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Activists accuse UN of 'complicity' with Syrian government over sieges

An open letter sent by Syrian doctors, teachers and emergency responders says UN has been too willing to seek permission
An aid convoy enroute to Madaya, outside the Syrian capital of Damascus, earlier this week (AFP)

More than 100 Syrian civil society activists on Thursday accused the UN of accommodating the Syrian government’s sieges across the country.

In an open letter sent to Stephen O’Brien, the UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs in the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 112 Syrian activists, who describe themselves as medical workers, teachers and rescue workers, reportedly said that the UN has been too willing to seek permission from the Syrian government to deliver aid in besieged areas.

"Our towns are sealed by checkpoints and barricades and our populations are being starved, deprived of medical supplies and in almost all cases bombed daily by the regime of Bashar al-Assad," the activists wrote.

"In almost every one of our towns, we haven’t seen a single loaf of bread from the UN in over a year."

The letter said the OCHA had "allowed the UN to become a political tool of the war" by allowing Syrian government authorities to veto aid to civilians in areas outside their control.

UN staff members, the letter said, “are either too close to the regime or too scared of having their visas revoked by the same powers that are besieging us”.

The letter also highlights UN Resolution 2165, adopted in 2014, which gives aid agencies the right to enter besieged areas without permission from the Syrian government, obliging warring parties to allow aid deliveries.

"For many of us in Syria, the UN has turned from a symbol of hope into a symbol of complicity. Two decades ago, in Srebrenica, we saw what happens when UN peacekeepers get dictated to by war criminals," the letter said, referring to the failure of UN peacekeepers to prevent the massacre of thousands of people by Bosnian-Serb forces during the Bosnian war in 1995.

"Today in Syria, it seems to be the turn of UN humanitarians."

A spokesperson for UN OCHA told Middle East Eye this week that, despite the resolution, access to besieged areas remained difficult in the absence of a peacekeeping force to protect convoys.

Earlier this month, the UN reported that only 10 percent of requests made to send aid convoys to besieged or what it defines as hard-to-reach areas in Syria were approved.

The letter comes after the Syrian town of Madaya took centre stage this week when aid convoys delivered food for the first time in four months after at least 28 people in the community, besieged by government and Hezbollah forces since July, reportedly died of starvation.

There are sieges, imposed by both government, pro-government and rebel forces, across Syria. In its latest report, UN OCHA said there are 393,700 Syrians currently besieged, while NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres says as many as two million people are affected.