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U.N. Struggles To Reach Besieged Areas Of Syria With Aid Air Drop Plan

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There are hundreds of thousands of people in desperate need in Syria, many of them trapped in towns under siege. That's why the U.S., Russia and some other countries issued an ultimatum of sorts. They gave the warring sides until today, June 1, to start allowing aid convoys to reach besieged towns. Otherwise, the U.N. would start airdropping food. A few aid convoys did reach some towns today, but as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, they brought only limited relief to starving residents.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: It shouldn't be difficult to get help to the people of Darayya, which is a short drive from Syria's capital, but the rebel-held town is under siege by Syrian government forces, and the thousands of residents there haven't received aid for nearly four years.

CATHERINE BERTINI: The access problems in Syria are really second to none in recent times.

KELEMEN: That's Catherine Bertini, a former head of the World Food Program who had some tough assignments in her days and oversaw airdrop missions. The Syracuse University professor says those might be necessary in Syria now, but they should always be the last resort.

BERTINI: They are the most expensive, least targeted system to deliver food. However, when communities are cut off from food over long periods of time, they become the only alternative.

KELEMEN: Airdrops can also be dangerous, says Nancy Lindborg, a former top official at the U.S. Agency for International Development and now, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

NANCY LINDBORG: Airdrops are enormously risky, especially in highly populated urban areas because you've got these heavy packages crashing down. You have to be sure that you have a partner on the ground who's able to clear the area and then make sure that the supplies are getting to those who need it the most.

KELEMEN: The U.N. did organize airdrops in February in the Syrian government-held town of Deir al-Zour which is surrounded by ISIS, but it was not very successful, Lindborg says.

LINDBORG: Only 4 of the 21 aid pallets that it dropped on Deir al-Zour made it to their destination. Some of those that did reach it were damaged. There was a much higher rate of success in April, but this just underscores why this is such a last resort operation. You know, it's a desperate measure for desperate times.

KELEMEN: And airdrops make little sense in a place like Darayya. The Syrian government controls the roads and the airspace, so either way, the U.N. needs the Syrian government to cooperate. The convoy that reached Darayya today carried vaccines and baby formula but no food. There were also convoys to two other besieged areas according to U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

STEPHANE DUJARRIC: It's, unfortunately, a drop in the bucket. We need unhindered and full access to those who need it.

KELEMEN: That call was echoed by State Department Spokesman John Kirby who says for now, the World Food Program will continue to make plans for airdrops.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KIRBY: It is not the preferred method. It's more expensive. And you can't do it in quite the volume that you can do from the ground. So it's not what we all want to see happen. But it has been done before. They know how to do it, and they've got some approaches that they continue to discuss with us.

KELEMEN: He says Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about this with his Russian counterpart today, again urging Moscow to use its influence with Bashar al-Assad to let aid workers do their job. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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