The United States and Russia reached a last-minute compromise Friday to keep humanitarian aid flowing for another year from Turkey to millions of people in northwestern Syria.
In a unanimous vote, the U.N. Security Council approved a draft resolution extending the cross-border aid operation. In a rare twist, the U.S. and Russia came together to put forward the compromise resolution, supported by Ireland and Norway, which hold the file on Syria's humanitarian situation in the council and have guided months of negotiations.
The resolution reauthorizes the use of the Bab al-Hawa crossing point for another six months. It had been due to expire Saturday. It will then automatically be renewed for six more months – until July 2022. The U.N. secretary-general also is instructed to report to the council on the aid operation in January.
"Thanks to this resolution, millions of Syrians can breathe a sigh of relief tonight, knowing that vital humanitarian aid will continue to flow into Idlib through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing after tomorrow," U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the council. "And parents can sleep tonight knowing that for the next 12 months their children will be fed. The humanitarian agreement we've reached here will literally save lives."
More than 3.4 million people live in the area outside government control serviced by the 1,000 aid trucks that cross through Bab al-Hawa each month.
Western countries also had sought to reopen the al-Yarubiyah crossing from Iraq to Syria, which had been used to bring medical supplies to 1.4 million people in the northeast, but that was lost in negotiations.
"Of course, like every political agreement, we continue to believe we could have done more, that more should be done, and we will continue work to make sure that humanitarian needs in Syria remain in focus," Ireland's Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason told reporters after the vote.
Al-Yarubiyah and two other crossing points have been closed over the past two years under pressure from Moscow, which would like to see the entire cross-border aid operation shut down and all supplies flow through Damascus across conflict frontlines. The United Nations and aid groups say crossline operations are plagued with problems and cannot meet the soaring demand.
Syria's decadelong war has deepened divisions among the Security Council's five permanent powers. Russia and China have sought to protect the regime of Bashar al-Assad, while Britain, France and the United States have tried to rally council action to hold the regime accountable for chemical weapons attacks on civilians, military sieges and other atrocities.
Those divisions have spilled over into the humanitarian dossier, making it one of the council's most contentious. The seven-year-old aid operation regularly faces nail-biting questions of whether the humanitarian lifeline will be severed by a veto. So, it was all the more surprising to see the U.S. and Russia come together Friday to hammer out a compromise minutes before the vote.
"It's important that the United States and Russia were able to come together on a humanitarian initiative that serves the interests of the Syrian people," Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said. "And it's an important moment for the U.N. and the Security Council – which today showed we can do more than just talk. We can work together to find solutions and deliver actions on the world's most pressing challenges."
Friday's vote was the first time since 2016 that the council was able to unanimously reach a decision on extending the cross-border aid operation.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said he was grateful to his American colleagues, who he said "worked in the spirit of the Geneva summit" between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden.
"Today, we are witnessing a historical moment," Nebenzia said. "For the first time, Russia and the United States not only managed to find an agreement, but to present a joint text supported by all our colleagues in the council. We expect that this kind of day would become a turning point, that not only Syria will win from this, but the whole Middle Eastern region and the world as a whole."
The White House has said that Biden raised the issue of the cross-border aid operation with Putin when they met on June 16, and Biden told him he sees it as an important issue. The two leaders spoke Friday by telephone and the White House said they commended the joint work of their teams following the summit, which led to the unanimous renewal of the Syrian aid operation.
The U.N. secretary-general's spokesman said Antonio Guterres welcomed the council's extension but noted that "needs continue to outstrip the response," and that with additional crossings and more funding, the United Nations could do more to assist the rising number of Syrians in need.