Russia agrees to keep vital Syria aid corridor open for another six months

More than four million people depend on aid passing through the Bab Al Hawa border crossing

Syrian Muslim pilgrims arrive at the Bab Al Hawa border crossing with Turkey on June 22 as they head to Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj pilgrimage. AFP
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Millions of displaced Syrians facing worsening hunger and a lack of medicine in the north of the country saw a brief chance of respite on Thursday, as Russia agreed to keep open a humanitarian aid corridor on the Turkish border.

Syria and Russia had opposed the vital transit of cross-border aid going through the Bab Al Hawa crossing into areas held by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and allied Turkish soldiers, saying the arrangement violated the country’s sovereignty.

But aid agencies had been pressing Damascus and Moscow to extend the aid corridor’s opening for a year. Thirty international aid agencies, members of the UN Security Council and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had been pressing for a longer extension, repeatedly saying that 4.1 million people would face a spike in preventable deaths.

Aid to the displaced people not only includes food, but also water supplies, life-saving medicines and fuel for heating.

“If the medical supply stops, people risk losing access to healthcare. If this lifeline is cut off, people’s access to basic food, water and healthcare will be drastically reduced,” Claire San Filippo, the head of Medicins Sans Frontieres in Syria said.

Russia proposed amendments to a draft resolution by Ireland and Norway reducing their year-long time frame for deliveries. Council diplomats said consultations were continuing late on Wednesday to see if a compromise could be reached.

The Security Council scheduled a vote for Thursday morning. If no compromise appeared, the draft resolution by Ireland and Norway to extend cross-border deliveries for 12 months would be voted on first. If it failed to get nine votes, or was vetoed by Russia, the Russian resolution with a six-month extension would then be put to a vote.

In early July 2020, China and Russia vetoed a UN resolution that would have maintained two border crossing points from Turkey to deliver humanitarian aid to Idlib. Days later, the council authorised the delivery of aid through just one of those crossings, Bab Al Hawa. That one-year mandate was extended for a year on July 9, 2021, and expires on Sunday.

The Russian proposal called for increased efforts to ensure “full, safe and unhindered” deliveries of humanitarian assistance across conflict lines within Syria, according to the Russian draft obtained on Wednesday by The Associated Press.

It also would authorise the establishment of “a special working group” comprising concerned council members, major donors, interested regional parties and representatives of international humanitarian agencies “in order to regularly review and follow-up on the implementation of this resolution”.

Neither of those proposals were in the Ireland-Norway draft resolution.

North-west Idlib is the last rebel-held bastion in Syria and Al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al Sham is the strongest insurgent group in the region. The UN said last week that the first 10 years of the Syrian conflict, which started in 2011, killed more than 300,000 civilians — the highest official estimate of civilian casualties.

In a letter to Security Council ambassadors obtained on Wednesday by AP, former International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo said that by approving cross-border deliveries to north-west Syria, council members “could find themselves materially supporting a UN-designated terrorist organisation”.

He said north-west Syria “is controlled by Al Nusra, a UN designated terrorist organisation affiliated with Al Qaida and currently called Hayat Tahrir Al Sham".

Any support to a "terrorist organisation, including humanitarian assistance," is prohibited by previous UN Security Council resolutions, Mr Moreno Ocampo said.

To avoid a “flagrant violation" of its resolutions, he said the Security Council should have the operation monitoring cross-border deliveries confirm that Al Qaeda-linked groups “are not involved in implementing humanitarian aid" or remove Al Nusra-Hayat Tahrir Al Sham from the “terrorist” list.

Updated: July 07, 2022, 4:50 AM