NEW YORK - The United Nations said Thursday that it is struggling to meet massive and growing humanitarian needs in northern Syria after losing access to a vital border crossing last month, at a time when the country’s economy is collapsing and COVID-19 is spreading.
“These challenges were foreseen, and have resulted in a more costly, higher risk, less timely and, ultimately, less effective humanitarian response,” Acting Deputy U.N. Humanitarian Chief Ramesh Rajasingham told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the impact of the closure of the Bab al-Salaam crossing at the Syrian-Turkish border.
The U.N., which has appealed for more access, is trying to work with the remaining crossing—Bab al-Hawa in Idlib—and with the parties on the ground to ensure deliveries can be made unimpeded.
“The capacity of the remaining authorized crossing at Bab al-Hawa needs to be expanded; as does the capacity of crossing points inside Syria,” Rajasingham said. “Significant road works will need to be completed before the onset of winter weather.”
After protracted negotiations and multiple rounds of council votes and vetoes, a majority of council members on July 11 bent to Russia’s will and closed the crossing north of Aleppo. That has complicated the process of getting aid to 1.3 million people in the northwest who live outside the territory controlled by the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
“Due to the callous and inhumane Russian and Chinese vetoes earlier this summer, U.N. humanitarian access via the cross-border modality is forced to trickle into Syria from the single remaining crossing point at Bab al-Hawa,” said U.S. Political Coordinator Rodney Hunter. “And despite their assertions to the contrary, we have seen no sustained improvements in the regime’s provision of cross-line access.”
Russia, a staunch Assad ally, has argued that all aid should go through Damascus across internal lines, so the government has control over where it goes.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said cross-line operations should be further improved and “should become the natural and the only way” to deliver aid.
Since January, Russia, with support from China, has essentially forced the council to close a total of three border crossings from Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. The remaining one—Idlib’s Bab al-Hawa—is authorized to remain open at least through next July.
Aid needs are growing as the Syrian economy continues to struggle to stay afloat. Unemployment is high and food prices have soared beyond the reach of many Syrians.
Across Syria, some 11 million people need humanitarian assistance; the U.N. reaches about 7.2 million each month. Food insecurity is a growing concern, with an additional 1.4 million people at risk in the last six months. The U.N. and its partners reach about 5.4 million people monthly with food aid.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also reached the war-torn country. The Health Ministry has confirmed 2,440 cases, but the U.N. says with a daily average of only 345 tests conducted nationwide, the number is likely far higher.
“Reports of healthcare facilities filling up, of rising numbers of death notices and burials, all seem to indicate that actual cases far exceed official figures,” the U.N.’s Rajasingham said.
COVID-19 also briefly forced the suspension of political talks this week. A third session of the Constitutional Committee due to start in Geneva on Monday was put on hold when four Syrian participants tested positive for the virus. On Thursday, the U.N. said health officials had given the green light for the talks to resume with proper COVID-19 protocols in place and they were due to begin in the afternoon.