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UN Aid to Millions of Syrians in Jeopardy


FILE - A woman hangs laundry in a flooded refugee camp in Idlib province, Syria, Dec. 21, 2021.

Humanitarian assistance for more than 4 million Syrians living in opposition-held areas appeared in jeopardy Friday, after Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have extended the mission for another year.

“This was a life-or-death vote for the Syrian people, and Russia chose the latter,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.

The authorization for the operation that moves aid from Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing into northwest Syria will expire on Sunday night, leaving little time for the 15 council members to find a new compromise.

“We need to reach a solution in the immediate term, a solution which renews the mandate for cross-border aid,” Irish Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason said. “There is simply no time to waste. The Syrian people are counting on us.”

Ireland and Norway, which hold the humanitarian file on Syria in the council and led the negotiations, offered a compromise of a total of a 12-month extension of the cross-border mechanism.

“This is our effort to reach a compromise,” Norwegian Ambassador Mona Juul told council members. “This resolution would renew the border crossing of Bab al-Hawa. The resolution ensures that humanitarian assistance reaches all those in need, facilitates further early recovery, and encourages regular follow-up meetings on the implementation.”

A year would have given humanitarians planning and procuring space, and it would have gotten the people who rely on the aid through the coming winter. Now they could lose assistance during the harshest months.

Moscow wanted a six-month renewal, with the possibility for six more — but only after another council resolution, and the potential for another veto, in January. To that end, the Russian delegation put forward its own draft resolution for a vote.

“I hope you will support our draft, because the alternative to that would be the ultimate closure of the crossing,” Russia’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy said before their vote.

Thomas-Greenfield accused Russia of having “greedily and disrespectfully hijacked” the negotiations from Ireland and Norway.

The Russian proposal failed to get the minimum of nine votes in favor. Only Russia and China voted for it. Britain, France and the United States voted no, and the 10 non-permanent council members all abstained.

After the two failed votes, council members went into a private meeting to discuss where to go from here. Kenya and Brazil both suggested in the public meeting that a nine-month extension should be explored as a compromise. That would at least get the aid recipients through the winter.

Russia has long sought to end the operation, which Damascus does not like, and Polyanskiy signaled that Moscow is not interested in any further compromise.

“You had the choice, and you made the choice,” he told his fellow council members. “And now this page of history has finally been turned and cannot be turned back.”

He later told reporters that his delegation would veto any text that was not the one they had just put forward.

Staggering needs

More than 4 million people live in northwest Syria, in an area outside of government control. Humanitarians reach about 2.4 million people each month with vital assistance through the Bab al-Hawa crossing from Turkey.

Russia, China and Syria’s regime argue that all humanitarian assistance to the country’s north should move from within Syria, across conflict front lines, under the control of the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But the United Nations and aid agencies on the ground say the so-called cross-line convoys alone are insufficient to meet the tremendous demands.

Since the resolution was renewed a year ago, only five cross-line convoys – one with only 14 trucks – crossed from government-controlled areas into the northwest. By comparison, in the first six months of this year, 4,648 trucks entered the region from Turkey – or about 800 each month.

When the council initially authorized the aid operations in 2014, four crossing points were activated – two from Turkey, one from Iraq and one from Jordan. In 2019 and 2020, Russia and China forced the closure of all but one – Bab al-Hawa, which connects southern Turkey with northwest Syria.

After more than a decade of war, a pandemic and an economic crisis, 90% of Syrians now live below the poverty line. A recent report from the World Health Organization said an unprecedented number of the country’s children and women are struggling with soaring rates of malnutrition.

Needs are higher now than at any other time during the conflict. The U.N. said 14.6 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance, of which 12 million are food insecure. The U.N. has appealed for a staggering $10 billion this year to assist people both inside the country and those who have sought safety in neighboring countries. The U.N. says nothing short of a permanent cease-fire will end the suffering.

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