Syrian food crisis worsens as clashes continue

The UN's World Food Program pleads for cease-fire so it can distribute aid to civilians in besieged towns

Trucks carrying U.N. food aid at a checkpoint manned by forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad, Jan. 13, 2014. The convoy is heading south of Damascus to the besieged camp of Yarmouk, which is controlled by opposition fighters.
Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters

The United Nations' World Food Program (WFP) delivered rations to a record 3.8 million people in Syria in December, but civilians in eastern provinces and besieged towns near the capital remain out of reach, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The WFP expressed concern at reports of malnutrition in areas where fighting between government forces and rebel groups has trapped civilians. The agency said children were especially vulnerable to starvation as the country’s three-year-old civil war drags on.

"WFP is gravely concerned about people who live in areas under siege," spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said at a news briefing in Geneva. "Their nutrition situation is expected to have deteriorated significantly."

The organization has tried several times over the last few months to reach besieged areas in and around Damascus — especially Mouadamiya, Nashabiyeh, Douma, Harasta and Yarmouk — without success.

The U.N. agency, which distributed food to 3.4 million people in November, aims to reach 4.25 million in January, despite winter weather.

In 2013 it took 100,000 cubic meters of food to Syria — equivalent to 58 full jumbo jets, according to Byrs.

While the food crisis continues, there was a potential bright spot on Monday, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Syria's government and some rebels may be willing to permit humanitarian aid to flow into the country, uphold local cease-fires and take other confidence-building measures in the civil war.

"We welcome all moves towards access for humanitarian workers, which is urgent. We have been seeking this for months if not years," Byrs said.

The conflict has killed more than 100,000 people and driven 2.3 million Syrian refugees abroad, according to the U.N. Another 4 million have been displaced inside Syria.

In recent months, clashes have pitted fighters from a range of hard-line and moderate factions against Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The infighting, which is sometimes between Shia and Sunni groups but more often among rival Sunni factions, has spread across four provinces in opposition-held parts of the north.

The fighting has in some cases overshadowed the battle against the government and has complicated the humanitarian response in Syria.

The WFP needs to raise $35 million every week to meet the food needs of people in Syria and in neighboring countries, Byrs said.

While civilians suffer, the clashes continue between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and those opposed to him.  

The Syrian government retook territory around the northern city of Aleppo, the military said on Tuesday, after two weeks of rebel infighting that has weakened the insurgency against Assad.

The president seems no closer to letting up on the rebel fighters.

Syria's foreign ministry dismissed as "fantasy" statements by the pro-opposition Friends of Syria group — including Western and Gulf states — in Paris on Sunday that Assad was a war criminal and peace talks should end his "despotic regime."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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