UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. humanitarian chief accused the Syrian government on Tuesday of increasingly using civilian suffering as "a tactic of war," saying it denies aid to the needy and pushes people in besieged cities to choose between starvation and death or fleeing to locations that are just as unsafe.
Stephen O'Brien told the U.N. Security Council that thousands of Syrians in at least 10 communities faced this choice in recent months, including in former rebel-held eastern Aleppo and the besieged towns of Madaya and Zabadani.
In recent weeks, he added, thousands more have been moved from the besieged neighborhoods of Barzeh and Qaboun in Damascus and al-Waer in Homs to rebel-controlled Idlib and the city of Jarablus on the border with Turkey.
"These are evacuations that have followed years of intense airstrikes, shelling and sniping," O'Brien said. "The tactics are all too obvious: make life intolerable and make death likely."
"There needs to be accountability for these actions, for these 'starve and surrender tactics' — a monstrous form of cruelty to impose upon a civilian population," he said.
O'Brien said evacuation is only the beginning of a new set of challenges, explaining that fleeing civilians traveling mainly to Idlib and northern Aleppo face "an increasingly precarious environment," with over 900,000 displaced people in Idlib alone stretching resources.
The Syrian government is also denying and delaying access, particularly to besieged locations, as "a political calculation and a military tactic," O'Brien said.
He said the U.N. requested the delivery of desperately needed aid to one million people in April and May, but the government approved help for only 266,750 people.
As a result, O'Brien said only about one convoy a week was able to cross conflict lines, with only one besieged location, Douma in eastern Ghouta, reached by road in the April-May period.
Last year, the U.N. received approval for 50 cross-line convoys between January and May but he said this year it's only gotten a green light for 18 convoys.
"Moreover, the removal of life-saving medicines and medical supplies such as surgical kits, midwifery kits and emergency kits has continued unabated, with nearly 100,000 medical supplies refused or removed from convoys since the beginning of the year," O'Brien said.
He acknowledged reports of a significant drop in violence in some areas of the country but said "such steps forward continue to be counter-weighted by the reality of a conflict that continues to devastate the civilian population."
O'Brien said the agreement by Iran, Russia and Turkey in Astana, Kazakhstan, to create four de-escalation areas where fighting must significantly decrease and unhindered humanitarian access take place "simply has to succeed." He said the four areas include all besieged locations except for those in Damascus and Deir el-Zour.
"We, the United Nations, stand ready to sit with all parties involved to make it a workable agreement — one that will make a tangible difference to civilians on the ground," O'Brien said.