With only hours to go before a mandate to deliver aid across the border from Turkey into northwest Syria was due to expire Friday, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution extending that assistance for six more months, threatening to totally shut down the operation.
"The [U.N. Security] Council must reach a solution to ensure this critical lifeline for the Syrian people," Germany and Belgium said in a joint statement after the vote on the resolution they drafted. "Germany and Belgium are committed to this end. We will continue to advocate for extending the legal basis underpinning cross-border assistance."
The council has been in a stalemate after multiple rounds of voting, vetoes and negotiations this week failed to yield a compromise to keep the cross-border aid operation moving. Diplomats said after the failed vote that the council would convene in closed consultations to discuss next steps.
The United Nations and aid partners say some 3 million people in northwest Syria benefit from assistance that flows through the two crossings, known as Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa.
Germany and Belgium's draft called for a six-month reauthorization of the two crossings until January – a compromise from their earlier request for one year.
Russia and China have repeatedly tried to reduce the number of crossings (from two to one) and the length of the mandate (they prefer only six months), but have found little appetite or support for that among the other 13 council members.
As the clock continued to run out, Russia tried a final time on Thursday evening to influence the negotiations on Belgium and Germany's draft resolution, putting forward a rival draft of its own. That text proposes keeping only the Bab al-Hawa crossing, but for one year, instead of six months.
"We categorically reject claims that Russia wants to stop humanitarian deliveries to the Syrian population in need," Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, wrote on Twitter Thursday evening. "Our draft is the best proof that these allegations are groundless."
Moscow, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has argued that all aid should go through Damascus to other parts of Syria. The areas served by the operation from Turkey assist people in parts of the country outside government control.
The U.N. and humanitarian groups have requested more access and crossing points, not fewer. The U.N. has asked the council to reauthorize use of a crossing from northern Iraq that was used for medical supplies, especially as Syria is now facing COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Russia and China forced the council to close that crossing in January.
"Shutting the two northwest crossings could be a virtual death sentence for many of the millions of Syrians who rely on aid to survive," said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch. "But it's not too late for Moscow to change course."
It was not clear yet whether or when council members might vote on the Russian draft resolution.
UN: More aid needed
"Council members have spent months debating how to pressure Russia and ensure aid continues to flow into Syria," said Ashish Pradhan, senior U.N. analyst at the nonprofit International Crisis Group. "That Moscow has yet again backed them all into a corner and is on the verge of further reducing aid confirms that the Russians are not bothered by other states' moral attacks and pleas at the U.N."
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said this week: "With 2.8 million people in need and 2.7 million internally displaced people, needs for those in northwest Syria remain incredibly high. We have significantly increased the aid delivered via cross-border operations into the area, but much more is needed."
In addition to conflict and COVID-19, Syria faces a crippling financial crisis. Its currency, the pound, is in free fall, commodity prices are skyrocketing, and many Syrians are struggling to afford food, making them even more reliant on humanitarian assistance.