UN risks 'humanitarian catastrophe' with cross-border aid decision

Under Russian and Chinese pressure, the number of authorised entry points for relief operations has been halved

Turkish border guards fire tear gas canisters to disperse a crowd of Syrians from the country's northern countryside gathering for a demonstration by the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Turkey and Syria's northwestern Idlib province on August 30, 2019, calling for Turkey to provide protection or safe passage into Turkish territory.   / AFP / Aaref WATAD
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The UN Security Council on Friday voted to renew a cross-border aid operation into Syria. But the number of crossings the UN can use was halved, to two points on the Turkish border with the rebel-held northwest.

The authorisation period was also shortened to six months, meaning the UN must again seek permission to use them in six months’ time.

UN staff technically require permission to deliver aid to Syria from neighbouring countries. It had previously been granted annually.

But in the latest round of Security Council votes on the matter, Russia and China vetoed the mandate for two of the four crossings – one from Jordan into eastern Syria and another from Iraq to the north-east.

Only the two crossings from Turkey into north-western Idlib province will remain open.

Syria’s north-west and north-east are in the midst of humanitarian crises caused by mass displacement from years of fighting. It is unclear whether the UN mandate will be extended once again when the six-month authorisation period ends.

“Syrians will suffer needlessly as a result of this resolution,” Kelly Craft, the US ambassador to the UN, told reporters after the vote on Friday night. “Syrians will die as a result of this resolution.”

With the reduced mandate for cross-border aid, the UN Security Council is “utterly failing the people in Syria,” Amnesty International wrote in a scathing statement.

The UN vote comes in the midst of an already devastating humanitarian crisis in northern Syria.

More than 1,000 people, including women and children, have already been killed since Syrian forces launched a bombing campaign in Idlib last April with the backing of Russian air power.

The air strikes and artillery fire have largely honed in on civilian targets. Hospitals, crowded local markets and even school buildings have all come under intense fire.

Dozens of medical facilities have been bombed out of service, some rendered piles of rubble, the Syrian American Medical Society reported.

About 300,000 people, many of them from Idlib’s southernmost countryside near the front line between government and rebel forces, have been displaced by the latest round of bombing, the UN said.

They now live in rented homes, makeshift displacement camps with few services or simply shelter outside in the cold, with blankets or waterproof canvas protecting them from frigid rain.

Idlib province is the last major pocket of rebel-controlled territory after years of military advances by pro-government forces.

In past years, areas were retaken by the government in surrender and evacuation deals, with hundreds of thousands of residents choosing to be transported to Idlib rather than stay behind in what would become government-held territory.

Today about three million people live in Idlib, crammed into poorly served camps and scattered across the bombed-out countryside. Many of them are displaced people from Aleppo, the Damascus suburbs and elsewhere.

They depend on cross-border aid operations coming in from Turkey for medical care and other basic support.

UN assistance, now in question following last week’s vote, only constitutes “a minority of the aid going into Syria, with most humanitarian needs taken care of by NGOs, government-backed NGOs like the Turkish Red Crescent, and by private traders,” said Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation. “Many of these non-UN actors, including large western NGOs, would probably be reluctant to continue operating cross border without UN cover, especially in an area like Idlib.”

But for Syrians in the besieged province already suffering in dire conditions, there is little sense that Friday’s vote would have any immediate impact.

The director of one informal camp the Turkish border in northern Idlib told The National by phone that the UN vote would make no difference to the more than 200 families living under his care.

“Not a single aid package has reached our camp in the past six months,” Hussein Al Hamadi said. “Not a single basket.”

He shared photos of winter flooding in the camp, tents sinking into the mud due to rain.

“If things continue as they are, it’s a humanitarian catastrophe.”