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US faces tough challenges to deliver aid in Syria

Syrian refugees wait for food aid at Kawergost refugee camp in Irbil, Iraq. Around 34,000 Syrians, the vast majority of them Kurds, have fled the region over a five-day stretch and crossed the border to the self-ruled Kurdish region of northern Iraq. AP Photo

Syrian refugees wait for food aid at Kawergost refugee camp in Irbil, Iraq. Around 34,000 Syrians, the vast majority of them Kurds, have fled the region over a five-day stretch and crossed the border to the self-ruled Kurdish region of northern Iraq. AP Photo

WASHINGTON — Plans to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons will dominate talks about Syria at this week’s U.N. General Assembly in New York, but there also will be new pleas to deliver more humanitarian aid — a task as daunting as the need is overwhelming.

U.S. officials already are working to disperse nearly $1.3 billion in assistance in the Syrian war zone, where ambulances are used for target practice and aid is halted by armed men at random checkpoints.

The humanitarian needs are staggering. An estimated 6.8 million Syrians require assistance — a number equal to the population of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Connecticut combined. About 4 to 5 million are displaced from their homes inside Syria.

The U.N. says more than 100,000 people have died in the two years that opposition forces have fought to topple President Bashar Assad, who is accused of launching a chemical weapons attack last month that killed more than 1,400 people.

Aid shipments to Syria are being stolen or diverted by armed groups filling the power vacuum in areas no longer controlled by the Assad regime.

Many opposition-held territories have largely descended into chaos as a multitude of rebel brigades and factions compete over resources and the distribution of aid. Lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have been critical of the pace of U.S. aid going to Syria. At a congressional hearing earlier this month, he said he was “totally dismayed” at the lack of U.S. support for the vetted moderate opposition.

Another issue complicating the delivery of aid is a widespread disregard for international humanitarian law, according to François Stamm, head of the International Committee for the Red Cross’ delegation to the United States. He said combatants have occupied health facilities, turning them into targets and killed enemy patients.

“We took for granted that you don’t shoot on the ambulances and regrettably, we were wrong,” he said.

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