far from an exception.  At checkpoints items are often removed or messed with in a way to make them unusable.  She said no surgical supplies or baby formula ever gets in.

I asked about the WFP explanation that only Deir Ezzor has an area where airdrops can be made safely.  She said the U.N. has been saying that, but that the number one reason the airdrops aren’t happening is because the U.N. seeks permission from Syrian government and when that permission isn’t given that’s the end of it.

So, What’s Going On?

What are the odds that of the scores of areas under siege only Deir Ezzor is the one place where pallets of food can be dropped safely?  I would think zero, that is, the claim that there aren’t any safe places to drop food is an excuse.  As The Syrian Campaign says the World Food Program asks the Assad regime for permission to drop food, it doesn’t get it and the matter is put on hold indefinitely.  Surely when the International Syria Support Group planned airdrops they thought it was a possibility.  In fact back in January Deborah Lee James, the U.S. Secretary of the Air Force told the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the U.S. was ready to do airdrops.

Back in 2014 the U.N. Security Council demanded (its language) in resolution 2139 that  “the Syrian authorities, promptly allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for United Nations humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners.” Yet for two and a half years the United Nations has been ignoring its own decision and has given the criminal Assad gang veto power over airdrops of aid to starving Syrians.

A few days ago the BBC showed a clip about Madaya. It’s called “Madaya, Syria, where children resort to suicide.” I wonder about the sky over Madaya. Perhaps the children look up and watch American planes fly over their town on their way to drop bombs.

Why doesn’t the U.S. airdrop food on its own?  Putin might object. He might… He might… He could even start World War III…   While we worry about possible dangers to ourselves Syrians bellies are throbbing in pain for food. As Medea Benjamin and I wrote in a letter to the editor published in the New York Times in January 2016, “The question of threats to United States aircraft is a serious consideration, but we are talking about sieges that the Security Council deemed illegal in 2014. It is worth taking risks to save lives, to enforce international law and to make sieges of civilian areas a thing of the past. We say drop food, not bombs.”


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