Russia’s Veto Threat: Risking Syrians Under Human Catastrophe

Aid workers claim that if Russia vetoes the resolution to renew the authorization of Bab al-Hawa, the consequences could be disastrous for Northwest Syria.

Russia’s veto threat over blocking the final Syrian humanitarian aid crossing can put millions of Syrians in the worst humanitarian crisis. The most affected by this will be the Northwestern city, Idlib.

Russia and China had earlier vetoed a resolution twice in the United Nations Security Council, which had proposed to renew delivery of aids from Turkey, Iran, and Jordan. Currently, the cross border crossings from Iran, Jordan, and Turkey have been completely closed, with only Bab al-Hawa Gate of the Turkish border being functional.

Image Source: The New Humanitarian

Syria’s reliance on humanitarian aid

A decade of conflict, economic crisis, accompanied by the recent COVID-19 pandemic, has led to an increase in demand for humanitarian assistance in Syria.

According to the statistics of the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, UN agencies directly provide the majority of all the aid, especially food aid, that reaches northwest Syria. While Syrian, Turkish, and international NGOs provide the rest half, along with various unrecognized groups that function under local authorities.

In the humanitarian response, the UN is really the largest actor,” said Basma Alloush, a policy and advocacy adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council. “It has the greatest capacity to program and reach the highest numbers of people. It brings in funding, which it then allocates to partners that are on the ground directly working with Syrian communities,” she added.

Officials claim that many NGOs depend on the UN to obtain supplies, organize, and manage their functions. 

UN money is also used to fund hospitals in the northwest, along with providing salaries for nurses and doctors in the region. Transportation of trucks of food into Idlib is also facilitated by the UN’s World Food Programme.

We already face shortages due to the growing humanitarian needs,” the president of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), Dr. Mufaddal Hamadeh, told The New Humanitarian.

“Imagine what would happen if 50 percent of the support disappeared overnight?”

Russia’s veto timeline

A UN resolution was prepared by Sweden and Kuwait to renew the authorization for cross-border and cross-line humanitarian access to Syria. During that time, Syria had been receiving aid through four border crossings, namely Al-Ramtha (Syria/Jordan border), Al-Yarubiyah (Syria/Iraq border), Bab al-Salam, and Bab al-Hawa (Syria/Turkey border).

In January 2020, the 15-member UN Security Council reauthorized only two border crossings (Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa) for six months, while closing Al-Ramtha and Al-Yarubiyah.

Following another Security Council meeting in July 2020, The resolution renewed the Bab al-Hawa border crossing until 10 July 2021. Twelve out of fifteen members voted in favor of the resolution, while three members-China, the Dominican Republic, and Russia abstained.  

In the previous two meetings, The security council voted in favor of extending the resolution. While Russia, accompanied by China, compelled the Council to allow only Bab al-Hawa gate to operate between Turkey and Idlib, leading to the closure of the previous three cross border crossings.

The previous cross-border mandate will expire on 10 July 2021. Although it is speculated that Russia might take undue advantage of its veto power again in the next meeting, and compel the Security Council to close the Bab al-Hawa crossing too.

The Russian demand

Russia being an ally to the Assad regime, demanded the UN to launch aid convoys from Syria’s capital, Damascus.

Unless we see any progress in this regard in a coming couple of months, it will be very difficult for us to be flexible on [cross-border renewal],” Russian First Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Dmitry Polyanskiy told reporters in March.

The UN’s cross-border relief operation has always been opposed by the Syrian government as a violation of its sovereignty, and hence demanding all aid to be facilitated through Damascus.

Meanwhile, the UN argues that the Assad government’s aversion to providing aid to opposition-controlled areas prompted it to launch cross-border humanitarian aid operations.

Pitfalls of the demand

The UN had initially tried to facilitate a trial aid convoy from Damascus to the insurgent-held city of Atareb, through the frontline crossing at Daret Azzah, near Aleppo, due to Russia’s compulsion. But it turned out to be a failure because disputes between the Syrian government and the rebel-led opposition prevented the convoy from moving. 

It has been proved by NGOs and UN reports that delays, interference, and restrictions are part and parcel of Damascus-led humanitarian aid. The UN and various NGOs also claim that medical supplies have been offloaded from UN convoys by security officials en route to rebel-held territories, or sometimes the convoys have lost goods along the way.

