Following agreement late yesterday by diplomats meeting in Munich as part of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) to work with Syrian parties to implement a nationwide cessation of hostilities, a United Nations-backed task force met today on quickly delivering aid to besieged towns and war-weary civilians in hard to reach areas across the country.
The task force held its initial meeting at the UN headquarters in Geneva less than 24 hours after it was by the ISSG, the group that has been working since November to secure a broader ceasefire and Syrian political negotiations and is comprised of the Arab League, the European Union, the United Nations, and 17 countries, including the United States and Russia. Late yesterday, it agreed on two key steps forward: a cessation of hostilities in Syria and establishing a humanitarian task force.
According to the ISSG agreement, “to accelerate the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid, sustained delivery of assistance shall begin this week” in seven besieged areas inside Syria, including the town of Madaya, which drew worldwide attention recently after UN and Red Cross relief workers reported people starving to death or being killed trying to flee.
Today, chairing the regular bi-weekly press briefing in Geneva, Ahmed Fawzi, interim Director of the UN Information Service in the Swiss city, said the first meeting of the task force on humanitarian access in Syria would take place today and would include the ISSG co-Chairs, relevant UN entities, and members of the ISSG with influence on the parties to the conflict.
The UN system, particularly the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), would be organizing and the meeting, and representatives of the UN system in Damascus would participate through video-conference, he explained.
“The UN system has been geared to deliver this aid all along, especially to besieged areas, and that's precisely what's going to be discussed today: how to start, and when to start,” said Mr. Fawzi, responding to questions, adding: “We hope to start as early as tomorrow, immediately after the meeting, decisions will be taken to roll the aid in, especially to besieged areas that need it.”
Later in the day, a statement issued by a spokesperson for Steffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, said the meeting had been chaired by his Senior Advisor Jan Egeland. The purpose of this initial meeting was to agree on how the task force and its members could ensure that immediate access is granted to the civilian populations in besieged and hard to reach areas in line with the agreement reached by the ISSG at Munich.
The statement said that in order to accelerate the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid, sustained delivery of assistance is expected to begin this week to besieged areas where civilians are in desperate need of assistance. Humanitarian access to these most urgent areas will be a first step toward full, sustained, and unimpeded access throughout the country.
“Once we get clearance by concerned parties, the UN and its humanitarian partners will be able to reach the civilians in need within the coming days,” Mr. de Mistura said. “Next week, we plan to have a second meeting of this task force, in order to assess the progress made, and maintain the pressure for incremental and unimpeded aid deliveries,” he explained.
According to the statement, Mr. Egeland, who is the Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council and formerly head of UN OCHA, said that humanitarian actors had already submitted requests for access to the parties surrounding besieged areas. “We expect to get such access without delay. Finally, the civilians who have been deprived of their basic right of humanitarian access for so long, will have hope,” he added. “Let us not fail them.”
Separately, Stephen O'Brien, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, statement welcomed news that the members of the ISSG agreed to a cessation of hostilities in Syria and he urged the parties to the conflict to ensure full, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access, including to besieged and hard-to-reach areas, in accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law.
“The people of Syria – in Aleppo, Madaya, Foah and Kefraya, Deir ez-Zor and elsewhere – need an end to the brutal violence and bombing, the sieges, denial of free movement, food and medical care,” he said, emphasizing that the United Nations and its partners need safe, sustained access for humanitarian workers throughout the country.
He went on to stress that the UN remains committed and ready to deliver aid and protection for civilians in desperate need, whoever and wherever they are. “Above all we need to see meaningful action on the ground, so that Syrians and their neighbours can start to rebuild their lives and their country,” he concluded.