By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, Feb 16 – The Syrian government has approved access to seven besieged areas, including Mouadamiya al-Sham near Damascus and Deir al-Zor, and U.N. convoys are expected to set off in days, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Tuesday.
“I understand that the Government of Syria has approved access to seven besieged areas,” OCHA spokeswoman Vanessa Huguenin told Reuters in response to a query.
“Humanitarian agencies and partners are preparing convoys for these areas, to depart as soon as possible in the coming days.”
The United Nations will test the commitment of Syria’s government to allow access for humanitarian aid on Wednesday, the UN Syria envoy said, indicating the world body is preparing to attempt to reach areas that have been cut off.
Staffan de Mistura met Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem twice in Damascus on Tuesday at a time when government forces have been advancing rapidly with the aid of Russian air strikes, and just days before an internationally agreed pause in fighting is due to take effect.
In a statement issued after their second meeting, de Mistura said they had discussed the issue of humanitarian access to areas besieged by all sides in the five-year war. His comments implied that the world body had won governmental approval for U.N. convoys to deliver supplies to some areas, although he gave no specific details.
“The access to these areas is done by convoys, coordinated by the UN country team … It is clear it is the duty of the government of Syria to want to reach every Syrian person wherever they are and allow the UN to bring humanitarian aid, de Mistura said.
“Tomorrow we test this.”
A U.N. aid official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters: “We are getting some good and positive signs from the ground… Convoys would go to different locations.”
U.N.-backed peace talks are scheduled to resume in Geneva on Feb. 25, after de Mistura suspended a first round earlier this month.
Last Friday global powers meeting in Munich agreed to the pause in fighting in the hope that this could allow the talks to resume, but the deal does not take effect until the end of this week and was not signed by the Syrian warring parties.
“We are witnessing a degradation on the ground that cannot wait,” U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told a news briefing in Geneva. “The reason (de Mistura) suspended (the talks) was, as you know, that cities were still being bombed, people were still being starved on the ground.”
The Syrian government is meanwhile advancing in the north of the country with Russian air support. Damascus says its main objectives are to recapture Aleppo – Syria’s biggest city before the war – and seal the Turkish border, lifeline of rebel-held territory for years.
Those would be the biggest victories for Damascus of the war so far, and would all but end rebel hopes of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad, the goal they have pursued since 2011 with the support of the West, Arab states and Turkey.
Syria’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Hussam Aala, said in an interview in the daily Tribune de Geneve on Tuesday: “We have done all we could to facilitate the passage of aid convoys in January and February.”
“The advance of the Syrian army in this region has allowed us to break the siege imposed against two towns, Nubul and al-Zahra. It opened the way for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to deliver aid to 70,000 residents. Our objective was to cut all the supply routes for arms and for men to the terrorist groups armed by Turkey.”
The United Nations has reported that hospitals have been struck in northern Syria in areas where Russian and Syrian warplanes are launching air strikes as part of their advance. On Monday, Turkey accused Russia of an “obvious war crime” after missile attacks in northern Syria killed nearly 50 people.
U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville condemned the deadly air strikes on hospitals and schools in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, the latest in a series.
“If it’s deliberate, intentional targeting, then it may amount a war crime. But at this point, we’re not in a position to make that judgement. Ultimately that’s only a court that can make that judgment, and you need sufficient evidence,” he said.
“Clearly those two, both Russian and Syrian planes, are very active in this area. So obviously they should know who is responsible.”
International humanitarian law says hospitals and health care personnel must be protected, Colville said.
“It’s completely outrageous, all the norms and rules and standards on conduct of warfare have just been swept aside in Syria. Everything you can think of has been broken.”