The UN's first delivery of aid to Syria by air, which took place over the besieged city of Deir ez-Zor on Wednesday, didn't go as planned.
Carried by a chartered Russian plane, the 21-ton shipment from the UN's World Food Program (WFP) was supposed to be the start of an aerial operation to provide humanitarian aid to more than 200,000 people who are in dire need of assistance. But nobody is sure where the aid landed, or even how and to whom it would be distributed.
Deir ez-Zor is surrounded by the Islamic State, and control of the city, where some 200,000 people remain besieged, is split between IS fighters and the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Last week, the WFP said it would be using the Russian-contracted plane, which was to be relocated from South Sudan and flown over Syria from an unnamed third country.
Russia began bombing Syrian rebels to support the embattled Assad regime last September, and has tried to position itself as a necessary player in any military or diplomatic solution to the conflict. Moscow has portrayed the use of a Russian plane in an international aid mission as further evidence of its central role. But the WFP claims the plane is merely the most convenient way to get much needed supplies to the 200,00 stranded civilians in Deir ez-Zor.
On Wednesday, UN humanitarian coordinator Stephen O'Brien told the Security Council that the 21-ton payload had been dropped that morning, presumably by the Russian plane and its flight crew.
"We have received initial reports from the SARC team on the ground that pallets have landed in the target areas as planned," said O'Brien, referring to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which the WFP said it would work with to secure distribution in an area where there are no UN staff.
But later in the afternoon, the WFP itself put out an ambiguously worded statement that cast doubt on O'Brien's assessment, reporting that "the operation faced technical difficulties," and that it wouldn't be able to assess the operation until it debriefed the crew and its "partners on the ground."
In order to remain a safe distance from land-deployed weapons, the plane dropped its load at "high altitude" — roughly 20,000 feet, according to a spokesperson.
"High-altitude drops are extremely challenging to carry out and take more than one trial to develop full accuracy," said the WFP.
One Deir ez-Zor resident who spoke to VICE News on the condition of anonymity said that planes were visible above the city on Wednesday.
"We saw the containers in the sky today, both the Illyushin with two other aircrafts," they said, referring to the Russian plane that had been contracted. They said they didn't know where the aid went.
In a statement released on Wednesday evening, Justice For Life Observatory in Deir ez-Zor, a Syrian activist group, said that eyewitnesses confirmed six containers had been dropped over the city.
"A number of those containers exploded after [they] were dropped on hard-to-reach areas due to a failure in parachutes," said the group. "Only three containers were received and which were majorly damaged."
The lack of detail on where or in what condition the aid landed raised the possibility that some of it had been damaged or floated into IS controlled territory — a development that would prove highly embarrassing to the UN. But even if the assistance package reaches its intended destination, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has a mixed track record on delivery. Despite the group's presence in the city, previous humanitarian aid drops have reportedly been hoarded by the regime.
Current residents of Deir ez-Zor and refugees from the area who have fled into Turkey expressed skepticism that aid would be fairly distributed in the regime-controlled neighborhoods of the city. Though VICE News could not independently verify their claims, multiple sources on the ground have accused the Syrian military of commandeering food and selling it, often through middlemen, for exorbitant prices.
Multiple sources told VICE News that after previous aid drops, boxes were recovered by the 137th Brigade of the Syrian Army, which is stationed in the city. Then the food is amassed in the neighborhood of Joorah, where the Syrian military controls the flow of supplies.
"I saw this happen in December," said a former resident of Deir ez-Zor who worked as a pharmacist before fleeing to Turkey in December. "When I used to live there, they used to drop aid, and the army used to take it. They take a lot for themselves and they sell the rest in the market for very expensive prices."
More recently, the Russian air force began flying supplies to the city to be picked up by SARC. On January 15, Russian state media released footage showing what it said was one such drop above Deir ez-Zor. Another, which reportedly took place on February 10, was followed by pictures posted by SARC on social media that showed its workers collecting boxes of supplies.
"IInshallah [God willing] this time would be different from last time," the anonymous Deir ez-Zor resident said. "We couldn't get [any food] previously."
The pharmacist told VICE News by phone that the members of his family that remained in the city had received nothing from the February 10 airdrop. Only families living in three of the city's 15 neighborhoods, he said, had been able to access the aid. While the pharmacist was able to cobble together $700 to buy passage on a military helicopter out of the city, many aren't so lucky.
"People are selling all their belongings just go buy food to survive," he said.
A former SARC official who worked in Deir Ezzor and other cities between 2009 and 2012 before fleeing Syria said that the organization is directed by Assad's regime. After the start of the Syrian war, SARC's ranks lost many members of the opposition, some of whom were killed or jailed, the official added.
"We took our orders directly from the political security directorate," said the official, who spoke anonymously to protect family and associates still living in the country.
The former staffer's account was echoed by the pharmacist's.
"Red Crescent just does what the army tells them," he said. "They have no power."
Another current resident of Deir ez-Zor, an engineering student at the local university, described seeing Syrian soldiers selling baskets of food from previous aid drops earlier this week.
Though details about what exactly happens to aid deliveries in Deir ez-Zor remain unclear, other SARC aid operations in the country have been criticized for not reaching besieged anti-government communities. In early February, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that it had jointly delivered with SARC supplies to the regime-surrounded town of Moadamiya on the outskirts of Damascus. Residents said that the account was inaccurate; days later, the UN's human rights office confirmed that supplies had only reached a largely pro-regime neighborhood in the town's east.
ICRC officials said on Wednesday that they had nothing to do with the air operations in Der ez-Zor, and referred VICE News to SARC. A spokesperson for the group could not be reached in the hours after the WFP announced its first airdrop.
This week, the US and Russia announced a cessation of hostilities agreement, which the government, allied militias, and moderate rebels have until noon local time on Friday to agree to — 12 hours before the agreement would take effect. Before the fate of that temporary truce is determined, a series of humanitarian convoys have managed to reach several besieged areas in what has been billed as a confidence-building measure ahead of Saturday.
At the Security Council, O'Brien said that 62 trucks had reached 40,000 people in regime-besieged Madaya, while three trucks made it to nearby Zabadani. In Idlib province, separate convoys reportedly entered Foah and Kefraya, two Shia majority towns that are surrounded by rebel factions.
But O'Brien added that other deliveries had been unacceptably delayed, and blamed the government for playing games with humanitarian access.
"Humanitarian operations cannot continue to be bogged down by unnecessary and unacceptable restrictions, obstructions, and deliberate delays that are costing people their lives," said O'Brien. "The number, scope and complexity of bureaucratic and other obstacles that are placed in the path of simple aid deliveries are staggering. To move a single truck, United Nations teams on the ground need to acquire multiple layers of approval from officials at various different levels, necessitating repeated rounds of negotiations."
O'Brien pointed to Moadamiya, which he described as a "mere 15-20 minute drive from central Damascus," but where it took 48 hours for a UN convoy to reach beleaguered residents earlier this week. Health supplies for around 300,000 people, he said, "have been denied for the convoys by the [Syrian] Ministry of Health."
The UN lists more than 480,000 people across Syria as living under siege, though some monitors have put the number at higher than a million. After nearly five years of conflict, the UN began fielding criticism in late 2015 from aid workers who said it had grown too close to Assad's government in Damascus, where international humanitarian operations are headquartered.
On Wednesday, O'Brien was notably critical of the government, calling "once again" on the regime "to urgently approve the over 40 outstanding requests for inter-agency convoys to deliver assistance to hard-to-reach and besieged areas."
In the afternoon on Wednesday, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power released an even more biting assessment of the regime, which she said was "playing God, deciding who they try to starve and who, for now, they don't."
"The regime must grant immediate access for aid convoys to all areas in need, and must stop interfering with deliveries," she said.
Reem Saad contributed to this report.