Airdropping aid to starving Syrians is doable

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Sieges across Syria have left more than a million people at risk of starvation because food is being used as a weapon of war. Of the 52 besieged areas mostly in rural Damascus, 49 of them are encircled by the Syrian regime, two by rebel forces and one by ISIS. Under siege, conditions are very uncertain—since starvation is being used as a weapon of war–therefore the situation in some of these areas could quickly turn into a critical situation if aid is completely cut off for a short amount of time. The most recent case has been in Madaya, a rebel-controlled town of more than 40,000 residents close to the Lebanese border, where more than 70 deaths due to starvation were reported over a matter of days. Whilst what’s happening in Madaya horrified the world and gained international attention, very little has happened to put an end to the suffering of the people living there. The maximum achievement reached was to allow two UN aid convoys to deliver one month’s worth of essential food items to the town, but what is really needed is a large-scale initiative to end the starvation once and for all. Currently, there is an ongoing debate over whether starvation in Syria could be solved by airdropping food over besieged areas as a last resort. While this option comes with logistical challenges and potential risks, it is still the best option available and all its obstacles could be sorted out if a policy decision is taken.


The United Nations is dramatically failing to end the widespread use of siege tactics in Syria, despite the existence of three UN Security Council resolutions on Syria – 2165, 2191 and 2258 – which give its agencies permission to cross conflict lines to deliver aid when and where it is needed. However, the UN is not fully using this leverage to deliver life-saving aid to besieged areas where people are starving to death. These UN resolutions authorize the international community to deliver aid into besieged areas without asking for bureaucratic permission from the Syrian regime. Nevertheless, UN agencies are still asking the regime for the permission to do so, which either gets refused or remains pending, permanently. Only 10 percent of requests made by its agencies to dispatch aid convoys to besieged or hard-to-reach areas in Syria received approval last year. The UN shouldn’t be waiting for unnecessary authorization from anybody, as the UN resolutions require Syrian authorities to be notified of shipments, but does not require permission. However, UN officials are cautious due to the risk that could occur in case of any attempt to deliver aid without the government’s consent, which could increase the risk of aid convoys being attacked.  


The UN is widely accused by Syrian civil society activists of acquiescing to the Syrian government’s practice of denying food and medicine to tens of thousands of people in besieged areas. They don’t report the forces that are threatening the aid to the Security Council so the practicalities of how to solve that could be addressed. Moreover, they don’t consider many of the critical areas as besieged, but rather as “hard to reach,” which minimizes the scale of the problem and the response to solve it.


The dilemma –the UN can’t get permissions to deliver lifesaving aid to besieged areas, but still doesn’t want to risk sending unauthorized aid convoys to help people – has led to growing calls for airdropping food supplies as a solution. These calls are faced with a strong rejection from the two countries that could make it happen, the US and the UK. The justifications given by these countries varies from it is too risky, to it’s not logistically possible, one of which is the concern that dropping aid could end up in the wrong hands. This justification is frequently used in the Syrian context in attempts to legitimatize the inactions of the international community, however in this context this justification may sound surreal. The besieged areas don’t have shifting lines but rather fixed borders, which makes it easier to plan and execute the airdropping operations. Even if losing part of the aid is a possibility, the majority of the lifesaving assistance would still reach the besieged people, which would stop the suffering of hundreds of thousands of civilians. This risk did not stop the US or the UK from airdropping aid to the besieged Yazidi people in northern Iraq in August 2014, although the besieging lines were fluid. Their logic was to go ahead and drop it anyway because the population could get some of it. Moreover, this risk didn’t stop the US from airdropping weapons to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led coalition against ISIS, although some of it did indeed end up in the hands of ISIS. The Syrian regime has been airdropping aid to pro-regime besieged areas since the sieging started, which proves the efficiency of this method.


Another concern is the possibility of the aircraft delivering aid being shot down, which makes some people think that it is not worth the risk.  Syria’s airspace is controlled by the Assad regime and its Russian ally, who have a sophisticated Russian air defense system capable of downing rival aircrafts. Neither the opposition nor ISIS have air defense, which limits the possibilities to pro-Assad forces. Although it’s unlikely for Assad or Russia to down an American or British aircraft delivering aid to civilians, the World Food Program (WFP) could be assigned to airdrop aid. WFP has extensive experience, over 20 years, in airdropping food supplies and it’s considered a neutral body without biases to any of the conflicting parties in Syria. This agency could also enhance its transparency by having monitoring groups from the international community, including Russia, to inspect and oversee the airdropping operations.   


The lack of visible drop zones and distribution of supplies to reduce the risk of dropping aid on civilians, which could be lethal, are among the logistical roadblocks accompanying such operations. Although these concerns are valid and are important to sort out, the engagement of local civil society groups and administrative bodies will help to overcome them once a decision on the policy level is granted. This is exactly what US Air Force Secretary, Deborah Lee James, confirmed recently at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “If we’re asked to do it, we have the access, we have the people, we know how to do air drops … This is something that certainly we have done and we can do and we will do if we’re tasked to do it.”


The UN has the capacity and the Security Council’s authorization to airdrop aid to besieged areas in Syria without violating any laws, however, what’s still missing here is the international community’s support to step up and give the go ahead approval on the policy level. Any pressure to deliver aid to the besieged areas is considered a threat to the ongoing Vienna political process, which, among other reasons, explains the inactions of international actors. However, the current challenges have blocked of achieving a political solution to the Syrian conflict, which can’t be overcome without confidence building measures between the opposing groups in Syria and between Syrians and the international community. Airdropping lifesaving aid to thousands of Syrians in besieged areas is a good step to restore the Syrian people’s trust in the international community and its willingness to help.