Aid Efforts in Besieged Syria Are ‘Getting Nowhere,’ UN Warns

  • U.S. officials say Russia is complicit in Assad’s crimes
  • Syrian opposition insists on UN role in settlement talks

Members of civil defense carry out a search and rescue operation after an airstrike at a marketplace in the de-escalation zone of Eriha district of Idlib, Syria on January 30, 2018.

Photographer: Mohamed Waleed Alrashed/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As Syria’s seven-year civil war drags on, no medical or food supplies have reached besieged populations in the country since November and “humanitarian diplomacy seems to be totally impotent,” according to a top UN official.

Amid renewed fighting between Turkey and U.S.-allied Kurdish militias in northern Syria, United Nations Special Adviser Jan Egeland said some 2.9 million people are estimated to have been displaced in 2017, at a rate of almost 240,000 per month, and he called on Russia, Turkey and Iran to “deescalate” the crisis.

“We are getting nowhere at the moment,” Egeland said Thursday in Geneva. “The situation is screaming for a cease-fire.”

Separately, U.S. officials said Russia is complicit with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s continuing use of chemical weapons despite a 2013 agreement to give up chemical stockpiles and not use weapons banned by international treaties. Assad and Russia have denied that such weapons have being used.

The officials said Assad’s use of chemical weapons, including sarin and chlorine, is intended to both stoke fear among his people and compensate for a lack of sufficient troops and conventional weapons, despite receiving military backing from Russia since 2015.

Assad’s regime is trying to permanently alter Syria’s demographics, limiting the return of refugees and Sunni Muslim populations in particular, according to two U.S. administration officials who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity. The U.S. fired missiles at Syrian targets last year, in what Washington said was a response to a chemical attack, and the officials signaled that similar action could be taken again.

Read a QuickTake Q&A on why the U.S. and Turkey disagree about Syrian Kurds

In the latest turn of events on the ground, Syrian troops are battling rebel forces in the besieged city of Idlib, the largest opposition stronghold, just as Turkish troops are fighting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria.

“We need an end to the fighting and we need Russia, Turkey and Iran, again, to get de-escalation” which worked in 2017, Egeland said. “Now there is no de-escalation.”

Russia has teamed up with fellow Assad backer Iran as well as Turkey in an attempt to forge a settlement in Syria. The Syrian opposition’s Higher Negotiations Committee said Thursday it is ready to back a Russian-brokered constitutional reform initiative for Syria, but only if it was led by the United Nations.

The HNC boycotted the Syria Congress for National Dialogue held this week in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, which agreed to the formation of a committee, including government delegates and representatives of opposition groups, to discuss the country’s postwar constitution.

The meeting did not address the future role of Assad, who U.S. officials have said must be transitioned from power.

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