UNITED NATIONS – An estimated 250,000 people in besieged communities in Syria remain beyond the reach of aid, the U.N, humanitarian chief said Tuesday in a closed-door Security Council briefing that one member called "chilling."
Deep divisions in the council have kept it from taking more action on the 2 ½-year-old civil war that activists say has killed more than 120,000 people. Valerie Amos' task has been to tell the world body about the worsening conditions for millions of civilians in Syria — and how difficult it is to reach them.
Amos was able to report "modest progress" in such basics as getting 50 more long-demanded visas for aid workers and opening three humanitarian hubs inside Syria, "only two of which are helpful to us."
But "We have not seen any progress" in the major issues of protecting civilians and demilitarizing schools and hospitals, Amos said. Last month, she told the council that the number of Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance has risen dramatically to 9.3 million people, up from 6.8 million in June.
Against those numbers, she said the Syrian government approved nine aid convoys last month, up from the usual three.
"This is still far too few to meet the needs of millions of people," Amos said.
Her comments come as the international community prepares for long-delayed peace talks on Syria that will begin Jan. 22 in Geneva. The meeting would be the first face-to-face talks between President Bashar Assad's government and its opponents since the conflict began in March 2011.
Syria's main Western-backed opposition group has urged the international community to pressure Assad's government to secure humanitarian corridors so that aid can reach opposition-held areas blockaded by Assad's forces. The sieges have led to cases of famine, activists say.
The government has kept outside aid sharply limited. Amos on Tuesday said that for the first time, aid coming in over the Iraqi border won't need routing through Damascus, but aid coming in over other borders will.
Already, diseases are spreading because of lack of access to basic hygiene and vaccinations, including reports of the first outbreak of polio in Syria in 14 years.
Syria's government defended its response to the crisis. Its ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Ja'afari, said the U.N. was only covering 25 percent of the humanitarian needs inside his country, with the Syrian government covering the rest.
Ja'afari also argued that the problem inside Syria is also a political one, not exclusively humanitarian.
Shortly afterward, the new president of the Security Council this month, French Ambassador Gerard Araud, tartly replied while addressing reporters: "They say that because they don't want to undertake any effort in a humanitarian"crisis.
Araud, who has called Syria the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Rwanda genocide in 1994, on Tuesday described the progress that has been made on humanitarian aid to Syria as "broadly insufficient."
He dismissed questions about the possibility of another Security Council resolution on aid in the coming weeks, saying "certain members" of the council believe that it would undermine the upcoming Geneva talks.
The Geneva conference aims to work out a roadmap for Syria adopted by the U.S., Russia and other major powers in June 2012 — including creating a transitional government leading to the holding of elections.
Previous attempts to bring Syria's government and opposition to the negotiating table have failed, and Syrian officials say Assad may even run again in elections due in mid-2014.
When asked if there was a "Plan B" if the January talks fail, Araud said there isn't for now.