The U.N. secretary-general personally appealed to the Security Council on Wednesday to extend vital cross-border aid from Turkey into northwest Syria for another year, saying not to do so “would have devastating consequences.”
“Despite the U.N.’s massive response in Syria and across the region, more humanitarian access is required to reach those most in need,” Antonio Guterres told the 15-nation council by video from Brussels. “That is why I have been clearly expressing how important it is to maintain and expand access, including cross-border and cross-line operations.”
The council must decide by July 10 whether to renew the Bab al-Hawa crossing point from Turkey, which gives the U.N. and its partners access to about 3.4 million people in northwest Syria. The areas served by the operation assist people in parts of Syria outside government control. Without it, millions would be left without food aid, medical supplies and COVID-19 vaccines.
Russia has expressed a desire to shutter the seven-year-old cross-border aid operation completely. In the past two years, it has succeeded in pressuring the council to gradually close three other crossing points under the threat of Moscow’s veto forcing the closure of them all.
Council members have been braced for a showdown with Russia, and at Wednesday’s monthly discussion of the humanitarian situation, they laid out their positions.
Thirteen of the 15 envoys expressed clear support for continuing the operation for another year via the Bab al-Hawa crossing. Several ambassadors also called for an expansion of crossing points, namely reauthorizing two of the shuttered crossings: Bab al-Salam, also in the northwest, and Al Yarubiyah, which connects Syria with Iraq. That crossing was a vital lifeline for medical supplies into the country and was shut down in January 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Only Russia and China questioned the need for the cross-border operation. They both argued that moving supplies from Damascus across conflict front lines was adequate to meet needs; the U.N., NGOs and other council members disagreed.
'Only legitimate way'
“Cross-line assistance is the only legitimate way of delivering humanitarian assistance in any operation,” Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said of aid operations generally.
Moscow has argued that the Syrian government should control all assistance, even that going into areas outside its control.
China’s envoy said the council should include “specific requirements for scaling up cross-line assistance” in the draft resolution it will consider next month on the operation.
They both also called for the lifting of unilateral sanctions imposed by some Western nations, including the United States, on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Humanitarian exemptions are made in cases where sanctions would impede aid distribution.
U.S. envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield visited the Syrian-Turkish border and Bab al-Hawa earlier this month. She told council members that “everybody knows” that without cross-border access, more Syrians will die.
“That’s why this council has a duty to reauthorize Bab al-Hawa, as well as Bab al-Salam and Yarubiyah,” she said. “It doesn’t take much: a technical rollover for 12 months and three crossings. We should do it now, and not leave mothers and fathers wondering if they will be able to feed their children on July 11.”
Later, she told reporters that President Joe Biden raised this issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week at their summit in Geneva.
Administration officials said at the time that Biden received no commitment from Moscow.
U.N. acting aid chief Ramesh Rajasingham said a cross-line operation would provide a vital addition to the cross-border lifeline, but it could not replace it in size and scope.
The heads of seven U.N. agencies, including UNCIEF, the World Food Program and the World Health Organization, have also called on the council to renew the cross-border operation in order “to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in northwest Syria.”
The World Food Program said last month that it was pre-positioning food supplies to distribute in July through September in northwest Syria, should the cross-border operation not be renewed. It expects to have those supplies in place by June 30.
Across Syria, the U.N. said 13.4 million people require humanitarian assistance – 20% more than last year. The U.N. has appealed for $4.2 billion to help people inside Syria and an additional $5.8 billion to support Syrian refugees in the region. In total, the secretary-general said they have received only $1.2 billion.