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U.N. extends aid route to rebel-held Syria

The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a compromise to keep open Syria's last non-government controlled border crossing for humanitarian aid.

An informal tented settlement in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley for Syrian refugee families
An informal tented settlement in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley for Syrian refugee families (AN/Russell Watkins)

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a compromise measure on Friday that will keep open Syria's last non-government controlled border crossing for humanitarian aid.

The vote by the 15-nation council, one day before permission for the criticial aid corridor would have lapsed, allows humanitarian access to continue through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and northern Syria over the next 12 months. As the last remaining border crossing that remains open, it has provided a lifeline of food and medicine for millions of Syrians.

There are 13.4 million people in need of humanitarian and protection assistance in Syria, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR.

The council originally approved four border crossings — two in Turkey at Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa, 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.

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

Russia, backed by China, wanted to further choke off aid in Syria's mainly rebel-controlled northwest. As one of the council's five permanent members, Russia threatened to veto any aid resolution. The other permanent members with veto power are Britain, China, France and the United States.

The adopted council resolution allows for a six-month extension of Bab al-Hawa, then a second six-month extension contingent on a report from U.N. Secretary General António Guterres on how the aid is working.

After the council's vote, Russia and the United States both described the compromise as a direct outcome of the Swiss-hosted meeting in Geneva last month between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"It was possible, above all, because the United States and Russia were able to come together, work diplomatically, and forge an agreement that would meet the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people," U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters.

"I certainly see it as an important moment in our relationship. And it shows what we can do with the Russians if we work with them diplomatically on common goals," she said. "We got 12 months of a lifeline to the Syrian people. Certainly, we would have wanted to have three border crossings. And I made that clear in my statement that we wanted more, but we certainly didn’t want less. And this is a success."

'A special focus on transparency'

Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vasily Nebenzya also attributed the compromise to the "spirit of the agreements" at the Geneva summit, saying it is "a landmark achievement" for dealing with Syria's crisis.

"It is the first resolution to emphasize the importance of improving cross-line deliveries, which totally corresponds to the principles of delivering humanitarian assistance, endorsed at the United Nations," Nebenzya said after the vote.

"Members of the council are united in the understanding that humanitarian activity must also touch upon such urgent needs of the Syrian population as, for example, water supply, healthcare and education," he said. "We will be closely following this process for the next six months, at the end of which the secretary-general is to prepare a substantive report on the functioning of ‘Bab al-Hawa’ border crossing, with a special focus on transparency of cross-line deliveries and operations."

In January 2020, 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. 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 one Turkish crossing, bowing to demands by Russia which, along with Iran, is Assad's main ally.

The Bab al-Hawa crossing chiefly helps about 4 million people, many of them displaced, in Syria's northwest Idlib province, while 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.

Among the 6.6 million registered Syria refugees worldwide, 5.6 million are hosted in countries near Syria: Turkey is home to nearly 3.7 million; Lebanon has taken in 855,000; Jordan has 668,000; Iraq harbors 247,000; Egypt is home to 132,000; and parts of North Africa have taken in 31,000, UNHCR reported.