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Exclusive: U.N. Docs Expose Assad's Starvation Campaign in Syria

While food aid begins to flow into the country, many Syrians are heading into the arms of the dictator to get it. 

Internal United Nations documents show modest improvements in the delivery of desperately needed food inside rebel-controlled areas of Syria. But the documents also point to a mass exodus of Syrians into areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad in part because the dictator is the only reliable source of life-sustaining food.

The documents obtained by Foreign Policy track the success of the U.N.'s World Food Program in the two months since the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding that Assad provide immediate access for relief workers. The new data shows that the years-old U.N. effort has made some recent progress, with food supplies reaching a total of almost 415,000 people in hard-to-reach areas since the resolution was approved in February. In the country as a whole, WFP was able to reach 4.1 million persons in need in March, up from 3.7 million in February. However, in a country where 9.3 million people are in need of steady humanitarian assistance, that means that many more remain outside the U.N.'s reach.

More distressingly, the documents show that Assad's campaign to bring rebels to heel by cutting off food supplies in opposition-controlled areas is succeeding. The WFP's increase in food distribution into the war-ravaged country was largely due to distressed Syrians fleeing into government-controlled areas where food aid is more readily available. "The increase in distributions ... was to a large extent a result of large population movements from non-government controlled areas" to government-controlled areas "as people sought refuge," reads a U.N. document. Syria experts said that could only mean one thing.

"Only by coming over to the regime areas can internally displaced peoples receive food," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "That's in keeping with the Assad regime's campaign to only provide food into regime controlled areas and starve out besieged opposition controlled areas."

The U.N. documents describe a mass displacement of Syrians from hard-hit opposition strongholds in recent months: individuals in rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo moved to the government-controlled western half of the city; those in south and south-eastern Quneitra moved to the region's center and eastern parts; those in rebel-controlled Homs and rural Hama moved to government-controlled Hama City and Salamiya.

Abeer Etefa, a spokesperson for the WFP's Middle East Region, said it was possible that Syrians had multiple motives for relocating. "People move for a variety of reasons including problems of food supply, high food prices and access to assistance (including food), as well as fleeing from fighting or persecution," Etefa said in a statement. "Increasingly they move because of the difficulty of earning a living, particularly as the conflict drags on."

Other analysts emphasized the grim fate that some of the Syrians may face who fled to government-controlled areas for food. "There is an element of people turning [themselves] over to the regime who will be tortured," said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University.

The new details about Syria's humanitarian emergency come at an important time in the three-year-long civil war. It's been nearly two months since the Security Council adopted its first-ever resolution demanding that Assad and the rebels provide access for aid workers. Russia, which has an itchy trigger finger when it comes to vetoing Syria resolutions, grudgingly agreed to allow that motion through to avoid an unwanted public relations headache to cloud the ending ceremonies of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

The chart below tracks every location that received new humanitarian access since the February Security Council resolution, including who controlled the area at the time of the aid delivery. (The figures are up-to-date as of April 11). 

As you can see, some of the new delivery areas include opposition strongholds such as Douma and the province of Raqqa, which is in the grip of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, a vicious jihadist group.

The document set obtained by FP also includes a set of maps that show the breakdown in aid delivered to rebel-controlled areas versus opposition-controlled areas between December 2013 and March 2014.



Although the maps show increases in aid to non-government regions, it also gives a broader view of how much more aid is delivered to government-controlled areas -- data that has alarmed observers.

"The WFP data is shocking and a major scandal," said Oubai Shahbandar, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian Coalition. "The WFP has marginally, though not by much, improved its ability to get into a small percentage of liberated territories." He emphasized that a majority of the aid is still filtered through the Assad regime.

Daniel Gorevan, a Syria specialist at the humanitarian aid organization Oxfam, said any news of increased food deliveries is positive, but its equally important for aid workers to have regular access to distressed Syrians, particularly near rebel-held territory. "We need to see a much broader sea change in humanitarian access that goes across different areas," he said.

The report doesn't lay all of the blame at the feet of the Assad regime. Rebels, it says, also deserve blame for sometimes blocking humanitarian access. In the documents, the U.N. says the reduction in aid distribution points between June and February "was due in no small measure" to infighting between opposition groups controlling northeastern areas of Syria. This is a point the WFP spokeswoman stressed again on Thursday.

"Both sides have prevented assistance from reaching people," Etefa said. The WFP representative said the rebel groups controlling parts of Deir Ezzour and Ar Raqqa prevented WFP from delivering food into northeast Syria -- all but isolating that part of the country.

"Meanwhile, there are areas besieged by the Syrian government where access is denied or where both sides have been unable to negotiate a compromise that will allow access, as is the case in eastern and rural Aleppo," she said.

The humanitarian aid crisis is playing out against a backdrop of deadly violence in the country, with the death toll recently estimated at 150,000 and the number of displaced persons climbing to 9 million. But with an influx of al Qaeda-affiliated fighters and hardcore Islamic radicals, Washington has been reluctant to offer lethal aid to rebels beyond small arms, ammunition and training. (Although Western-backed rebels have been spotted with increasingly sophisticated anti-tank weaponry in recent days).

