Aid convoys coordinated by the United Nations reached five besieged Syrian towns on Wednesday and early Thursday, as the organization's food agency said that it was considering airdrops elsewhere in the country using Russian aircraft.
By Thursday morning, the UN said that trucks with food and supplies, among more than 100 deployed country-wide, had entered three towns — Moadamiya, Madaya, and Zabadani — near Damascus that are besieged by the Syrian government and allied militias. In Idlib governorate, convoys also reached the rebel-surrounded towns of Foah and Kefraya.
"This marks a major humanitarian breakthrough in Syria, but we must remember that one-off and sporadic convoys can only provide temporary relief to hungry, desperate people," Jakob Kern, the Syria director for the UN's World Food Program (WFP), said in a statement. "People need to eat every single day. We hope that we can continue these deliveries and keep bringing relief to the most vulnerable people in all parts of the country."
The humanitarian assistance appeared to be a rare spot of good news as violence escalates in several regions, including Aleppo, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's soldiers and their allies have made significant — and deadly — gains this month, aided by Russian warplanes.
Last Friday, the International Syria Support Group, which includes among its ranks the US, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, announced that humanitarian access to besieged areas would soon be granted. While the UN said on Thursday that a four-week supply of food has been transported to each of the five towns, a plan to extend relief with the potential use of chartered Russian aircraft risks complicating it's humanitarian programs in Syria.
On Wednesday, Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the WFP was "ready to join efforts of the Syrian authorities and the Russian Aerospace Forces to ensure uninterrupted supply of humanitarian aid to the city of Deir ez-Zor," located in the east of Syria.
The areas around Deir ez-Zor are surrounded by the Islamic State, but residents say the situation inside is murkier. The city is split between the government and IS fighters, and regime aircraft are able send supplies with some regularity. But conditions remain dire, and locals say food brought by the regime is often sold at exorbitant prices or simply divided up among loyalists. In January, Russia reported that its planes had dropped nearly 22 tons of aid in the city, but it remains unclear who actually received the supplies.
On Thursday, the WFP confirmed that it was seeking to use a Russian-owned aircraft to access Deir ez-Zor. The plane, said spokesperson Gerald Bourke, is currently under contract by the WFP from a Russian company and has been used in relief operations in South Sudan. Russian civilian operators are commonly contracted by the UN across Africa to transport supplies and personnel.
Bourke said that warring parties in Syria, including Russia, would have to be consulted to ensure the plane's safe passage, but played down the Russian Foreign Ministry's assertion that the UN was teaming up with Moscow and Assad's government.
"It's the one that our folks felt we can move quickly to the Middle East," Bourke remarked. He added that WFP works with two charities inside Deir ez-Zor, but would not name them for security reasons. "There's a lot of preparatory work underway to ensure that this proceeds properly and smoothly. All kinds of things have to fall into place."
Late last year, images of starving children began to emerge from Madaya. A torrent of international media attention followed, and the question of humanitarian access and of how many Syrians live in besieged areas has taken on heightened political urgency. Any Russian involvement — whether military or civilian — in relief operations would likely raise eyebrows in the humanitarian community.
Since it began bombing opposition-controlled areas in Syria last September, the Russian air force has been accused of killing hundreds of civilians, according to Amnesty International, including at least 200 in Homs, Idlib, and Aleppo governorates by November alone. This week, the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders, or MSF) blamed the Syrian government and Russia for an attack on an MSF-support hospital in Idlib that claimed the lives of 25 people, including nine members of the facility's staff.
Convoys were able to reach Madaya last month, but only with enough food to last into February. On February 3, a joint mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent reported that it had delivered food to Moadamiya, but that account was later refuted by the UN's human rights agency and locals who said that the aid was only provided to regime supporters in an eastern part of the town.
On Thursday, the WFP said that its overnight shipment to Moadamiya was the first time it had accessed the town in a year and a half.
"The humanitarian team on the ground witnessed people in Moadamiyeh looking thin and haggard and children looking small for their age," the agency said in a statement.
On Thursday evening, residents inside Moadamiya told VICE News that unlike the ICRC convoy, the UN-coordinated shipments had reached a wider swath of those in besieged areas. However, they added that the food was only enough to feed the 45,000 who live there for half the four weeks that WFP hoped it would last.
"It didn't go to Assad supporters this time," said one resident who didn't want their name to be published for safety reasons. "But it will last for less than two weeks."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford