For aid workers unable to reach millions of Syrians in desperate need of food and medical care, a frustrating reality has set in: Chemical weapons inspectors easily move through areas where humanitarian workers are forbidden.
Dozens of inspectors with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize Friday, arrived in Syria on Oct. 1 to begin the process of dismantling the country’s chemical weapons stockpile. But at least two of the areas they’ve visited—the East and West Ghouta suburbs of Damascus—are filled with hungry and sick residents aid workers can’t reach.
That’s largely because the Syrian government won’t let them: The regime has blocked the vast majority of outside humanitarian assistance since the country’s civil war began more than two-and-a-half years ago. Some say the regime is worried aid will fall into the hands of rebels who oppose the government.
Whatever the reason, the situation is dire: In January, the UN reported more than 4 million people in Syria needed humanitarian aid, including more than a million Syrians needing food aid that couldn’t be delivered because of government blockades or fighting.
On Monday, the aid group Doctors Without Borders (DWB) said medics in the East and West Ghouta suburbs were reporting desperate shortages of drugs and cases of malnutrition due to lack of food.
“Syrian people are now presented with the absurd situation of chemical weapons inspectors driving freely through areas in desperate need, while ambulances, and food and drug supplies organized by humanitarian organizations are blocked,” said DWB director Christopher Stokes.
Stokes called on the international community to use the same pressure it exerted to persuade Syria to dismantle its chemical weapons to insist the regime allow aid to reach needy populations in the very areas inspectors are visiting.
“Influential countries gathered around a table, thrashed out an agreement on chemical weapons, and put it into practice,” Stokes said. “So where are the efforts to repeat this success with the burning issue of humanitarian aid?”
It’s a burning issue that grows more searing everyday: An estimated 100,000 people have died in the 30-month war. Some 5 million people have been displaced from their homes within the country. Another 2 million people have fled to surrounding nations. Nearly half of those refugees are children.
For those who’ve stayed in Syria, conditions are bleak: Fighting has destroyed churches, schools, and entire towns. At least 55 of 91 public hospitals have been damaged or destroyed. Many doctors have fled the country, leaving dentists and pharmacists to perform medical procedures. According to the UN, the situation in Syria represents the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
The U.S. government has contributed more than $384 million to respond to the Syria crisis. Most of that money has gone to aiding Syrian refugees in sprawling camps in at least five countries outside Syria. (Lebanon alone has received nearly 800,000 refugees).
That’s critical help, but aid groups say Syrians still living inside the country face even worse danger from violence, illness, and starvation. They say money talks, but so do the public exhortations of world leaders like President Barack Obama who called on Syria to drop its weapons caches. Aid groups hope Obama and other leaders will use the same force to insist that far more Syrians won’t die deaths that could be prevented.