Threat to flow of aid to Syria is a ‘life-and-death’ issue

A worker unloads bags and boxes of humanitarian aid from the back of a truck in the opposition-held Idlib, Syria. (Reuters/File)
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  • A Security Council vote on renewing UN mandate for cross-border humanitarian assistance is due July 10; Irish envoy says millions depend on it to survive
  • Pressure is mounting on Russia to allow flow of aid to continue but Moscow believes it should all go through the regime in Damascus

NEW YORK: With just days to go before the UN mandate for cross-border humanitarian assistance to Syria expires, the spotlight is on Russia amid fears of a Security Council showdown between Moscow and the West.
“It’s life-and-death issues we’re dealing with here,” said Ireland’s permanent representative to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason, who together with Norwegian counterpart Mona Juul are co-penholders of the file on the humanitarian situation in Syria. The penholder role refers to the member of the council that leads the negotiation and drafting of resolutions on a particular issue.
Nason and Juul have drafted a resolution to extend the cross-border mandate. They want the one remaining aid corridor through Bab Al-Hawa on the border with Turkey to remain open, and in addition to reopen Al-Yarubiya crossing on the border with Iraq.
“We’ve made the evidence-based arguments for months, together,” Nason told reporters at the UN headquarters in New York, where the Security Council on Tuesday met to discuss the issue behind closed doors.
“We’ve talked to every single member of the council, individually and collectively, and we’re making good headway, I think, and we’re hoping to see successful renewal later this week.”
Juul acknowledged that the debate within the Security Council on the issue “will get even more intense” in the run-up to July 10, when members will decide whether to reauthorize UN access to Bab Al-Hawa.
Cross-border aid provides a critical lifeline for millions of Syrians in the northwest of the war-torn country, as part of a massive international humanitarian response.
Ramesh Rajasingham, the UN’s acting humanitarian chief said a failure to extend the mandate “would disrupt lifesaving aid to 3.4 million people in need across the northwest, millions of whom are among the most vulnerable in Syria.”
He added: “A cross-line operation would provide a vital addition to the cross-border lifeline but it could by no means replace it. Even if deployed regularly, cross-line convoys could not replicate the size and scope of the cross-border operations.”
Cross-line operations refer to internal shipments of aid from Damascus to rebel-held parts of the country, whereas cross-border aid is shipped direct to those areas by other nations.
The Security Council approved four border crossings when international aid deliveries to Syria began in 2014. In January 2020 Russia used its veto power to force the closure of all but one. Moscow argues that the international aid operation violates the Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, said that Syria has been “liberated” and so all aid destined for the north should go through the capital, Damascus.
But aid agencies have said that humanitarian assistance delivered to Damascus does not reach areas that oppose Bashar Assad’s regime, which is accused of withholding basic goods and services, including food and clean water, from millions of Syrians as a tool of war.
Nebenzia, however, blamed the deteriorating humanitarian situation on the West’s “illegal economic sanctions (and its) continuing attempt to oust the legal authorities of the country through economic suffocation.”
During a side event at the UN on Tuesday about humanitarian assistance to Syria, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the American ambassador to the organization, said: “There is no substitute for cross-border aid. We only have four days to ensure that this literal lifeline to women and children does not get shut down.
“And as a mother and as a grandmother, I cannot imagine what it would be like to be not able to provide food, healthcare and shelter to my own children and grandchildren.
“I also can’t imagine what it is like for us not to make that decision that we have to make. And that is what we have to do in the council over the next three-to-four days.”
Thomas-Greenfield implored member states and aid agencies to “engage council members, both in New York and in capitals, to urge them to vote for the renewal and to vote for the expansion.”
The US is the single largest humanitarian donor to Syria. Although the Biden administration has been cautious about articulating any clear goals for Syria, it has treated the humanitarian issue as non-negotiable.
Maintaining the flow of aid into Syria was one of the key requests President Joe Biden made during his meeting last month with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The imminent vote at the Security Council is therefore seen as a test of Biden’s efforts to ease tensions between Washington and Moscow, which are more strained than they have been for years.
Jomana Qaddour, a non-resident fellow at international affairs think tank the Atlantic Council, told Arab News that Washington is not approaching the humanitarian issue in Syria as a negotiation in which it will make “concessions in exchange for what the US believes is common sense.”
She added: “Of course, this is not how Putin perceives it. The Russians have used every step as a platform for concessions from the US and European allies, specifically as it relates to files that (Moscow) knows are a headache for the Biden administration, such as (international) sanctions (on the Syrian regime), normalization (of relations with Damascus), and reconstruction aid.
“These are really the top priorities for Russia, and it is going to use every opportunity to gain concessions from the US and Europe to achieve progress on those fronts.”
Nason and Juul remain focused on the aid issue.
“We understand it’s politically sensitive (but) we’re making a purely humanitarian case,” said Nason.
Juul added: “It’s hard to believe that we will not be able to continue this massive aid operation, which is probably the biggest in the world right now and the most scrutinized and organized of all operations.”
Qaddour laments the fact that the international view of the Syrian conflict seems to have been reduced to this narrow focus on the continued delivery of humanitarian aid while other crucial issues — such as the thousands of detainees and forcibly disappeared people, and the return of refugees — are being ignored.
“For all of us who have been working on Syria, it is incredibly frustrating to see all our energy every year spent on renewing what I think should be a no-brainer,” she said.
“I would love for that to be settled once and for all, so that we can actually focus on some of the root causes of the Syrian conflict that prevent the country and its people from living normal, stable and peaceful lives that provide them with some sense of justice, so that they can move on and rebuild.”