UNRWA reports it's received Syrian government permission to re-start aid program in Yarmouk

McClatchy Washington BureauApril 23, 2014 

The scene in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus in late January as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency began its food distribution program. The success of the program from Jan. 30 to Feb. 7 hasn't been duplicated, despite optimism that it would be.


— Every day, Christopher Gunness sends out an email updating journalists on the situation in Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee "camp" that over the years became a thriving Damascus neighborhood that was once home to 160,000 or more people. For more than a year, Yarmouk has been a battle ground between supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebel forces led by the al Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front. The population had dropped to about 18,000, and those people have been cut off from food for much of the time by a tough security cordon intended to both starve Nusra and prevent the rebels from infiltrating further into the capital.

Back in January, Gunness reported that UNRWA had been allowed to deliver food aid in the district, the first time in months, and for several days it appeared that the "authorities" were going to let UNRWA make a big dent in the supply situation, which had gotten so bad that people were living on cactus and cats, as McClatchy's Jonathan S. Landay pointed out in this Jan. 18 story.

But the food deliveries only lasted 10 days before fighting in the area brought them to a halt. An agreement reached among the combatants seemed to offer hope that they would be restored _ in a deal announced Feb. 18, Nusra agreed to pull out of the area and the government agreed to let UNRWA deliveries restart. It was a short-lived arrangement, however. By March 3, deliveries had been the exception, not the rule. Nusra had come back, and fighting was daily. You can read the play-by-play here.

For the last 15 days, Gunness' daily missives have been bleak -- no food deliveries permitted.

Which made Gunness' note Wednesday exceptional: the Syrian government had given UNRWA permission to re-start food deliveries on Thursday. Here's his complete report:

"UNRWA has been informed by the Government of Syria that we may re-start our humanitarian work in Yarmouk tomorrow, 24 April, after a fifteen day break. We welcome this move. The desperate humanitarian situation on the ground demands the establishment of the safe, substantial and sustained access that we have always demanded. This is required by resolution 2139 unanimously adopted by the Security Council on 22 February.

"For the sake of the thousands of deprived and desperate civilians, the authorities and other parties to the conflict must ensure that full, safe, continuous humanitarian access will henceforth be granted to Yarmouk and its civilian residents, along with all civilians in Syria."

Why the breakthrough now is unclear. Perhaps it had something to do with the U.N.'s announcement on Wednesday that the effort to arrange humanitarian aid through diplomacy had failed, not just in Yarmouk, but throughout Syria. Perhaps Nusra once again had agreed to leave Yarmouk, and that that had allowed other anti-Assad forces to reach a deal they'd been prevented from carrying out otherwise (Nusra has apparently been instrumental in prolonging combat in some areas when less dedicated fighters appeared ready to throw in the towel; Wednesday's story about Homs is instructive -- according to the people quoted in it, Nusra is doing everything it can to prevent hungry and tired rebels from surrendering to the government.

The last time a deal was struck in Yarmouk, many civilians chose to leave the area (see the last paragraph of this story), and that may be one reason Nusra came back. Perhaps the Syrian government has struck another deal that has Nusra leaving Yarmouk or that feeding hungry civilians is a good strategy in the weeks before the June 3 presidential elections. We'll know more on Thursday. After weeks of dismal reports from Yarmouk, however, optimism seems imprudent; when aid deliveries began again Feb. 18 after an 11-day hiatus, the scene was so chaotic that little food could be passed out. Here's hoping this time goes more smoothly.

email: mseibel@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @markseibel

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