Russian veto on aid lifeline to Syria could bring ‘catastrophe’ for millions

11 months ago 75

Aid groups and their backers at the United Nations are pushing to revive an aid corridor into rebel-held Syria after Russia vetoed the renewal of the cross-border lifeline that has been getting food and medicines into Syria for almost a decade.

Moscow has repeatedly attempted to stymie deliveries through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey into Idlib, a strip of land controlled by the de facto opposition known as the National Salvation government, which is linked to the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham militant group. At least nine people were killed in a Russian airstrike on a vegetable market in rural Idlib last month.

Last week, a UN security council mandate governing cross-border aid delivery through Bab al-Hawa expired, and Russia has vetoed extending the agreement for 12 months. That has stopped key supplies including food and medicines from reaching an area where 4 million people are isolated from the outside world.

Moscow, along with its allies in Damascus, believes the flow of aid helps those occupying the territory, and has long pushed to increase Syrian government control – to the deep concern of humanitarian groups.

Observers including Laila Kiki of the Syria Campaign, a human rights group, accused Moscow of disrupting aid to north-west Syria in deliberate parallel of its decision to pull out of the Black Sea grain initiative in Ukraine, risking the lives of millions in Idlib alongside millions more across the global south dependent on Ukrainian wheat shipments.

“The most powerful are making decisions that impact the most vulnerable,” said Kiki. “[Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad weaponises aid – this is well known, including to the UN community – and this is a move to exploit that for political gain.”

Closed-door discussions at the security council until late on Monday brought no further results, with talks expected to continue into next week.

The UN is responsible for 70% of the aid going via the Bab al-Hawa crossing. “This is why the presence of the UN in programming and the supply chain is so important: the first thing impacted is the supply chain,” said Hisham Dirani, who heads the aid organisation Violet and acts as a representative of Syrian NGOs.

NGO members and activists demand a free flow of aid to Idlib during a protest at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on Monday.
NGO members and activists demand a free flow of aid to Idlib during a protest at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on Monday. Photograph: Yahya Nemah/EPA

Officials aligned to the Assad regime in Damascus have been trying to exert control over aid flows through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, claiming that UN aid deliveries violate Syrian sovereignty. In a letter to the UN security council last week, regime representatives proposed taking control of humanitarian assistance in the region “in full cooperation and coordination”, and demanded that the UN cease communication with the National Salvation government as well as groups the regime regards as terrorists.

The regime remains hostile to civilian groups distributing aid, notably the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets. Dirani said: “From a human rights perspective, you cannot accept any conditions that provide the Syrian regime control over humanitarian aid. They are human rights violators, they are the ones responsible for displacing and killing people in Syria. They should not have any control over access.”

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) - the conditions proposed by Syria “unacceptable”, but fears remain that a compromise may have to be made. Charles Lister, of the US thinktank the Middle East Institute, said the Russian veto had killed the “tried and tested mechanism” for cross-border aid, and that two members of the UN security council described the Assad’s regime’s offer as “the de facto reality”.

Raed Al Saleh, director of the White Helmets, said there would be severe consequences in north-west Syria. “We anticipate a dramatic increase in needs, exacerbating an already immense humanitarian crisis resulting from a 12-year war,” he said.

Any decision giving Damascus greater power, he added, “would compromise the fundamental principles of humanitarian work, specifically the principle of ‘do no harm’. The foremost responsibility of humanitarian aid is to ensure that no moral or physical harm comes to the beneficiaries. However, by collaborating with the Syrian regime, the UN risks violating this principle.”

The Syrian government, militants in Idlib and fighters backed by Turkey have all been accused of blocking civilian aid in Syria, amid a humanitarian crisis in which an estimated 90% of people live below the poverty line and 600,000 children are chronically malnourished. This includes impeding crucial deliveries after February’s devastating earthquakes, which killed an estimated 8,500 people in Syria and wounded thousands more.

Repeated Russian and Chinese intervention at the security council has long targeted the Bab al-Hawa aid corridor, pushing to shorten the renewal time from annually to every six months, which the US described this year as “the bare minimum”.

The Syria Campaign’s Laila Kiki said: “It has been an emergency situation for years, and all the aid is on an emergency short-term basis … the Assad regime and its allies in Russia have managed to politicise every humanitarian crisis.

“This is ongoing, but there are peaks – the earthquakes [in February], a cholera outbreak, a polio outbreak. They manipulated access to polio and cholera vaccines and are now using every opportunity to support Assad’s campaign to normalise with the international community, which should not be allowed with this aid.”

Even limited disruption to UN aid flows, said Dirani, would harm millions in Syria for months to come. “More than 70% of cross-border operations are funded and implemented by UN agencies. International NGOs are not able to absorb all that funding,” he said. “That would take decades.”

Dirani added: “If the status quo continues, we will face a catastrophe in winter. We’re supposed to start preparation for our winter response in October, and for that we have to know what resources we have from August. So any continuation of this situation for over a month means we will be unable to prepare for winter.”

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