WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is preparing for possible air drops of humanitarian relief over besieged areas of Syria, where hundreds of thousands of people have been cut off for months from food and medicine and are at risk of starvation.
Administration officials emphasized that air-dropped relief is only in the planning stages and has not yet been approved. But U.S. forces, who have conducted similar operations in northern Iraq and Syria, could move within days to implement a decision.
U.S. and coalition aircraft began bombing Islamic State-held areas elsewhere in Syria 18 months ago. But approval of the air-drop plan, while a non-combat operation, would mark the first time American planes have flown directly into the contested areas of Syria's civil war.
Consideration of the effort comes as a blizzard of Russian air strikes in and around the city of Aleppo this week have cut rebel and humanitarian supply lines from Turkey. United Nations efforts to deliver relief on the ground to besieged areas have been slowed to a trickle. U.N.-led peace talks, including a ceasefire, were suspended Wednesday in Geneva.
Russia's foreign ministry said Thursday that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry, during telephone conversations this week, had "agreed to coordinate possible measures to deliver humanitarian aid to the appropriate districts of Syria by air, using military-transport aircraft."
Representatives of the Syrian opposition have also called for air-dropped relief. They left the peace talks after charging the Russian-backed government of President Bashar Assad was more interested in solidifying its negotiating position than in allowing the fighting to pause to allow humanitarian ground convoys to reach areas in need.
U.S. officials, who said the Pentagon has been asked to prepare relief plans, declined to discuss in detail the closely held consideration of the issue. But they said any cooperation with Russia would be only to prevent Russian aircraft from interfering with U.S. operations.
The U.S.-led coalition backing the rebels would strongly prefer that humanitarian assistance be delivered on the ground by U.N. and other relief organizations. But failure of the opposing forces to allow passage of relief convoys, and ongoing airstrikes by Russian and Syrian planes, have made that all but impossible.
In the town of Madaya, northwest of Damascus, where a rare convoy arrived last month, dozens have reportedly starved to death. "Tragically, there are hundreds of Madayas through the country," U.N. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson said this week. "Humanitarian conditions in besieged and hard-to-reach areas are insufferable and with time, without relief, getting even worse."
An international donors conference, held in London Thursday, pledged a record $10 billion -- including $900 million from the United States -- in additional humanitarian aid to Syria and surrounding countries hosting millions of Syrian refugees.
In August 2014, the U.S. military air-dropped food and water for members of the Yazidi sect, besieged by the Islamic State and stranded on Mount Sinjar in northwestern Iraq. Last year, similarly successful operations were carried out in and around the Syrian town of Kobane, along the Turkish border, where local Kurdish forces were fighting for survival against the militants.
Kerry and Lavrov are to meet next week in Munich, at a meeting of the International Syria Support Group that has set out parameters for the Geneva peace talks. Kerry, saying that suspension of the negotiations is only temporary, has expressed optimism that the group, which for the first time has brought together backers of both the government and the opposition, can agree to measures that will allow the Geneva process to continue.
Government advances against rebel-held areas around Aleppo, aided by Russian bombardment and Iranian-recruited Shiite militias from Iraq and Afghanistan on the ground, have already sent tens of thousands of new refugees fleeing north toward the Turkish border in recent days. Hundreds of thousands of civilians remain inside the city, now encircled by government forces, portending yet another escalation in the humanitarian crisis.