The Syrian cease-fire launched in February, which has mostly broken down, was destined to be messy at best, since it did not cover all of the groups fighting around the country. But one part of it should have been straightforward. A United Nations Security Council resolution as well as the cease-fire agreement mandated the delivery of humanitarian relief to villages and towns around the country that had been sealed off by sieges. Three months later, the results are stark: The blockades are continuing, malnutrition is spreading, and children are in danger of starvation.
Some may debate culpability for the cease-fire’s crumbling. But there can be no doubt why food and medicine are still not being delivered to towns such as Darayya and Moadamiya in the Damascus suburbs, and the al-Waer district of Homs. The regime of Bashar Assad is systematically denying access in order to maintain what U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura has called “the closest to a medieval type of siege that we’re seeing in recent history.”
De Mistura made that statement more than 10 days ago, on May 17, when ministers from Russia, the United States and other members of the diplomatic group behind the cease-fire last met in Vienna. The group issued a statement saying it “insisted on concrete steps to enable the provision of urgent humanitarian deliveries.” Secretary of State John Kerry emerged from the meeting to boast that “we moved the ball forward.”
Since then, the sieges have only tightened. “May was supposed to be a good month,” a U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator, Jan Egeland, told reporters in Geneva on Thursday. Instead “of the one million people that we have planned and tried to reach by land in May, we have only so far reached 160,000.” He added: “We are still failing the people of Darayya, as we are failing the people of Moadamiya and al-Waer. . . . I would say that the situation is still horrendously critical. Children are so malnourished in these places that they will be dying if we are not able to reach them.”
By now it is blindingly clear that the Assad regime never had any intention of complying with the humanitarian mandate. In this it has had the support of Russia, which formally supported the cease-fire deal and United Nations resolution, but has done nothing to compel its client to allow aid deliveries. Barack Obama’s administration’s feckless but familiar reaction to the breakdown has been to appeal to Moscow – as if it might somehow be persuaded to do the right thing. Kerry phoned his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Monday to say “Russia has a special responsibility . . . to press the regime,” according to a statement.
The coming days will provide a new test of U.S. credibility. The May 17 Vienna meeting produced a pledge to support airdrops to besieged towns if aid did not get through by June 1. But U.N. planes cannot fly unless the Assad regime and Russia, which control the air space, cooperate. De Mistura said he would personally press the United States and Russia “to find a way” to begin the operation. If the Obama administration again prevaricates, the price will be starving children.