Aid Groups Call For More Access Inside Syria As Winter Looms

The International Crisis Group is calling on the United Nations to push the Syrian government to open pathways for humanitarian aid. Melissa Block talks to the group's Peter Harling, who regularly visits Damascus to access the situation there.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

More now on the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The top humanitarian official at the U.N. says the situation continues to deteriorate rapidly and inexorably, with, as we just heard, more than nine million Syrians now in need of aid. But aid groups want the U.N. to do more than just name the problem. They want the Security Council to push all parties to allow humanitarian groups unhindered access to the country.

Peter Harling is the analyst in charge of Syria for the International Crisis Group, and he joins me now from Cairo. Mr. Harling, welcome to the program.

PETER HARLING: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: You travel to Damascus and the area around Damascus pretty regularly. Can you paint a picture of the humanitarian situation that you've seen?

HARLING: Well, if you go to central Damascus and you know the city somewhat, you will be very much in an environment that's familiar. But just, you know, kilometers away from the center of Damascus, in the suburbs, you are faced with total devastation. Most buildings are turned to rubble and people are literally being starved to death in those neighborhoods. So there's this extremely powerful, troubling contrast between the most central parts of the capital and the immediate surroundings.

BLOCK: I was reading a New York Times report talking about severe malnutrition around Syria, not just in the capital, but the reporter talked about children who take turns eating on alternate days, people who are subsisting on wild greens. Do you get a sense of how widespread the malnutrition or starvation problem is throughout the country?

HARLING: Well, it's very hard to gauge. You have pockets around the country which are under siege. And they are completely cut off from the outside world, have been in that situation for in some cases a year. And are at the very end of what resources they had to the point where we recently heard a religious figure declare that eating, you know, animals such as cats and dogs would be tolerable given the circumstances.

BLOCK: Given the food shortage, that that would be permissible.

HARLING: Exactly.

BLOCK: It's not just a food emergency, of course, that we're talking about. There's also a medical crisis that's highlighted in particular by the recent polio outbreak in Syria.

HARLING: Well, you know, it's difficult to list the sufferings that Syrian society is being put through. You mentioned that 40 percent of the society, almost half of Syrian population is in dire need of aid. Almost half of this population is, in fact, on the roads in need of shelter or in very precarious conditions. We're looking at the third winter coming up. And, you know, if we judge by the previous two, this winter will be extremely vicious because this society is more vulnerable than ever. And for now, at least, there's little indication that the international community will respond in ways that would meet the challenge.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about that, that international response, and, in particular, what you want the U.N. to do because the Security Council did approve a statement last month that would call on the parties in Syria to allow humanitarian aid. Apparently, that does not go far enough. What more would you want them to do?

HARLING: Well, there's really no excuse for not having the United Nation Security Council resolution that would state clearly that the international community is united in calling for unhindered access to all populations in need within Syria and then defining how that is to come about. Basically, I think the situation has become so dire that there's really no need to beat around the bush. We need a text that demonstrates the international community's unity and its determination to make things happen on the humanitarian front, and do so now.

BLOCK: Is part of the thinking from aid group such as your own that the U.N. Security Council did galvanize, was able to pass a resolution, allowing in chemical weapons inspectors into Syria, so why can the same not be done for humanitarian aid?

HARLING: Well, that's part of the paradox we face right now. You have U.N. chemical weapons inspectors on the ground who have access to some of the most sensitive sites. That has been possible because the U.S. and Russia were working hand in hand. Ever since they reached this deal, they've been claiming that it introduced a whole new dynamic and opportunity for conflict resolution. I think, you know, we've seen no sign of that beyond the chemical weapons deal and this really needs to be put to the test.

Peter Harling is based in Cairo for the International Crisis Group. We were talking about the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Mr. Harling, thanks so much.

Thank you.

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