In war-torn Syria, Kremlin blocks reopening UN aid lifelines

A Syrian boy looks at Russian and US military vehicles in the northeastern Syrian town of al-Malikiyah at the border with Turkey, on June 3, 2020.Photo by AFPPopular
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When it rains in Syria, it pours at full blast.

As if at least 380,000 deaths of decade-long civil war, extreme poverty, and economic collapse were not enough, the ill-fated Middle Eastern nation is now facing impeded international aid amid COVID‑19 pandemic.

Again, what stands in the way of more United Nations convoys bringing in more medical supplies for suffering civilians is Russia, a top ally of dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Now, apart from never-ending fighting on the ground, a new battle unfolds in the United Nation’s diplomatic venues: Maintaining and reopening few UN humanitarian lifelines into Syria blocked by the Kremlin, which is interested in exhausting the last rebel-held strongholds into surrender.

For international organizations, it is vital that humanitarian corridors from Turkey and Iraq remain open for aid convoys that would save thousands of lives while the situation daily grows even more gruesome.

And approval awaits only the UN Security Council, meaning that Russia is expected to use its veto again as a weapon of war and kill the initiative.

Aid impeded

In 2019, the Kremlin supported by China scored one more victory over the toothless UN Security Council: It effectively terminated the use of two UN lifelines out of four leading into Syria from neighboring countries, namely Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan.

Russia blocked a UN resolution to renew humanitarian supplies in full swing — in the very heat of fighting for the last rebel-held stronghold of Idlib in northern Syria.

Only two gateways into the country’s north were allowed to stay open — the Bab-al-Hawa and Bab-al-Salam crossings on the Turkish border. Moreover, the corridors were mandated to stay operational for the next 6 months instead of 12 months, which had been the case since 2014. International monitors called this a major gain acquired by the Kremlin for the benefit of its Damascus ally.

On Jan. 10, the Security Council finally voted to authorize the limited supplies just hours before a midnight deadline.

“Once again, the UN Security Council is utterly failing the people in Syria,” as Amnesty International reacted to the UN’s surrender before the Russian pressure.

“But this time, the consequences will have an immediate and direct impact on the lives of millions of civilians already struggling for survival, and in particular in Idlib, where the civilian population is reeling under the Syrian government’s fiercest yet round of military escalation.”

A Russian soldier speaks on a two-way radio along the M4 highway by the town of Tal Tamr on May 25, 2020. (AFP)

The organization added the Russian-Syrian government forces, with their “surrender or starve” tactics continued impeding all humanitarian action in rebel-held areas, particularly in Idlib.

According to the UN, the Russian-driven January 2020 closure of the al-Yarubiya crossing from northern Iraq decreased medical supplies to neighboring Syria by nearly 40%.

By June, according to the International Rescue Committee, at least 13 healthcare facilities in the country’s northeast were “at imminent risk of closure or severe disruption to services, shipments of essential pharmaceuticals,” with “other aid deliveries have been cut and millions in dollars of funding for programs has been lost.”

Next attempt

Meanwhile, a new deadline for the Turkish gateways, which is due on July 10, is getting closer.

So Germany and Belgium on June 17 filed yet another draft resolution to the UN Security Council in a bid to extend the mandate of Turkish points of entry by at least one more year, and, furthermore, to reopen the al-Yarubiya point into Iraq, for at least 6 months.

The document notes that at least 11 million Syrians need assistance, especially when it comes to the COVID‑19 spread in the country, the medical infrastructure of which lies in ruins and effectively invalid.

Official Damascus as of June 25 reported only 242 confirmed COVID‑19 cases and 7 death, although few consider these figures credible, given the extremely low pace of testing in the country and its questionable ability to provide the sick with medical care and isolation.

According to Human Rights Watch, an international non-government organization, at least 2 million people in Syria’s northeast fell short of medical supplies amid the COVID‑19 spread due to restrictions on aid.

“The UN Security Council — including Russia — needs to act quickly to reauthorize medical aid deliveries from Iran to Syria’s northeast to prevent further spread of COVID‑19 that could devastate the region,” the organization’s director Louis Charbonneau was reported as asserting on June 19, adding that Russia had failed to compensate the gap in humanitarian supplies caused by the al-Yarubiyah closure.

“Failure to renew cross-border aid will cause unnecessary suffering and deaths, and COVID‑19 could spread like wildfire, the official said.

“Surely Russia can’t want that.”

Chances unlikely

Moreover, the situation grows darker beyond the UN relief effort.

As Syria plunges into a deep catastrophe amid economic downfall and dire lack of food and basic necessities, few international non-governmental organizations are quickly running out of resources to be sent to Syria, according to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

In its June 25 statement, the UN head called upon Russia and the Syrian regime to unblock all available cross-border aid corridors and also to join the international community in sending all possible humanitarian aid to besieged Idlib, where at least 3 million civilians (with 76 percent being women and children) suffer from diseases and the lack of basic necessities.

The situation in the government-controlled parts of Syria isn’t much better.

According to the UN, at least 80 percent of the country’s 17-million population survive below the poverty line, while over 11.1 million require humanitarian aid, including 4.5 million depending on basic nutrition assistance from the UN’s World Food Program.

“The cross-border operation is a lifeline for millions of civilians whom the United Nations cannot reach by other means,” as the Guterres wrote in his statement regarding the upcoming resolution.

Even Turkey, the Kremlin’s situational partner in Syria occasionally turning into its major rival and contrariwise, spoke out in support of more UN lifelines into Syria.

Since the last year, Ankara has been advocating opening the fifth humanitarian gate at the Syrian borderline town of Tal Abyad — but this proposal is strongly opposed by Russia, which insists on “protecting the sovereignty of Syria.”

As international monitors note, whether the Kremlin is going to give the green light to a new UN resolution on more humanitarian lifelines in the nearest days remains an open question.

However, all the public statements made by the Russian mission to the UN Security Council offer very little reasons for optimism.

“Do not waste your time on efforts to reopen the closed cross-border points,” as Russia’s UN Ambassador Vasiliy Nebenzia asserted in May in response to a U.S. initiative to reauthorize humanitarian traffic from Iraq. 


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