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Besieged Syrians in Yarmouk wait in line for a rare food delivery. (Photo from The Guardian)

Introduction

Humanitarian airdrops are generally not feasible in conflict zones without a major military undertaking, because manned cargo aircraft are vulnerable to air defense systems and ground fire.

We believe that a fleet of small, inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can penetrate this airspace to deliver small amounts of critical aid where larger aircraft cannot. We call this concept swarming airlift. Just imagine an army of ants moving a picnic lunch.

Our initial efforts are focused on Syria, where an estimated 240,000 people have been besieged and deprived of both food and medicine. A further seven million are considered difficult to access because of violent, chaotic conditions on the ground. The Syrian regime and violent actors like the Islamic State are deliberately using starvation and medical deprivation as weapons against civilians. In these extreme circumstances, a principled, nonviolent effort to make non-consensual aid deliveries is warranted to protect lives and safeguard human rights. Such action accords with UN Security Council Resolution 2139 and 2165.

Although the group was formed specifically to address challenges in Syria, we believe this research and development can support humanitarian activities in a wide range of contexts in the future. We hope to become a provider of creative, unconventional  airlift wherever traditional aid organizations cannot go.

The Origin

This initiative grew out of a March 2014 research trip to southeast Turkey, hosted by the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University (GMU). Interviews with Syrian refugees and activists emphasized the dire humanitarian crisis in besieged areas. Interviewees repeatedly asked why the United States could not provide humanitarian airdrops to starving civilians. The answer is that the Syrian government controls a powerful Integrated Air Defense System (IADS), and flying manned aircraft in this airspace is impossible without permission. For many experts on air mobility, the matter ends there. However, the powerful experience of meeting Syrian refugees and hearing their tragic stories prompted deep thinking among research team members. Is this really the end of the story? Or can out-of-the-box thinking provide a way to deliver aid through Syrian airspace?

Upon their return to the United States, several team members formed the Syria Airlift Project to research possible solutions for delivering humanitarian aid to besieged civilians.

Uplift Sacramento Team