UN reauthorises Syria aid route amid US-Russia rift

Ultimate deal fell short of expansion of aid operations sought by US and others

Relief aid leaves the UNHCR warehouse in Dubai Humanitarian City en route to Syria. Razan Alzayani / The National
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The UN Security Council on Friday extended the mandate for aid deliveries into north-western Syria from Turkey following disagreements between Russia, the US and others over the scope of the humanitarian operation.

The 15-nation body voted unanimously for a resolution allowing the Bab Al Hawa crossing to remain open until January 10, 2022, while allowing for another six-month extension subject to a report from UN officials.

The deal fell far short of what the US and others had sought — a straightforward one-year extension of the mandate for Bab Al Hawa and the reopening of other routes that were shuttered last year.

The disagreement was seen as a test for US-Russia cooperation after the summit between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on June 16 in Geneva, during which the leaders discussed Syria’s humanitarian crisis.

The White House said that Mr Biden had spoken with Mr Putin on Friday.

"The leaders commended the joint work of their respective teams following the US-Russia summit that led to the unanimous renewal of cross-border humanitarian assistance to Syria today in the UN Security Council," the White House statement read.

Russia, a veto-wielding member of the council and an ally of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, wanted aid to transit via Damascus and not from Turkey on the grounds that the operation violates Syrian sovereignty and helps Syrian rebel groups.

Under the terms of the resolution, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres must report back to the council about aid “transparency” and “progress on cross-line” routes from government-held into rebel-held areas.

The north-western Idlib region, accessible via Bab Al Hawa, is the last remaining rebel stronghold against the government of Mr Al Assad, who has largely regained control of Syria after a decade of civil war that has left the country in ruins.

An earlier version of the resolution, drafted by Ireland and Norway, proposed two crossings.

Washington’s ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, pushed hard for long-shuttered checkpoints to be reopened, even visiting the Turkey-Syria border to spotlight the plight of needy civilians.

Families reunite after Turkey-Syria border crossing reopens

Families reunite after Turkey-Syria border crossing reopens

But ultimately, Russia’s veto power and the looming threat of Bab Al Hawa shuttering and aid supplies drying up after Saturday, when the previous mandate expires, nudged the US and others into a compromise.

Louis Charbonneau, a UN expert for the campaign group Human Rights Watch, said Russia had once again “successfully blackmailed” the council into limiting aid flows into Syria.

Mr Charbonneau said Russia's actions showed its “cynical lack of concern for the lives of millions of Syrians dependent on humanitarian aid".

“While it’s good that some UN cross-border aid will continue to flow into the north-west, many people in the north-east will be denied aid.”

The UN council first authorised cross-border aid operations into Syria in 2014 at four points — Bab Al Hawa between Turkey and Syria’s Idlib region, Bab Al Salam between Turkey and northern Syria, Al Ramtha near the Jordanian border and Al Yaroubia on the north-east frontier with Iraq.

Last year, the council cut that access back to only Bab Al Hawa due to opposition from Russia and China, with Russia saying that Western countries have politicised the issue.

Still, Kerem Kinik, chairman of the Turkish Red Crescent, says the UN and aid agencies can find workarounds to bringing aid into Syria even after a UN Security Council mandate lapses.

Mr Kinik told Reuters that there was a legal basis to continue delivering aid into Syria and contingency plans were ready.

“If a United Nations agency … signs an agreement in Turkey on delivering cross-border aid with a partner — or even with Kizilay [Turkish Red Crescent] for example — this would mean a different mechanism type is in effect,” said Mr Kinik.

Updated: July 09, 2021, 5:02 PM