According to a scathing internal assessment inadvertently leaked to the media, last month’s United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the use of siege warfare in Syria, where an estimated 220,000 people had been cut off from basic food and health supplies as part of an ongoing campaign to starve citizens into submission, has achieved little results. On February 22, Security Council Resolution 2139 called for the Syrian government, as well as armed opposition groups, to immediately open access for the delivery of desperately needed aid. The passage of the resolution was hailed as a hopeful sign of progress and promised relief from the “chilling darkness” that had fallen over the Syrian people.
Of course residents of Yarmouk, one of the besieged towns cited in the original resolution, don’t need a report to spell out what they already know: that the little aid that has managed to trickle through in the wake of the resolution makes a mockery of U.N. resolve. “We can’t call this living,” says Mahmood Nasar, a 24-year-old anti-regime activist, via Skype from inside Yarmouk. “People are not living. They are psychologically and physically drained.” Still, the aid that did manage to break through may have had more to do with a serendipitous photo and a massive social media campaign than any finger wagging from the U.N.
The report, the first of a series of monthly assessments on the resolution’s implementation, notes that the numbers of Syrian civilians under siege have hardly changed. The report goes on to detail government obstruction to the delivery of vital humanitarian aid, from “unanswered” requests for convoy approvals to a “lack of internal communication… resulting in denial of access or delays at checkpoints, and continued insecurity.” Medical assistance in particular has been singled out, according to the report. “Since the adoption of the resolution, medical supplies have been removed by government officials from [humanitarian aid] convoys … which would have assisted around 201,000 people.” The government of President Bashar Assad “has ramped up its campaign of dropping barrel bombs into residential neighborhoods of Aleppo city, [making] no effort to distinguish civilians from military targets.” The report is equally vociferous against elements within the armed opposition, who are keeping some 45,000 Syrians under siege as a bargaining tactic.
Not only does the report offer a bleak assessment of the situation in Syria, which is described as a country whose “cities and villages have been reduced to rubble;” it is an oblique indictment of the U.N. and the Security Council, which has so far been unable to force the Syrian regime, or the rebels for that matter, to respect the sanctity of human life. “Frustration applies to a lot of places in Syria,” says Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA] that is overseeing the delivery of aid to Yarmouk, a former Palestinian refugee settlement on the outskirts of Damascus that has been under siege for nine months. “In Yarmouk the situation is beyond imagination. We have women dying in childbirth for lack of medical care, widespread reports of children with malnutrition and people starving, and eating animal feed to survive; all this in the capital city of a UN member state in the 21st century. It beggars belief.”
But unlike many other cities and towns mentioned in the report, Yarmouk is at least seeing some assistance—UNRWA has been able to deliver 9000 aid parcels, containing enough basic food to feed a family for 10 days, in the past two months. That probably has more to do with a viral social media campaign that cast a harsh light on government intransigence than any harshly worded U.N. statement, raising further questions about the efficacy of a politics-plagued international body whose veto-wielding members are divided over Assad’s right to rule.
UNRWA’s Yarmouk campaign, which has been built around a now-iconic photo of teeming masses surging over an apocalyptic scene of destruction to reach a food distribution point, has drawn international attention in a way that few other scenes of Syrian suffering have. The photo was displayed simultaneously on massive electronic billboards in New York’s Times Square and Tokyo’s Shibuya district, and was tweeted, “liked” and shared some 38.5 million times. Celebrities from Alfonso Cuarón to Hugh Grant, Sting, Annie Lennox and Hanif Kureishi joined in to call for humanitarian access. Gunness doesn’t claim that a photo broadcast appearing on the Times Square Jumbotron changed the regime’s calculation overnight, but social media did play a role, he says. “The parties know they are being scrutinized. We have plenty of anecdotal evidence that the social media campaign is being felt on the ground. The fact that we now have a humanitarian corridor open for aid says a lot about what has been achieved.”
It also says a lot about the herculean efforts necessary to move the Assad regime to act. Gunness admits that what little UNRWA has been able to force through to the 18,000 starving residents of Yarmouk is but “a drop in the bucket.” The UNRWA food parcel, he says, “is barely enough to stave off malnutrition.” Even with all the tweets, celebrity endorsements and worldwide attention, only a fraction of Yarmouk’s residents have received aid, let alone achieved the freedoms called for by the Security Council. “The U.N. resolution is not about keeping people one millimeter from the brink of starvation and destitution. We want the full realization of all their needs,” says Gunness.
That may take a while. In order to forestall an inevitable veto from Security Council member Russia, which backs the Assad regime, the resolution’s stated response for noncompliance was watered down to a less threatening “further steps” to be debated in a subsequent meeting. Further steps that of course risk another Russian veto. As long as Russia has an interest in keeping Assad in power, Syria’s other cities under siege my have to hope for their own social media campaigns to crack the barriers to aid.
—with reporting by Hania Mourtada / Beirut