As the United Nations correctly says, Syria has become one of the most “complex and dynamic humanitarian crises in the world today”. The scale and intensity of the fighting has been accentuated by the targeting of critical civilian infrastructure, with hospitals, schools and bakeries regularly struck.
Humanitarian access to relieve people living in affected areas is extremely limited. There are 4.6 million Syrians in hard-to-reach areas and close to 500,000 people in besieged areas where stories of starvation are becoming depressingly frequent. This is not an accident but rather part of a deliberate ploy to use human suffering as a strategy of warfare.
In response to the continued challenge of getting aid to those who desperately need it and stopping people from starving to death, the idea of air drops has suddenly become a very real prospect.
At a meeting in April, US Secretary of State John Kerry explained: “Starting on June 1, if the UN is denied humanitarian access to any of these designated areas, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) calls on the World Food Programme to immediately carry out a programme for air bridges and air drops to all of those areas in need.”
Explosive barrels, will they be replaced by Humanitarian aids?
Syrian civilians have seen many bad things dropped on them from the air, including the ubiquitous “barrel bomb”, but could they now see more helpful supplies rain down upon them?
Before the April ISSG decision UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura explained that while air drops were “the most expensive, the most complicated, the most dangerous option … as a “last resort we are getting close to it”.
They have been tried and failed before. In February, 21 pallets carrying 21 tonnes of aid were dropped over the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. The difficulty in practically supplying aid this way was shown by the fact that ten of the pallets were unaccounted for, seven landed in no-man’s land and four were damaged.
Following a petition signed by nearly 64,000 people calling for air drops, the UK government released a statement explaining that “air drops are not a viable way of getting help to those in need”.
There are real fears that the aid could land in the wrong hands and scenarios of videos of ISIS fighters enjoying UN rations can’t be far from people’s minds.
Worse still, civilians could be harmed by the hard landing of the aid itself, especially considering the confined urban spaces that characterise many of those locations under siege.
At the end of May as the deadline approached, de Mistura seemed to walk back on the idea, explaining that “for air drops to become concrete either by delivery at high altitude or by helicopters, there is a need for the cooperation of the government of Syria”.
Of course a lack of cooperation from that government is at the centre of the problem as it is responsible for more than 90 percent of besieged areas.
There is no doubt that air drops are no substitute for ground-based aid. Yet as this is not forthcoming, there are powerful symbolisms, rather than a practical solution, that the tactic could yield.
So many red lines crossed
First, the fact that Assad is denying humanitarian access is precisely why it’s important to provide it. It would show many Syrians that the world has not forgotten their plight.
So many red lines have been crossed in Syria already and so much rhetoric has failed to translate into reality that the credibility of the “international community” is continuing to haemorrhage.
Showing that Assad doesn’t control who does and doesn’t get aid is an important gesture, although the air drops are unlikely to be of the scale needed to supply so many tens of thousands of people. While they cannot give aid to all, they may give hope.
Second, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Russians were one of the 20-plus countries in the ISSG that agreed unanimously in favour of the air drops if other access was not forthcoming.
If Russia cannot secure humanitarian access from Assad then, as the country with the biggest aerial footprint in Syria, it should be tasked with leading on the air drops themselves.
As Syria’s peace talks continue to stall at the embryonic stage and the prospects of Aleppo continue to dim, there is a desperate need for new ideas and more positive actions to change the direction of the conflict.
While supplying aid from the air could only be a drop in an ocean of need, it could symbolise a renewed commitment to the humanitarian principles that the Syrian conflict has done so much to erode.
Written By: James Denselow
James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.