The past weekend was supposed to mark a three-day ceasefire in one besieged Syrian city, enough time to get food and other vital aid to civilians who have been trapped for months. Instead, the convoys of aid have come under fire both literal — in the form of an attack on several trucks — and metaphorical as the mission has been called a PR stunt from the Syrian government.
The introduction of the United Nations and Syrian Red Crescent into Homs, a city in western Syria that has been the site of several major clashes between the Syrian government and rebel fighters, was meant to be the first tangible success in the negotiations between government and rebels currently taking place. For nearly two years now, the city has been under siege, with little aid coming in and fewer people allowed to leave their homes like six million of their compatriots who have fled the violence.
A playlist of YouTube videos of the scene in Homs showed dozens, if not hundreds, of families waiting for the United Nations to help them get out of the Old City, the most densely populated area of the city. White U.N. SUVs pull in among the crowd in several videos, before the scene abruptly shifts to detail the aftermath of a shelling attack that saw shots fired at aid vehicles and mortars land near the convoy. “At least nine Red Crescent and UN vehicles were trapped in Homs for several hours after dark when the explosions struck,” Al-Jazeera reported, but the team was able to leave within hours, with one Syrian Red Crescent worker injured and two trucks damaged.
Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos, released a statement on Saturday that condemned the attack while not placing blame on either party in the conflict. “I am deeply disappointed that the three-day humanitarian pause agreed between the parties to the conflict was broken today and aid workers deliberately targeted,” Amos wrote. “I extend my sympathies to people who were injured in fighting and commend the courage and tenacity of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator and other UN and Red Crescent aid workers who entered the Old City of Homs to try and deliver critical aid. Today’s events serve as a stark reminder of the dangers that civilians and aid workers face every day across Syria.”
That refusal to place blame for the humanitarian crisis has been a hallmark of the U.N. response under Amos, who has been critiqued for an insistence that antagonizing the Syrian government would make it even more difficult to deliver humanitarian aid to the needy in Syria. A Wall Street Journal in its report, however, showed that the Syrian government has little interest in providing aid to the people of Homs, whether the U.N. chastises them or not. “These are the orders of the leadership,” one senior Syrian officer told the Journal, referring to why the aid trucks were now allowed to enter Homs. The same officer also said the U.N. was part of a “conspiracy” against Syria. “If it was up to me, I would not let any food in or allow anyone out.”
One aid worker cited in the Telegraph said that the source of the attack was likely a pro-government militia. The Syrian Red Crescent, for its part, has called for the Syrian government and rebels alike to draw in their fighters and those fighting in their name to prevent more attacks like this weekend’s from happening. “We are saying to all the parties: leash your subordinates! Or at least bring them to the table,” said Khaled Erksoussi, the aid group’s head of operations.
All told, 600 Syrians were evacuated out of Homs’ Old City over the past three days, according to the Red Crescent. Activists have criticized that the Syrian regime was allowing mostly women, children, and the elderly to leave Homs — men of fighting age are all deemed to be potential rebels in the eyes of Damascus, they allege, except for those who take “amnesty deals” with the government. The possibility has also been raised that Syria only allowed this convoy in to distribute aid as a way to boost its reputation ahead of talks. “This regime has a very long history of using these humanitarian gestures to strengthen their own position,” said Steven Heydemann, the director of Syria programs at the United States Institute of Peace, told the New York Times.
Meanwhile, the Geneva II talks restarted on Monday, the second round of the discussion between the two sides. Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad on Monday said that the government has done a “great job” in Homs, adding “we are thrilled what we achieved.” Mekdad also dismissed the possibility of a new French-drafted resolution at the United Nations Security Council designed to force the Syrian government to allow access to humanitarian workers across the country.
“We are confident this move is to embarrass our friends,” Mekdad said, referring to Russia. Moscow last week said that now is not the time for new Security Council action on Syria aid and has reportedly blocked a leaked version of a resolution that would have demanded full access for aid workers. Russia has previously vetoed three other resolutions related to Syria over the course of the three-year long conflict.
The United Nations confirmed on Monday that the two sides had agreed to a three-day extension of the ceasefire in Homs. Additionally, the number evacuated from the besieged city raised to 800, according to a U.N. spokesperson.