As a result of sensitivities over the provisions of lethal aid, the issue of access for humanitarian aid has become a uniting cause in Washington and Turtle Bay. That's why the inability to fully implement February's resolution, the biggest victory yet for the conflict's human rights activists, is so distressing. Stuck between a brutal regime willing to use food as a weapon and radical rebel groups who haven't shied away from attacking NGOs in the region, the U.N. is in a tough spot as the vast majority of its aid goes to the Assad regime. "It's a terrible dilemma for the international community and World Food Program," said Landis. "Do you stop providing all aid because it goes through the hands of Assad and legitimizes him or not?"

Colum Lynch contributed reporting.

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What Yellen Didn’t Say

New Fed Chair stays the course, despite criticism that U.S. policies are harming developing economies.

In her first major speech on monetary policy since taking the helm at the U.S. Federal Reserve in February, Janet Yellen said that she'll be watching the labor market and inflation and keeping an eye out for any other surprises that might derail the U.S. economic recovery as she considers how long to keep interest rates close to zero.

Yellen's focus on unemployment and inflation comes as no surprise, but she also highlighted the need to keep tabs on other economic factors that might not be reflected in those numbers.

"Because the course of the economy is uncertain, monetary policymakers need to carefully watch for signs that it is diverging from the baseline outlook," Yellen said in a speech Wednesday at the Economic Club of New York.

Yellen said that she assumed in her "baseline outlook" that it would take two more years to close the gap between the current unemployment rate of 6.7 percent and the Fed's target of 5.2 to 5.6 percent. But she also said that the real picture of labor market could be even more dire because those numbers might not reflect all the people that can't find enough work or who have given up looking. "The share of the workforce that is working part time but would prefer to work full time remains quite high by historical standards," she said.

But one thing Yellen didn't mention: the effects her actions might have on other countries.

Central bankers are not charged with running the global economy, only their domestic spheres, but a growing number of leaders of smaller economies are arguing that developed countries should pay more attention to the international consequences of their policy decisions.

India's central bank governor, Raghuram Rajan, said that large countries should "become more sensitive to spillovers" of their policies, at a speech last week at the Brookings Institution.

At issue is the Fed's decision to "taper" its stimulus program for the U.S. economy, which has had adverse effects on emerging markets around the world. To spur the sluggish U.S. economy after the financial crisis, the Fed started buying bonds from banks, effectively pushing money into the U.S. financial system to hold down borrowing costs and try to get banks to lend and, in turn, businesses and individuals to spend. But the money didn't all stay inside American borders. Because U.S. interest rates were low and the economy hadn't yet recovered, people looked for investments overseas that would return more money for each dollar they put in.

"This money was chasing returns all over the place, including in countries like Brazil," Alexandre Tombini, Brazil's central bank chief, said Friday at a lunch hosted by Foreign Policy. This made emerging market economies suddenly much more attractive because they were growing and because the riskier investments came with higher returns. "At that time we were, sort of, arguing for the source countries to also take measures to make sure that this liquidity was serving their own jurisdictions not sort of spilling over into the rest of the world." Some countries were wary of the money flowing from the U.S. into their smaller economies because it pushed up the value of their currencies and made it cheaper to borrow money, which can create bubbles and encourage companies, and countries, to take on more debt than they can afford.

In January, the Fed started scaling back its purchases of bonds, which is expected to take until October. When former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke announced the move last summer, he caused the tide to shift. People saw the U.S. as a better place to invest again because they anticipated that interest rates would soon rise. Investors moving their money out of smaller countries in order to shift it to the U.S. caused problems for smaller economies across the globe, from Turkey to Indonesia. Brazil, for instance, has been struggling with slow growth and high inflation that has pushed the price of staples like tomatoes so high that restaurants are dropping dishes that contain the expensive fruit from their menus. Though some economists argue domestic policies within these countries are at least partly to blame, the shift has prompted criticism of the U.S. Fed.

"When the advanced economies were really at the depth of the crisis, it was the emerging markets that helped stabilize, that helped create some balance to the global outlook," South African central bank Governor Gill Marcus told Bloomberg in February. "The challenge here is if the advanced economies say OK, you are on your own, the scale of the emerging markets is such that it's going to impact on this fragile recovery."

But it's not just the "tapering" that emerging markets have to worry about. Once the Fed has stopped the bond-buying program, it will at some point start raising interest rates. All eyes are on when that might happen because it could spur more people to move their money back to the U.S., further exacerbating the problems of weaker economies.

"Once the Fed starts tightening policy that will perhaps trigger a second temper tantrum like we saw last year," said TD Securities analyst Millan Mulraine, referring to the nickname that observers gave to this market phenomenon. Investors' change of heart about emerging markets after Bernanke's announcement that the Fed would start tapering off the bond-buying program was later dubbed a "taper tantrum."

Analysts expect the first possible interest rate hike to come in mid-2015, but Yellen emphasized that the Fed's plan would have to respond to changing circumstances, including any signs the U.S. economic recovery is faltering.

"A vital aspect of effective monetary policymaking," she said, is to "monitor the economy for signs that events are unfolding in a materially different manner than expected and adjust policy in response in a systematic manner," Yellen said.

That may be the silver lining for emerging markets  -- the decision to raise rates will be dependent on an improving domestic economy and that could be good for everyone.

"The U.S. economy ultimately will be a driver for the rest of the world," said Mulraine.

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