News Analysis

Aid is becoming a political tool in Syria talks

Although access to aid is enshrined under international law, it has been repeatedly used as leverage on the battlefield and at the negotiating table in this Syrian conflict.
Although access to aid is enshrined under international law, it has been repeatedly used as leverage on the battlefield and at the negotiating table in this Syrian conflict.PHOTO: REUTERS

UNITED NATIONS • Leaders of humanitarian aid organisations have, over the past few months, repeatedly implored the various warring parties in Syria and their backers not to use the delivery of food and medicine as a bargaining chip in their negotiations about war and peace.

But the leaders of the world's most powerful countries did just that on Thursday night, striking a deal over access to aid during negotiations in Munich.

A temporary and limited "cessation of hostilities" to allow aid convoys to reach those living under siege is to start within a week, said US Secretary of State John Kerry.

And the "pause" allows bombing to continue so long as it is aimed at the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Al-Qaeda affiliate known as the Nusra Front - both listed as terrorist groups by the UN Security Council.

The very groups that had been begging for relief to besieged towns have welcomed the promised relief with extreme caution, describing it as a half-step that only underscored how bread, blankets and even vaccines for children have become politicised in the five-year-old civil war.

Access to aid is enshrined under international law. But in this conflict, it has been repeatedly used as leverage on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.

The United Nations has principally accused the Syrian government, but also ISIS and some armed opposition groups, of putting up blockades to the delivery of food and lifesaving medicines to civilians.

It estimates that nearly half a million people are under siege, but some watchdog groups say the number is far higher.

More than two dozen people recently died of starvation in the town of Madaya and neighbouring Zabadani.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has warned that those who use starvation as a weapon are committing war crimes.

"While we welcome any effort to improve the lives of Syrians in such desperate need of humanitarian assistance, the conflation of humanitarian issues with political agendas poses a serious threat to the independence, neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian action," said Mr Mathieu Rouquette, an aid worker with Mercy Corps. The organisation is part of a consortium of international agencies working in both government and rebel-held areas of Syria.

Where and whom the aid convoys can reach, Mr Rouquette added, should not be decided by diplomats in closed rooms as "a tool in the palette of political options".

Mercy Corps and other aid groups have been caught in a bind as the sieges have intensified. They have condemned the use of aid access as a political tool - but remained desperate for the world powers to do whatever they can to lift the crippling blockades.

So far, Russia has limited its aid drops to towns controlled by its ally, President Bashar Assad, whose government has repeatedly refused permission to UN agencies seeking to enter Syria in order to transport aid to rebel-held areas.

And the UN, for its part, had been reluctant to let its aid convoys cross into Syria from neighbouring countries without authorisation from the Security Council.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has cautiously praised the Munich deal but not without a scold.

"It is high time the world powers and the warring parties start putting Syrians first and their own interests second," said Mr Robert Mardini, the group's regional director for the Middle East.

"Those who hold Syria's present and future in their hands must pause for a moment and think of the appalling suffering that prevails all over the country and think of how they can help us restore a little hope."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline 'Aid is becoming a political tool in Syria talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe