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Russia shortens Syrian lifeline of aid deliveries

Obstructed by Russia's demands, the U.N. Security Council agreed to a six-month entension for cross-border humanitarian aid deliveries to Syria.

Turkish workers load bags of flour from the Turkish Red Crescent onto a truck bound for Syria
Turkish workers load bags of flour from the Turkish Red Crescent onto a truck bound for Syria (AN/Lynsey Addario)

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — Obstructed by Russia's demands, the U.N. Security Council agreed to a six-month entension — not a full year as in the past — for cross-border humanitarian aid deliveries to more than 4 million Syrians in the rebel-held northwest.

The 15-nation council's 12-0 vote on Tuesday reauthorizes aid deliveries through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and northern Syria only until January 10, 2023. Russia flexed its veto power on the council to block measures last week calling for a one-year extension to the aid corridor.

That led to the border crossing's expiration at midnight on Sunday, briefly shuttering the last United Nations-backed lifeline of food and medicine for millions of Syrians. The Bab al-Hawa crossing mainly helps the 4.1 million mostly displaced people in Syria's northwest Idlib province.

"This has been a long and uncertain couple of days," Ireland's U.N. Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason, whose nation joined with Norway in sponsoring the compromise, told the council. "This resolution respresents a delicate balance."

Norway and Ireland "regret" Russia's veto but call on all nations to help Syrians suffering from more than a decade of war, Norway's U.N. Ambassador Mona Juul told the council.

"The people of Syria have suffered for too much and for too long," she said, noting the resolution calls on U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to report back on Syria's humanitarian needs in December so diplomats can assess the impact if cross-border aid ends. He also must provide regular briefings and reports.

Juul said the resolution's proponents assume the border crossing will be reauthorized again, until July 10, 2023, in six months' time.

"I strongly hope that in six months it will be renewed," Guterres told reporters immediately after the vote.The six-month renewal until early next year will allow the World Health Organization and its partners to "continue to deliver life-saving supplies and health care to this vulnerable population, 80% of whom are women and children," WHO's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

The U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights called the vote "a temporary victory" that only provides the bare minimum conditions to sustain humanitarian workers and millions of Syrians in the region.

"This extremely narrow and disgraceful compromise only restarts a temporary clock for health and humanitarian workers who need ample time to plan their missions in Syria, and for millions of civilians who now only have a small window of secured access to aid before their last lifeline is back up for debate in six months’ time,” said Dr. Houssam al-Nahhas, a researcher for the organization.

'There is some dissatisfaction'

Russia and China, another one of the council's five permanent members with veto power, voted for the half-year extension. The three other permanent members — Britain, France and the United States — abstained on grounds that another six months isn't enough for long-term aid planning.The council originally approved four border crossings — two in Turkey at Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam, one at Al Yarubiyah in Iraq, and one at Al-Ramtha in Jordan — when aid deliveries began in 2014, three years after the start of the Syrian conflict.

In January 2020, the council gave in to Russia’s demand that it reduce cross-border aid to just the two Turkish crossings. The Bab al-Salam crossing served as the humanitarian gateway to northern Aleppo and an estimated 300,000 vulnerable Syrians living there who depended on U.N.-authorized aid deliveries.

The council then voted in July 2020 to constrict cross-border aid for Syrians living in areas still beyond Syrian President Bashar Assad's control to just the one Turkish crossing at Bab al-Hawa, bowing to demands by Russia which, along with Iran, is Assad's main ally.

Explaining his nation's latest stance, Russia's Deputy U.N. Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy told the council it hadn't escaped his notice "there is some dissatisfaction" among council members. "Well, the world is not limited by the Western countries," he said, adding it was time for these countries "to get used to respecting" other countries.The United States' Deputy U.N. Ambassador Richard Mills told the council the vote shows what happens when one council member takes the others "hostage" in their negotiations. "Rather than scaling up, we've been pushed to scale down. This is such a heartless play," said Mills.

"The simple truth is Russia does not care," he said. "This is an amoral and cynical approach to humanitarian needs."

The United States wanted to reopen the other two closed border crossings and keep Bab al-Hawa open for at least one year. Russia argued the aid for rebel-held areas of Syria facilitated terrorist groups and violated the Syrian government's sovereignty.

Russia, backed by China, has long wanted to further choke off aid in Syria's mainly rebel-controlled northwest. A year ago, the council unanimously approved a compromise to keep open Bab al-Hawa, Syria’s last non-government controlled border crossing for humanitarian aid.

Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bassam al-Sabbagh told the council his government opposed "a temporary, exceptional measure imposed by circumstances that no longer exist" and blamed Britain, France and the United States for peddling "humanitarian anxiousness" among its Western allies.

However, he said Syria's U.N. delegation "appreciates the flexibility" of Russia's U.N. delegation in its handling of the resolution.