TANZANIA – The U.N. Security Council approved a resolution Tuesday extending humanitarian aid deliveries to 4.1 million people in Syria’s rebel-held northwest for just six months in a victory for Russia.
The vote was 12-0 with the United States, Britain and France abstaining. The three veto-wielding council members had backed a resolution for a year-long extension that was supported by almost the entire 15-member council but vetoed by Russia last Friday.
Ireland and Norway, which sponsored the vetoed resolution, circulated a new draft Monday that provides for a six-month extension of deliveries through Turkey's Bab al-Hawa crossing until Jan. 10. As Russia demanded, a further six-month extension after that would require a new Security Council resolution.
Ireland’s U.N. ambassador, Geraldine Byrne Nason, said before the vote that after difficult negotiations the two countries redoubled efforts to find a way to allow aid “to continue to reach those in dire need in Syria.”
Kenyan Ambassador Martin Kimani, speaking on behalf of the council’s 10 elected members who serve two-year terms, said they wanted a year-long extension but supported six months “to put foremost the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people.”
The resolution adopted Tuesday is almost identical to the Russian draft for a 6-month resolution that failed to get council support last Friday. Russia only got support from its ally China in the 2-3 vote with 10 abstentions.
Russia, a close ally of Syria’s government, remained adamant that it would only support a six-month extension. It has repeatedly called for stepped up humanitarian aid deliveries to the northwest from within Syria, across conflict lines. This would give Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government more control.
U.S. deputy ambassador Richard Mills lashed out at Russia, saying: “The vote we took this morning is what happens when one council member takes the entire security council hostage, with the lives of Syrian men, women and children hanging in the balance.”
With the humanitarian needs in Syria today “greater than they have ever been,” he said Russia chose to ignore calls by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, U.N. agencies and over 30 non-governmental organizations for a yearlong renewal of cross-border deliveries.
He accused Assad’s regime “of corruption, of stealing aid and denying it to communities in need,” saying this is why the cross-border aid deliveries exist. He said Russia knows that some of the dire needs in Syria are “a direct result” of its invasion of Ukraine and the shocks to food and fertilizer deliveries around the world.
“And the simple truth is, Russia does not care,” Mills said.
Russia’s deputy ambassador Dmitry Polyansky said after the vote that it was time for Washington, London and Paris “to get used to respecting the interests of other states first and foremost … who are impacted directly by the Security Council decisions.”
Guterres called the renewal of cross-border aid “a matter of life and death” for many people in Idlib, adding: “I strongly hope that after six months it will be renewed.”
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said the U.N. cross-border operation is vital for providing assistance to millions of people in Syria’s northwest and continuing it is essential to respond “to the humanitarian crisis in Syria as well as regional stability.”
Humanitarian and human rights organizations said a six-month extension is not enough.
Dr. Houssam al-Nahhas, a researcher with Physicians for Human Rights and a former emergency room doctor in eastern Aleppo, said the compromise leaves humanitarian workers with little time to plan their missions in Syria.
“It’s gravely imprudent to have to revisit this debate again so soon, in January, when humanitarian needs are likely to increase in response to harsh winter conditions in the north, he said, saying “more permanent, long-term solutions are critical.”
The new draft calls for secretary-general Guterres to provide a report on humanitarian needs in Syria by Dec. 10 to assess the impact of a possible border closing in January if the resolution isn’t renewed.
The draft also calls for Guterres to brief the council monthly and issue reports at least every 60 days on the progress of cross-line deliveries, humanitarian assistance delivered from Turkey, and “early recovery projects” in Syria that Russia has pushed for.
Polyansky said Russia will be monitoring progress on implementing the resolution “so as to decide on the ultimate fate of the cross-border mechanism” in six months. He also called for increased aid deliveries across conflict lines.
Northwest Idlib is the last rebel-held bastion in Syria and a region where an al-Qaida-linked militant group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, is the strongest. The U.N. said recently that the first 10 years of the Syrian conflict, which started in 2011, killed more than 300,000 civilians, the highest official estimate of civilian casualties.
In early July 2020, China and Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution that would have maintained two border crossing points from Turkey for humanitarian aid to Idlib. Days later, the council authorized the delivery of aid through just one of those crossings, Bab al-Hawa.
In a compromise with Russia, that one-year mandate was extended on July 9, 2021, for six months, with an additional six months subject to a “substantive report” from Guterres. This was effectively a year-long mandate because a second resolution wasn’t needed.
Before last week’s votes, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said 800 trucks went through the Bab al-Hawa crossing every month last year, reaching about 2.4 million people, and 4,648 trucks crossed in the first six months of this year.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Turkey contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that Dr. Houssam al-Nahhas is with the group Physicians for Human Rights.