BEIRUT: The U.N. warned Tuesday that growing violence, including direct attacks on World Food Program trucks and warehouses, is preventing crucial aid from reaching many of the millions of vulnerable Syrians across the country.
The latest warning came as fighting raged between government and opposition forces in two neighborhoods in Damascus and a family of four was killed overnight in a village outside of the city.
Speaking in Geneva, WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said there have been at least 20 attacks on its network since the body started operating in Syria in December 2011.
“It has become a struggle now to move food from one area to the other with our warehouses and trucks getting increasingly caught in the crossfire,” said Muhannad Hadi, WFP’s Regional Emergency Coordinator for the Syria crisis, according to a statement from the group.
“We are sometimes left with the difficult decision of calling off the dispatch of food to a place where we know there is dire need for it.”
In February, the WFP reached 1.7 million people within Syria: less than a third of those, 500,000, were living in opposition-held areas.
The issue of aid distribution in Syria is a complex one, given that all NGOs require government approval to operate in the country, and are then often subject to criticism for being partisan. Access to certain areas can be denied, or simply unfeasible due to the levels of violence.
For the WFP, the situation of distribution is especially bad in conflict zones and some opposition-held areas where “WFP has limited access and where millions of people are believed to be in acute need of food.”
Laure Chadraoui, public information officer for the WFP Syria regional response, told The Daily Star Tuesday that the body “faces immense challenges that vary on a daily basis and although WFP is not a direct target we are often caught in the crossfire.”
The body is facing “enormous challenges” reaching certain areas of rural Damascus, Quneitra, Daraa, Deir Ezzor, and Raqqa, and many parts of the north of the country, particularly Aleppo and Idlib – all largely rebel-held areas.
WFP sub-contracted trucks are often stopped at checkpoints, and “in many instances are forced to turn back, or sometimes hijacked,” the statement added.
In March, three trucks – carrying food for 17,000 people – were detained by an armed group in rural Deir Ezzor, which is to the east of the country. While the drivers and trucks were released, the food has not yet been recovered.
Also in Adraa, on the outskirts of Damascus, a mortar recently fell on a WFP warehouse there, rendering staff unable to retrieve the food inside.
“WFP tries to reach some hard to reach areas whenever we see a window of opportunity,” Chadraoui added.
“We had some breakthroughs when we reached Al-Houle in Homs, Ras el Ayn in Al-Hassakeh, Azaz in Aleppo, Al-Bukamal in Deir Ezzor, Daria, Harasta and Douma in Rural Damascus, Ma'aret Al-Nou'man in Idleb, and some areas in Daraa, all of which necessitate the crossing of multiple frontlines.”
“However, despite repeated attempts, WFP has recently not been able to reach these areas again,” she added.
According to WFP’s partner in Syria, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, up to 4 million people within the country are food insecure, Chadroui said.
As U.N. agencies cannot work in Syria without the government’s consent, Human Rights Watch has urged the Security Council to call for the regime to authorize cross-border aid missions, most likely from Turkey, to help aid reach these difficult areas of northern Syria.
In the capital Tuesday, "Fierce battles broke out in the Barzeh district of northern Damascus. Shelling in the area wounded five people and caused material damage," said the opposition activist network the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a broad network of activists, doctors and lawyers for its reporting.
"Clashes also raged in the outskirts of Jobar (in eastern Damascus), next to Abbaseen square," the monitoring group added, referring to one of the capital's main squares.
Violence in the capital is escalating as the army tries to prevent rebels from entering the city.
In Mqailyabeh in Damascus province, large swathes of which are under rebel control, overnight army shelling killed a 3-year-old boy, his 5-year-old sister, their mother and grandmother, the Observatory added.
Shelling was also reported Tuesday in the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood of Aleppo, where the army is trying to wrest back control from opposition troops, and in Homs.
As of early afternoon Tuesday, 35 people had been killed across Syria, including two under torture, three women and three children, according to the Local Coordination Committees.
March was the deadliest month yet in the conflict, the Observatory said Monday, with over 6,000 people killed across the country.