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After US gives in to Russia on red-line issue, UN Security Council restarts aid for displaced Syrians

After a proposal submitted by Germany and Belgium, the cross-border aid plan was approved.

A child a swing he made in a camp in Idlib, northern Syria.
A child a swing he made in a camp in Idlib, northern Syria.
Image: Moawia Atrash

AFTER SURVIVING MONTHS of bombardment, Syrian man Nasr Sultan had feared his 10 children may starve or catch the coronavirus if the divided UN couldn’t agree on a renewal of cross-border humanitarian aid to rebel-held northwest Syria.

But last night, after a significant compromise, the UN Security Council passed a resolution to restart cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria.

This was only after caving to Russian pressure to close one of two access points into the war-torn country.

European countries and the US had wanted to maintain both crossing points – it represents a diplomatic failure for the US, whose ambassador had called the maintenance of two border crossings a “red line”.

Following a week of division and seven ballots, the Council passed a proposal submitted by Germany and Belgium allowing the use of the Bab al-Hawa crossing point for one year.

The measure was approved by 12 of 15 members, with Russia, China and the Dominican Republic abstaining, diplomats said.

Authorization for the continued transport of aid to Syria, a system in place since 2014, expired on Friday night after Moscow and Beijing used their veto power and the Council then rejected a counter-proposal from Russia.

the-kite-industry-in-the-camp A group of children make kites in a camp in Idlib, northern Syria. Source: Moawia Atrash

With the approval of the German-Belgian proposal last night, the Bab al-Hawa crossing point on Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey will be maintained for a year, until 10 July 2021.

This will allow badly needed humanitarian aid to continue flowing to several million Syrians living in the insurgent region of Idlib, which the Syrian regime does not control.

For weeks, Russia, Syria’s most important ally, has been demanding an end to the use of the Bab al-Salam border crossing, which leads to the Aleppo region in northern Syria.

“Russia controls this process,” said Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group think tank.

“The drama and vetoes of the last week were a distraction as ultimately Russia was always going to force a settlement on roughly the terms we see today,” he told AFP.

a-theatrical-show-for-displaced-children-at-a-destroyed-school A theatrical troupe performs for displaced children in a destroyed school inhabited by displaced Syrians in the city of Binnish, Idlib. Source: Moawia Atrash

UN authorization allows the international body to distribute aid to displaced Syrians without Damascus’s permission.

But Russia and China argue that the authorization violates Syria’s sovereignty, and that aid can increasingly be channeled through Syrian authorities.

Ireland will be joining the UN Security Council from 2021-2022 period after a successful bid for a place last month.

In a statement, Irish aid agency Concern Worldwide welcomed the news that the UN Security Council voted to continue allowing humanitarian aid into Syria for the next 12 months through a single border crossing point from Turkey.

However, Concern is very disappointed that some Security Council members succeeded in removing the second border crossing, crossing point into Syria, which served one million people with health supplies in May alone – not to mention the failure to re-authorize the Yaroubiya crossing into the Northeast.

“In northern Syria humanitarian actors continue to struggle to fill the gaps left by the Security Council’s decision to remove UN cross-border assistance from Iraq in January,” Concern’s Regional Director of the Middle East, Brid Kennedy said.

Although the ceasefire on 6 March 2020, brought a much-needed decrease in hostilities, millions of Syrians still depend on UN assistance for the most basic services such as food, shelter, water and medical care.

“This decision means that life-saving food, shelter, hygiene and medical services that aid workers can bring into Syria can continue, helping millions of people in dire need. The aid is especially needed now, as the Syrian pound crashes, the impact of conflict continues and fears of Covid-19 spreading grow,” Kennedy said.

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Since 2011, an estimated half a million lives have been lost and over 16 million people have been displaced by war in Syria. 

On the ground

The Idlib region, Syria’s last major opposition bastion, is home to some three million people, nearly half of whom have been displaced from other regions. 

In a crowded Idlib displacement camp, 45-year-old Nasr said life without aid would plunge into hunger many of those who had already lost their homes in Syria’s nine-year war. 

“We have abandoned our home, our land and our livelihoods. The aid they give us is all we have,” he said from inside his tent near the town of Maaret Misrin.

“If the assistance is scrapped, we will face famine.”

Susannah Sirkin, of Physicians for Human Rights, called the UN system “the most viable channel to deliver aid to millions of Syrians in need.”

But the German ambassador, Heiko Maas, said it was “good news for millions of Syrian men, women and children that the Security Council was ultimately able to agree on our compromise proposal.”

Apart from food insecurity, Idlib has recorded at least three cases of Covid-19 since Thursday, sparking fears of a health catastrophe if the pandemic hits overcrowded displacement camps.

The confirmed cases are all medical personnel working in hospitals near the Turkish border. 

“If medical assistance is not delivered to the camps, then we will be finished” said Nasr. “The coronavirus will get us.”

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