The Syrian Ceasefire's Humanitarian Crisis

United Nations officials criticized President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for inhibiting the delivery of aid in war-torn Aleppo.  

A tattered Syrian flag waves in the northeastern city of Qamishli, Syria.
A tattered Syrian flag waves in the northeastern city of Qamishli, Syria. (Rodi Said / Reuters )

NEWS BRIEF The United Nations is having trouble getting aid deliveries to Syria in the midst of a cease-fire between government troops and rebel forces, Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria, said Thursday in Geneva.

“We have a problem,” de Mistura said in public remarks about the delivery of much-needed humanitarian relief to civilian populations.

Despite the on-going cease-fire, which went into effect this week following a U.S.-Russian agreement, de Mistura cited a lack of cooperation by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“We need government permission,” he said. “That is obvious.”

The UN envoy said humanitarian relief deliveries would be focused on besieged neighborhoods in rebel-controlled parts of Aleppo, the city in northern Syria that has seen increased fighting over the past few weeks. In 40 days preceding the cease-fire, 2,000 people were killed, including 700 civilians. Among them, 160 were children, according to estimates by the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a London-based watchdog group.

The humanitarian aid deliveries cannot take place, however, unless the 40 UN trucks are granted permits to enter those areas. De Mistura said the Syrian government previously agreed to grant the authorization prior to the signing of the cease-fire deal, but no such facilitation letters have been received.

Jan Egeland, de Mistura’s senior adviser, urged the Syrian government to give UN trucks the access they needed.

“Our appeal is the following—it’s a simple one,” Egeland said. “Can well-fed, grown men please stop putting political, bureaucratic and procedural roadblocks for brave humanitarian workers who are willing and able to go to serve women, children, wounded civilians in besieged and crossfire areas?”

De Mistura said the Russian government, which supports Assad’s regime, has voiced disappointment over the inability to get humanitarian aid into Syria.

The nature of the cease-fire itself is fragile, with several reported violations, and sparring between the U.S. and Russia over the extent of their military cooperation—a precondition of the cease-fire agreement—against ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.

In Moscow, Igor Konashenkov, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, criticized the U.S. for what he called a failure to remain faithful to the agreement.

“Russia has from the first minute fulfilled its obligations to enforce the cease-fire regime on Syrian territory,” Konashenkov said, according to Russia’s state-run Sputnik News. “At the same time, the various U.S. State Department and Pentagon officials’ statements about the prospects of ‘Russian fulfillment’ of the agreements reached on Syria are puzzling.”

Mark Toner, a U.S. State Department spokesman, told reporters Wednesday the violations were being monitored “on both sides,” and said the U.S. would continue its outreach to ensure opposition forces abide by the cease-fire, and that Russia must ensure the al-Assad regime do the same.

Toner also announced Wednesday that John Kerry, the American secretary of state, and Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, agreed to extend the seven-day ceasefire for an additional 48 hours, with the goal of establishing a Joint Implementation Center to coordinate intelligence and airstrikes against agreed upon targets.

“They agreed to discuss and agreed to extend the cessation for another 48 hours, obviously with the goal being that this would last seven days,” Toner said. “And then we would move, as I said, to the next step, which is the establishment of the JIC.”

Twenty-four hours into the cease-fire, de Mistura said Syria had already seen a “significant drop in violence,” noting that the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus, the country’s capital, remained relatively calm.

Since the start of the Syrian Civil War, which is entering its sixth year, the UN estimates that at least a quarter of a million people have been killed, and millions more displaced, both internally and overseas. This year, an estimated 13.5 million Syrians, 6 million of whom are children, are in need of humanitarian assistance.