UN approves reduced aid to Syria under Russian pressure

Amnesty International say the cross-border humanitarian deliveries are a ‘lifeline’ for millions in northern Syria

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft (C) waits for the start of a meeting on the Middle East at the United Nations Security Council at the United Nations in New York January 10, 2019. / AFP / TIMOTHY A. CLARY

The UN Security Council approved a resolution on Friday limiting the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria to just two crossing points from Turkey to the mainly rebel-held north-west.

The assistance is being prolonged for six months, in line with Russian demands, but the new arrangements could threaten aid delivered via Iraq to more than a million people in the north-east.

The aid had until now been extended yearly and deliveries were made from four points along Syria’s borders.

But after a series of concessions by Western countries since late December, the resolution was passed by 11 votes in favour and four abstentions: Russia, China, the United States and the United Kingdom.

The divided 15-member council was facing the imminent expiration of its mandate to deliver aid across borders, and the possibility of a halt to all cross-border aid.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Friday that four million Syrians are being supported by cross-border operations, 2.7 million of them in the north-west and another 1.3 million in the north-east.

Ahead of the vote, diplomatic sources said final discussions indicated that Germany and Belgium - which had been pushing for three crossing points to be kept open for a year - appeared likely to bow to Russian demands to maintain only two crossings and for a period of just six months.

The plan for three crossings - two from Turkey, one from Iraq - to stay open for a year was shot down by Russia and China in December, who used their veto powers as permanent members of the Security Council.

Russia, a key backer of the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al Assad, instead tabled its own proposal with only two entry points on the Turkish border and with an extension of just six months. But that proposal failed to get the minimum nine votes at the time.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the Russian and Chinese veto as "shameful" and told Moscow and Beijing "you have blood on your hands".

As part of the negotiation process, on Thursday Germany and Belgium offered a compromise to Russia, which insists that no measures should be implemented without President Assad's agreement.

They suggested a six-month extension, until July 10, but with three points of entry. But Russia re-issued its own proposal stating that it wanted two crossing points and an extension of six months.

One western diplomat said Russia wanted to force recognition that Damascus had largely retaken control of territory inside Syria a year ago, admitting that Moscow was in a "strong position" in the face-off.

Russia sees the international authorisation of cross-border aid shipments as a "breach of sovereignty," the diplomat said.

Amnesty International said in a statement on Friday that the aid shipments were vital to people living in the northern region of Idlib, close to the Turkish border, which has been subjected to renewed fighting and bombardments recently.

"Cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid has offered a lifeline for millions of civilians in northern Syria, who for years have suffered as a result of severely limited access to basic services such as clean water and vital health care," said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty's Middle East research director.