Syrian Kurds Say Bashar Assad Is Thwarting Humanitarian Aid To Their Region

It's one more sign that the Kurds, key to defeating ISIS, are unlikely to embrace Assad as a partner.

18/05/2016 5:13 AM AEST | Updated 19/05/2016 6:39 AM AEST
Sana Sana / Reuters

WASHINGTON -- The Kurd-dominated region of Afrin in northwestern Syria, home to more than 1 million people and hundreds of thousands of refugees, is not receiving international humanitarian aid in part because of the Syrian government of Bashar Assad, a top Kurdish leader said Tuesday.

Sinam Mohamed, an international representative for the administration of the Kurd-controlled regions of northern Syria, made the revelation at an event with reporters at the Washington Kurdish Institute.

Mohamed cited as an example the International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the biggest humanitarian relief organizations in the world and a key player in helping those affected by Syria's civil war.

"The Red Cross, I met them many times, and they say we can't go to the places where the government of Syria, Assad, can't give the permission," Mohamed said. "They said we can be in Aleppo city because the regime of Assad said that we can go there, but Afrin, it is not possible for us to go there."

On Wednesday, Red Cross spokesperson Pawel Krzysiek told The Huffington Post his organization has been able to offer Afrin some support. The Red Cross was involved in a convoy carrying food and household essentials for 7,000 families into the Kurd-controlled area on March 13, and continues to donate to a bread project and clinic in the area run by its local partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Krzysiek said. It has also previously helped provide residents with water by rehabilitating wells and donating water tanks and tap stands.

The likely reason for the disconnect between the Kurdish official and the aid group is that all aid missions the Red Cross undertakes must be approved by the parties involved -- which in this case would include the Assad regime. The group has been able to provide regular, uninterrupted support to the region, Krzysiek said.

But as Mohamed suggested, the regime retains the power to deny permissions for aid convoys by the Red Cross or other groups. It has been known to pressure the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to limit help to its opponents. And it has blocked humanitarian delivery in other areas, including on May 12 preventing a Red Cross convoy carrying medical supplies, vaccinations and baby milk from entering a desperate suburb of Damascus that the United Nations considers the neediest part of Syria. The regime shelled the area after sending the trucks away.

Starvation sieges have become a favorite tactic of Assad and the forces supporting him, including Russian jets, Iranian troops and Iran-backed militia fighters from Lebanon, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The dictator is responsible for the vast majority of deaths in Syria -- far more than the so-called Islamic State -- and is the primary reason for the headline-grabbing refugee crisis.

Syria's more than 3 million Kurds are in a precarious position. Though they have become darlings of the West because of their victories over the extremist Islamic State, or ISIS, they have tense relations with most other key players in Syria: the Assad regime and its supporters; the nationalist Arab groups fighting Assad with support from the U.S. and others; and the key international player in Syria, Turkey, which is battling its own Kurdish minority

Rodi Said / Reuters
Kurdish fighters have won multiple victories against ISIS.

The Afrin region is mostly surrounded by Turkey, which Mohamed said Tuesday has closed all border crossings. The Turkish government believes Kurds in Syria are supporting Kurdish militant groups in Turkey with whom they have historical and political ties.

Other forces around Afrin's borders include Arab rebel groups, some of them Islamist organizations that Kurdish forces see as terrorists, and ISIS.

But the Assad regime controls a significant border that is a potential path for supplies, and Mohamed suggested the dictator is the main factor preventing relief from reaching the area.

Because of recent fighting in Aleppo, south of the region, thousands more refugees have fled to the besieged area this year, she said. "We are welcoming all the refugees."

She estimated that about 300,000 refugees of various ethnicities now live there, in the homes of friendly locals, in rented housing or in tents in camps. Afrin's residents now subsist mostly off what they are able to grow themselves, Mohamed added, but they lack essentials like milk for babies.

The Kurdish leader said she hopes the United Nations will begin to pay more attention to the plight of Afrin, which has been suffering even as other localities have received relief through ceasefires encouraged by the U.S. and Russia. But the international organization has its own troubles because of the Assad regime: It's been repeatedly accused of allowed the dictator's cronies to meddle in its operations, including earlier this year after the U.N.'s World Health Organization hired the wife of a top Assad associate.

Mohamed is in Washington to meet with the Obama administration, who she said she's seeking more assistance from.

Russia, an Assad patron and occasional partner of the Kurds, has offered little in the way of humanitarian help, she said.

That fact and the regime's blocking of aid underscores the challenge to Russia's efforts to court the Kurds. As part of his attempt to show Russia is focused on ISIS and not just Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin has helped the Kurds with airstrikes and diplomatic support, pushing for them to be included in international peace talks despite opposition from Turkey and Arab nationalist groups in Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned this support for Kurds in peace talks again Tuesday in Vienna at a joint appearance with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry -- underscoring for an international audience the contrast between the Kurds' two partners. 

Mohamed inaugurated an office for the dominant Kurdish political party, the PYD, in Moscow in February. But she and another Kurdish leader said Tuesday that the Kurds remain unwilling to work with Assad, Russia's best friend in Syria.

Elham Ahmad, the co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council, noted that regime forces and their Iranian backers clashed with Kurdish forces last month. The council is the political arm of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.'s main partner on the ground in Syria. The forces are dominated by Kurds, but 40 percent of their members are Arabs, Ahmad said Tuesday.

She mentioned that Iran, Assad's other chief supporter, has long suppressed its own Kurdish population

The statements are an important reminder of the Kurds' position to international observers, including many lawmakers and commentators in the U.S., who speak of the Kurds and the regime as the only forces battling ISIS in Syria.  

Even if Russia is willing to accept Kurdish control over some parts of Syria, Assad's officials and observers of his polices say the tyrant is set on retaking all of his war-torn country.

This story has been updated to include comment from the Red Cross.

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