ISIS’ re­treat loosens flow of food aid in­side Syria

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL -

BEIRUT — The United Na­tions said Wed­nes­day that it is us­ing newly opened land routes in Syria to ex­pand food de­liv­er­ies to ar­eas around the north­ern city of Raqqa, where U.S.-backed forces are bat­tling Is­lamic State mil­i­tants.

The new ac­cess has al­lowed the World Food Pro­gram to de­liver to ru­ral ar­eas north of the city, the Is­lamic State’s self-de­clared cap­i­tal, for the first time in three years.

More than 190,000 peo­ple from Raqqa prov­ince have been dis­placed since April 1, ac­cord­ing to the U.N.’s refugee agency. This week, hun­dreds of civil­ians man­aged to flee ar­eas un­der Is­lamic State con­trol and cross to ter­ri­tory seized by the U.S.-backed fight­ers known as the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, ac­cord­ing to the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, a mon­i­tor­ing group.

As the map of con­trol changes, so does the ac­cess to the area. The World Food Pro­gram said it is now de­liv­er­ing food to nearly 200,000 peo­ple in eight hard-to-reach lo­ca­tions in­side Raqqa prov­ince as well as to other ar­eas in a neigh­bor­ing prov­ince.

Be­fore the re­open­ing of the road link­ing Aleppo in the west to Hasakeh in the east, the World Food Pro­gram re­lied on air­lifts.

“Re­plac­ing air­lifts with road de­liv­er­ies will save an es­ti­mated $ 19 mil­lion per year, as each truck on the road car­ries the equiv­a­lent of a planeload of food at a sig­nif­i­cantly lower cost,” said Jakob Kern, the World Food Pro­gram’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Syria.

“With th­ese cost sav­ings and im­proved ac­cess, we are now reach­ing more fam­i­lies and peo­ple” in ar­eas where they have been able to re­turn to their homes, he said.

One area that is now reach­able is the town of Tabqa, which the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces cap­tured from the Is­lamic State in May. The World Food Pro­gram said it has been able this month to dou­ble the num­ber of peo­ple it reaches in that town, de­liv­er­ing food ra­tions to 25,000 peo­ple, many of whom have re­turned to their homes and are now work­ing to re­build their lives.

The ad­vance to­ward the city of Raqqa be­gan last year, with the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces fight­ing to clear ru­ral ar­eas around the city. Backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coali­tion, the Syr­ian fight­ers cap­tured Tabqa and a nearby dam in May.

The fight against the Is­lamic State is only one facet of the war in Syria, which is now in its sev­enth year. Six rounds of U.N.-bro­kered peace talks in Geneva have failed to bring the war­ring sides closer to a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment.

A sev­enth round is now un­der­way in the Swiss city.

But on Wed­nes­day, the head of the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion del­e­ga­tion ac­cused Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s gov­ern­ment of re­fus­ing to en­gage in po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sions.

Nasr al-Hariri of the High Ne­go­ti­a­tions Com­mit­tee also chal­lenged the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil to “up­hold its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties” and main­tain pres­sure on As­sad to honor res­o­lu­tions the coun­cil has passed. He spoke to re­porters af­ter emerg­ing from talks with the U.N. en­voy for Syria, Staffan de Mis­tura, in the lat­est round of in­di­rect peace talks.

Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion 2254 in De­cem­ber 2015 called on top U.N. of­fi­cials to con­vene the two sides “to en­gage in for­mal ne­go­ti­a­tions on a po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion process.”

Al-Hariri cited the “con­tin­u­ous re­fus­ing” of As­sad’s gov­ern­ment to par­tic­i­pate in po­lit­i­cal ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Also Wed­nes­day, a hu­man-rights group said Syr­i­anRus­sian airstrikes and ar­tillery at­tacks on a town in south­ern Syria last month killed 10 civil­ians in or near a school.

Hu­man Rights Watch said one of the airstrikes hit the court­yard of a mid­dle school in the town of Tafas in the south­ern prov­ince of Daraa, killing eight peo­ple, in­clud­ing a child. It said most of those killed were mem­bers of a fam­ily who had been dis­placed from an­other town.

It said two other civil­ians, in­clud­ing a child, were killed an hour ear­lier by ar­tillery at­tacks near the school.

Bill Van Esveld, se­nior chil­dren’s rights re­searcher at the U.S.-based Hu­man Rights Watch, said Wed­nes­day that “as long as no one is held re­spon­si­ble for such re­peated un­law­ful at­tacks, it’s likely they will con­tinue.”

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