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Published: October 23, 2015

Humanitarian access in Syria and the Russian intervention

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This report was prepared by DHClamp Consulting Ltd.


This article looks at current constraints in humanitarian access to Syria as the conflict increases in both complexity and intensity. Although the focus here is on the increased vulnerability of aid agencies as a result of Russian tactics, it must be stressed that humanitarian assistance can be jeopardised by all parties to conflict, and as the fighting continues, further threats will emerge.

The civil war in Syria is now in its fifth year. Until the summer of 2015, the conflict could be understood as a conflict between President Assad’s regime—supported by Iran and Hezbollah—against factions roughly grouped into Kurdish groups in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, ‘coalition’ groups supported by the West, and more extreme Sunni groups such as Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda’s local affiliate Jabhat al Nusra (JaN). However, the allegiances of many of the Sunni groups within the conflict have changed frequently due to larger, more extreme organisations forcefully imposing their influence on smaller factions.

Fighting between different forces, in particular the recent land-based push by Assad, has geared toward the control of key roads—which poses a significant challenge for humanitarian assistance. Specifically, these are the M5 (which runs south from Aleppo via Hama and Homs to Damascus) and the M4 (which starts partway along the M5 south of Aleppo and runs to the coast in Latakia). At the same time the regime is also building its activity to the north of Aleppo—an area that over the past eighteen months has become a focus for conflict between opposition groups and IS, and to a lesser extent, the regime.

If Assad gains control of these routes, it will limit access to Aleppo province—which hosts 60% of the Syrian population—and the opportunity to move humanitarian supplies to its main city, Aleppo itself. The regime, Kurdish forces, opposition groups and the Islamic State split their power across the city, with aid agencies being forced to negotiate with all actors in order to gain humanitarian access. The two operational hospitals in Aleppo have been hit by Russian airstrikes in recent weeks and are no longer operational. A common tactic for the more extreme opposition groups has been for aid shipments to be stopped in order to influence the allegiance of the intended recipients.

On 30th September, the start of an overt Russian intervention in support of the Assad regime added to the complexity, and also impacted on the possibilities for humanitarian access. Until that date, the Assad regime looked weak and was increasingly restricted to the coastal region around Latakia and the southern provinces of Damascus, Hama and Homs. The Russian intervention has enabled the regime to extend its area of control quickly. At the start of the recent campaign, the regime was carrying out roughly 20 air strikes a day. Russian attacks were publicised as being directed against IS in Raqqa with the daily rate of air strikes increasing to 80. This is predicted to rise again to 300 per day—with evidence suggesting that the strikes have mostly been focussed on non-IS targets in Aleppo, Homs and Hama provinces.

Three aspects of the Russian military approach are of particular concern. Firstly, a form of anti-vehicle cluster bombs not previously seen in the conflict. A significant percentage (30-70%) fail to explode when they are dropped, and there is evidence on social media that some of the opposition groups, including JaN, have developed an ability to rebuild them into improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Secondly, the use of ‘dumb’ bombs, missiles which cannot be precisely targeted, and can therefore not distinguish between targets. Finally, the use of Russian helicopters, mostly flying in pairs over front line areas, again not discriminating over targets. These three new tactics increase the vulnerability of actors or aid convoys in affected areas.

Opportunities for the most recent managed humanitarian-assistance efforts have been the result of significant diplomatic intervention. UN-brokered negotiations in September have led to food deliveries by the ICRC to Madaya and Zabadan on the Lebanese border this month, and parallel deliveries by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and United Nations agencies to Kefraya and al-Foua in Idlib Governate, to the south west of Aleppo.

However humanitarian passage is rare and has been time consuming to implement. It will also not meet the significant and growing humanitarian needs in the country. The intensification of violence will in turn increase the already significant number of internally displaced people (IDPs). Aid agencies will need to remain agile and informed to understand and mitigate threats in a rapidly evolving context.



Syrian War Update: Aleppo Hospitals Close Following Airstrikes As Medical Organizations Blame Russian Campaign For Targeting Civilians, International Business Times, 19 October 2015 http://www.ibtimes.com/syrian-war-update-aleppo-hospitals-close-following-airstrikes-medical-organizations-2146633

Russia in Syria: Moscow to increase missions in Syria to ‘300 a day’, The Independent, 18 October 2015 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/russia-in-syria-moscow-to-increase-missions-in-syria-to-300-a-day-a6698876.html

Relief trucks enter besieged Syrian towns – ICRC and sources, Reuters 18 October 2015 http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/18/us-mideast-crisis-syria-relief-idUSKCN0SC0VP20151018

Turkey shoots down unidentified drone near Syrian border, The Guardian, 16 October 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/16/turkey-shoots-down-drone-near-syrian-border

Syria air strikes leaving many without aid: UN humanitarian chief, AFP, 16 October 2015 https://uk.news.yahoo.com/syria-air-strikes-leaving-many-without-aid-un-173942847.html#ErIayNl

Aleppo in turmoil as clashes intensify between ISIS, Syrian rebels and pro-Assad forces AraNews, 15 October 2015, http://aranews.net/2015/10/aleppo-in-turmoil-as-clashes-intensify-between-isis-syrian-rebels-and-pro-assad-forces/

A ‘kaleidoscopic’ mix of rebel alliances on Syria’s battlefield, Los Angeles Times, 12 October 2015,http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-moderate-rebels-20151012-story.html

Water, power return to Syria’s Aleppo after three-week cut: monitor , Reuters 18 July 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/07/18/us-mideast-crisis-syria-aleppo-idUSKCN0PS0DZ20150718


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