US challenges Russia with call to reopen Syria aid checkpoints

Syria’s ally Russia wants border checkpoints shuttered and aid to flow through Damascus

In a challenge to Russia, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken calls for aid checkpoints to reopen in Syria. AFP 
In a challenge to Russia, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken calls for aid checkpoints to reopen in Syria. AFP 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken challenged Russia on Monday by calling for the reopening of border checkpoints for moving food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies into war-ravaged Syria.

Addressing the UN Security Council, Mr Blinken called for more aid to reach the estimated 11 million Syrians who need handouts to survive more than a decade after anti-government protests spiralled into an all-out civil war.

The 15-member council first allowed cross-border aid operations into Syria in 2014 at several points. Last year, it reduced access to only the Bab Al Hawa crossing on the Turkey-Syria border due to opposition from Russia and China over reopening all four.

“The lives of people in Syria depend on getting urgent help. We have to do everything in our power to create ways for that aid to get to them, to open pathways not to close them,” Mr Blinken told the remote meeting.

“Members of this council have a job to do – reauthorise all three border crossings for humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people.”

Russian warplanes last week bombed Bab Al Hawa checkpoint, cutting off supplies to millions of Syrians in the country's north-west and forcing aid workers to reroute aid convoys across front lines within the turbulent country, said Mr Blinken.

“Stop taking part in or making excuses for attacks that close these pathways and stop targeting humanitarian aid workers and the Syrian civilians they're trying to help,” he added.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said about half of the food, medicine and other aid entering Syria passes through Bab Al Hawa crossing. He added that high rates of malnutrition demonstrated the need for more border crossings.

“The reason there’s so much malnutrition is that the cross-border operation is too small to prevent it,” Mr Lowcock told the council.

“More money and more border crossings would address that.”

Russia, which backs the government of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, has said cross-border humanitarian deliveries should cease and that all the country’s aid should transit via Damascus.

Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia has said there were “no compelling reasons” to keep UN border aid checkpoints open and that it was “vital” to “give a start to domestic Syrian deliveries of humanitarian assistance”.

The council is set to vote on cross-border aid operations again in July.

Over the past decade, the Security Council has been divided over Syria, with Syrian allies Russia and China pitted against Western members. Moscow has vetoed 16 council resolutions related to Syria and has been backed by Beijing in several votes.

Millions of people have left Syria and millions more have been internally displaced since a crackdown by the government on protesters in March 2011 led to a multi-front civil war that has dragged in Russia, Iran, Turkey, the US and others.

A two-day virtual donor meeting co-hosted by the UN and the European Union began on Monday aimed at raising $10 billion for aid needs in Syria and for the millions of Syrian refugees who have fled into nearby Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

Donors have wearied of trying to fix Syria’s seemingly endless crisis. The humanitarian appeal for 2020 was funded 45 per cent below its $3.82bn target — nearly a 14 per cent drop from the previous year.

“It has been ten years of despair and disaster for Syrians,” Mr Lowcock said in a statement.

“Now plummeting living conditions, economic decline and Covid-19 result in more hunger, malnutrition and disease. There is less fighting, but no peace dividend. More people need more help than at any point during the war, and children must return to learning.”

The coronavirus pandemic has compounded Syria’s already dire economic crisis. The local currency has crashed and food prices have soared by 222 per cent from last year, pushing millions of people into poverty.

A deal between Russia and Turkey has reduced the levels of fighting in Syria’s north-west, but the country’s humanitarian situation is worsening, with some 24 million Syrians at home and abroad needing aid – more than at any other time in the conflict.

“For refugees from Syria and their host communities in the region, the Covid-19 pandemic hit during a decade-long crisis – stretching them to breaking point,” UN development chief Achim Steiner said in a statement.

“Poverty and inequality are skyrocketing as hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs and livelihoods.”

Updated: April 1, 2021 12:40 PM

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