UNITED NATIONS — The UN’s humanitarian agency chief said Wednesday that civilians in besieged areas of Syria are enduring a crisis of giant proportions that includes malnutrition, famine and lack of medicine and medical care even as bombs rain down on them.
“I am extremely worried about the food crisis in eastern Ghouta,” Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock said to the Security Council. “Despite efforts made to reach them, only 100,000 people out of an estimated population of 400,000 in the enclave have received food assistance this year. . . . The available evidence suggests severe acute malnutrition rates among children in eastern Ghouta have increased fivefold in the past ten months.”
He said fighting has escalated in eastern Ghouta and Damascus and the World Health Organization reports that over a three-day period this month, 84 people were killed and 659 people were injured.
Lowcock delivered the report, which was prepared for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and added that he is scheduled to visit Syria himself in January. Aid groups and even the UN’s special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, have weighed in to say that the intensified fighting in besieged areas is disturbing and among the worst it’s been since the war broke out in March 2011.
De Mistura, who addressed eastern Ghouta on Monday before the start of a new round of talks on Syria in Geneva, said the surge in violence was worrisome especially since eastern Ghouta is one of the so-called de-escalation zones created by diplomatic efforts in Astana, Kazakhstan, a parallel series of talks.
Michele Sison, deputy U.S. ambassador to the UN, said blame for the escalating crisis falls squarely with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“It’s no coincidence that these airstrikes were carried out by the Assad regime with the support of the Russian government,” she said. “The Syrian regime is pummeling a population of starving, desperate people that has been cut off from food and medicine for months. It’s the latest version of the Assad regime’s despicable ‘starve and surrender’ strategy.”
Russia’s ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said the delivery of aid has been compromised by politics, adding that the UN cross-border convoys that deliver aid have become tools of the opposition to his ally, Assad, as supplies, he said, have been seized and then sold to people in need.
Vassily noted that the Security Council resolution authorizing those deliveries has been in place since 2014 and is up for renewal in December.
“This mechanism cannot remain as it presently stands,” Nebenzia said, adding that it “undermines the sovereignty of Syria. . . . There needs to be order in the distribution of humanitarian assistance for it not to fall in the hands of terrorists and for it not to then be resold to the Syrian people at higher prices.”
Lowcock said it should be renewed because it is “essential to save lives,” adding that in 2017 alone, “over 750,000 people on average each month were reached through UN cross-border activities.”
Sison echoed Lowcock, saying the resolution authorizing the deliveries was one rare moment of unity on the Security Council regarding Syria. Russia and the United States have been at odds over various measures concerning the nearly seven-year civil war in Syria — most recently the fate of the expert panel documenting the use of chemical weapons — with Russia racking up as many as 10 vetoes of measures backed or drafted by the United States.
“The consequences of this mandate are enormous,” she said. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that renewing this mandate is a life or death question.”
Steve Israel, a former U.S. congressman who now serves as chairman of the Global Institute at Long Island University, said the humanitarian crisis in Syria should be addressed to avert more terrorism.
“Every humanitarian crisis today becomes a national security crisis tomorrow,” he said. “Terrorists recruit best where children are malnourished and hopeless, and that’s what’s happening in eastern Ghouta. Using assertive diplomacy to establish a safe zone to get food and medicine is cheaper and less dangerous than sending in an infantry division to protect us from a terrorist haven later.”