UNITED NATIONS (AN) — The U.N. Security Council voted on Saturday to constrict cross-border humanitarian aid for Syrians living in areas still beyond Syrian President Bashar Assad's control to just one Turkish crossing, bowing to demands by Russia which, along with Iran, is Assad's main ally.
The 15-nation council's compromise with Russia and China to eliminate humanitarian aid groups' access to one of the two main Turkish border crossings will further choke off aid in Syria's mainly rebel-controlled northwest. Other council members, led by Belgium and Germany, argued that another 1.5 million people, including a half-million children, will be deprived of life-saving food and medicine.
The council, the United Nations' most powerful arm, voted 12-0 for the single border crossing, on its fifth try for a resolution after being stalemated for six weeks. Russia, China and the Dominican Republic abstained. Without a resolution, aid groups would have been prevented from using any border crossing to truck supplies through Turkey to areas still beyond Assad's control after more than nine years of war.
"For weeks this council has struggled to come to terms with the efforts of two of its members to end cross-border humanitarian aid to the Syrian people," U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Craft said of Russia and China. "Good faith negotiations were met with intransigence and contempt, and resolutions repeatedly faced inexplicable veto. But today, the council showed that resolve and unity is a powerful combination."
Craft emphasized, however, that the resolution falls short of what most council members sought on behalf of Syria's war-battered civilians. Since 2014, the council had authorized deliveries of humanitarian aid to Syria each year without President Bashar Assad’s permission through four border crossings: the two in Turkey — Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa — and ones at Al Yarubiyah in Iraq and Al-Ramtha in Jordan.
But in January, the council gave in to Russia’s demand that it reduce cross-border aid to just the two Turkish crossings, in a move that cut off help to more than 1 million Syrians. Saturday's vote further limits the cross-border aid to the Bab al-Hawa crossing, helping displaced people in Syria's northwest Idlib province. That chokes off the Bab al-Salam crossing, the humanitarian gateway to northern Aleppo and an estimated 300,000 vulnerable Syrians living there who depend on U.N.-authorized aid deliveries.
"To be clear, today’s outcome leaves us sickened and outraged," Craft told the council. "Behind those locked gates are millions of women, children, and men who believed that the world had heard their pleas. Their health and welfare are now at great risk."
Earlier in the week, Russia and China vetoed a council resolution that would have reauthorized both Turkish crossings. That occurred on the same day that U.N. human rights experts unveiled fresh evidence of Syrian war crimes and possible crimes against humanity involving people trapped in civilian areas of the opposition-held Idlib province since November.
After Saturday's vote, Belgium's U.N. Ambassador Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve said his nation and Germany were relieved that at least one lifeline of cross-border aid would still flow in northwest Syria. "One border crossing is not enough," he told a virtual media stakeout on U.N. Web TV. "But no border crossing would have left the fate of an entire region in question."
'We cannot abandon northwest Syria'
Germany's U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, who holds the council's monthlong revolving presidency, said the compromise "ignores the needs of hundreds of thousands of Syrians," and Germany would have voted "for as many border crossings as possible" if Russia and China did not block that option.
"We are convinced that the majority of Security Council members would do the same," said Heusgen. "Our best path forward is to keep this mechanism alive for the next year. We cannot abandon northwest Syria."
The council’s five permanent, veto-wielding members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — each have the power to block any resolution, reflecting a power structure frozen in time since the end of World War II. Council resolutions require a minimum of nine votes — and no vetoes — to pass.
Its move to eliminate the two crossings in Iran and Jordan in January meant the aid to northwest Syria continued for another six months, but the aid to northeast Syria dried up — as Russia wanted — and ended a humanitarian lifeline for 1 million Syrians. That six-month council agreement expired on Friday.
The northeast region is an autonomous zone set up in 2012 by Syrian Kurds, who were U.S. allies until the Trump administration ordered an abrupt withdrawal from positions along the border there last October before a Turkish invasion.
Assad’s government, backed by forces supported by Russia and Iran, has all but won the war, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and uprooting millions more, while Turkey built up troops in northwest Syria. The war, now in its 10th year, is essentially being fought by proxies. Syrians live in dire conditions compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. The long drawn-out hostilities also have destabilized the region.
About 6.7 million Syrians are internally displaced and 6.6 million are refugees, with about 90% of them living in urban areas of neighboring countries, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Most Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq.
Russia, which joined Syria’s war in 2015 as its military appearing to be giving way to the rebel fighters, provides air support to Assad’s government, which has regained control of most of the nation. Syria launched an offensive late last year in the rebel fighters’ last stronghold in Idlib province, where al-Qaida-linked militants live among the 3 million civilians along Turkey’s border.
Russia got its way by shutting down aid through Turkey's Bab al-Salam crossing. But Russia's Deputy U.N. Ambassador Dmitry Polyankiy said the council's compromise resolution permits the continuation of Turkey's Bab al-Hawa crossing, helping displaced people in Idlib province, despite the presence of "international terrorists and fighters" there beyond the control of the United Nations.
"Therefore, it's impossible to monitor and to control how humanitarian assistance is delivered, and who are its final beneficiaries," he told the council. "It's not a secret that the terrorist groups, listed as such by the U.N. Security Council, control certain areas of the de-escalation zone and use the U.N. humanitarian aid as a tool to exert pressure on civil population and openly make profit from such deliveries. Direct as well as indirect proofs of these acts are becoming more and more numerous."
China and Russia often pair up to oppose the council's three Western powers. The Dominican Republic's U.N. Ambassador José Singer Weisinger said his nation strongly favored cross-border aid, but abstained in the final vote because it was "disappointed" at the council's “flagrant politicization" of the issue.
China's U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun told other diplomats on the council that his nation "always has reservations" about cross-border aid, and, while it did not object to continuing those operations for now, it also believed the aid "should be adjusted accordingly in light of the developments on the ground."