Russian aid helps war-torn Syrian families survive

Syrian Arab Red Crescent trucks carrying humanitarian aid enter the opposition-held southern Syrian city of Daraa, ahead of Russia’s appeal at the UN for world powers to help Syria’s economic recovery. (AFP pic)

RASTAN: In regime-held central Syria, Suleiman Berber carried his son in his arms, anxiously observing Russian soldiers unload food parcels from a truck.

His face suddenly lit up as his wife managed to grab one, while journalists on a media tour with Russia’s army watched on.

Seven years into Syria’s civil war, some 6.5 million people in the country are unable to meet their food needs, the United Nations says.

In the town of Rastan in the central province of Homs, 31-year-old Berber said he and his family depend on aid from government ally Russia to survive.

Before the regime returned to Rastan, “it was really tough. We didn’t have enough to eat or drink,” said Berber, dark rings under his eyes.

“Now there’s this aid, it’s better.”

Around him, dozens of Syrians and their children, many dressed in dusty clothes, gathered to receive parcels of rice, flour and condensed milk.

Each package bore Russia’s flag and the message “Russia is with you” in Cyrillic script.

Backed by Russian warplanes since 2015, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has recovered large parts of Syria through a combination of deadly bombing campaigns, crippling sieges and surrender deals.

Assad’s forces took back control of Rastan in May, under an agreement that saw rebels and their family members bused out of the town and up to northern Syria.

Farming at a loss

Russian army spokesman Igor Konachekov said the regime ally delivers food to the town once a day.

“We will continue until the food situation in Syria improves,” he said.

“After the war is finished, it could still take several months.”

In July, the UN’s World Food Programme distributed food assistance to more than three million people in Syria.

“Soaring food and fuel prices, stagnant salaries, loss of livelihoods and reduced food production have led to widespread food insecurity across the country,” it said.

In the neighbouring province of Hama, more than a dozen Syrians worked away on a farm.

Ahmad al-Tawil, the owner of the land, said some had returned to work after they were displaced to other parts of Syria or abroad.

Others had rented a plot to help feed their families, after the fighting between rebels and regime fighters subsided.

“The fighting happened just five kilometres from here,” Tawil explained, standing in an orchard where he said he has found landmines.

“When the shooting got too intense, the workers couldn’t come.”

His yield has been good this year, he said, after “lots of rain, which is perfect for potatoes and fruit”.

But due to low exports Tawil is selling them cheap and his farm is “working at a loss”, he said, complaining about the high price of fertiliser.

Regime forces now control 60% of the country, after earlier this year securing control of Damascus, the country’s centre and regaining most of its southwest.

Syria’s Prime Minister Imad Khamis this week said developing the agricultural sector was a priority in areas the government controlled.

Measures are to include abolishing certain taxes for family agriculture projects, a cabinet statement said.