Excluding all the external factors, even if the Atareb convoy were to go ahead, critics claim that convoys from Damascus cannot match the consistency and size of the Turkey-based aid operation.

Anyone who says that all assistance can be delivered cross-line is not basing that statement on reality,” said Hamadeh of SAMS.

To date, there has not been one single item of humanitarian aid delivered to the [insurgent-held] northwest from Damascus – not one loaf of bread, not one band-aid, not one bottle of water,” he said. “How can anyone think that they will be able to ship 1.3 million food baskets each month? Or millions of dollars worth of medications?”

Closure of Al-Yarubiyah

Although Moscow had claimed at the Council Meeting in July 2020, that aid could be supplied to the northeast from Damascus, and then delivered across frontlines once within the country. 

But, It has been reported that the Assad government had previously prevented medical supplies from reaching the northeast, and is known to prohibit surgical and other medical supplies in rebel-controlled areas.  

Akjemal Magtymova, the World Health Organisation’s representative in Syria, assured that her organizations have seen improvement in providing aid to the northeast from Damascus, but she also mentioned that the NGOs working in the rebel-controlled areas may face a shortage of supplies.

Given the closure of Yaroubieh since January, we… have successfully transported medical supplies and equipment to the northeast over the past few months and hope to continue doing so”

Nonetheless”, she added, “other humanitarian actors which operate in northeastern Syria may not be able to meet the supplies level they used to have in the past, thus leaving gaps to meet the needs.”

Although UN agencies were able to facilitate cross-line deliveries of medical supplies to northeastern Syria from Damascus, the difficulty escalated for NGOs who claimed that they were unable to cope with massive shortages of medical equipment and essential medication.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has also proposed various difficulties for Northeast Syria after the closure of Al-Yaroubieh.

Access to vaccines is also hindered since people in the northeast can only receive Covid-19 vaccines under Syria’s National Vaccination Deployment Plan now, which states the authorities in Damascus and various sub-national committees are responsible for their distribution. This prevents the UN from distributing Covid-19 vaccines to non-government-held parts of Northeast Syria.

The possible impact of the veto

If the current lone border crossing were to close, NGOs in Northwest Syria will face greater atrocities since higher quantities of aid are currently being transported through Bab al-Hawa than it went through Yaroubieh. 

The Bab al-Hawa is also used to supply large amounts of food, water, sanitation, and other supplies as compared to Yaroubieh, which was majorly used to deliver medicines and hospital supplies.

The potential to scale up there remains to be seen, frankly,” a UN official involved with the issue said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. 

Aid workers claim that if Russia vetoes the resolution to renew the authorization of Bab al-Hawa, the consequences could be disastrous for Northwest Syria.

No preparations or provisions could replace what would be lost,” said the IRC’s Buswell. “People will die if UN cross-border aid comes to an end.”

Global response

Russia has received severe backlash from around the globe for misusing its veto power.

Belgium’s UN Ambassador Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve supported the resolution for the effective transfer of UN aid across the Syrian border.

 “The crossing from Iraq was used to deliver medical aid to 1.4 million people. Today there is no viable alternative to this crossing point,” he told the council before the vote.

Britain’s UN Ambassador Karen Pierce also expressed her concern over the issue.

Syrian people have seen many sad days since 2011, but this day is potentially one of the saddest because it is the first time that a Security Council member has chosen to play politics with humanitarian assistance,” Pierce told the council, she said.

Russia is playing dice with the lives of the Syrian people in the northeast,” she added.

The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield earlier on June 3, had announced that nearly $240 million in humanitarian funding will be provided by the United States to support the people of Syria, Syrian refugees, and countries hosting them. The US had also called to reopen international crossings to enable access to humanitarian aid.

I’m proud to announce the United States is providing nearly $240 million in additional humanitarian funding for the people of Syria and for the communities that host them,” Thomas-Greenfield said, according to a statement from her office.

The US has predominantly criticized Russia’s decision to block cross-border aid. US president Joe Biden also plans to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to expand the access of humanitarian aid in Syria, in the upcoming Geneva Summit on June 16.

Another Security Council Meeting is speculated to be held to discuss the renewal of the mandate for the authorization, which expires on July 10, 2021. A resolution to enable council approval requires nine votes in favor and no veto from any of the five permanent members Russia, China, the United States, France, and Britain. 

The council members are cynical over Russia’s approval as the country had vetoed 16 resolutions related to Syria which were also backed by China.

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