UN chief: Syrians face dire winter if aid from Turkey is cut

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. chief warned in a new report that the already dire humanitarian situation in Syria is worsening and if aid deliveries from Turkey to the rebel-held northwest aren’t renewed next month millions of Syrians may not survive the winter.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in the report to the U.N. Security Council obtained Monday by The Associated Press that cross-border aid to the northwest remains “an indispensable part” of humanitarian operations to reach all people in need.

Deliveries across conflict lines within the country, which Syria’s close ally Russia has pressed for, have increased but Guterres said they cannot substitute for “the size or scope of the massive cross-border United Nations operation.”

Russia has also pushed for early recovery projects in Syria and Guterres said at least 374 have taken place throughout the country since January, directly benefitting over 665,000 people, but he said “further expansion” is needed.

The council asked for a report from the secretary-general on Syria’s humanitarian needs in the July resolution that extended the delivery of food, medicine and other desperately need aid through the Bab al-Hawa crossing from Turkey to northwest Idlib for six months until Jan. 10.

Russia has sought to reduce cross-border aid, with the aim of eliminating it.

In July 2020, China and Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution that would have maintained two border crossing points from Turkey for humanitarian aid to northwest Idlib. Days later, the delivery of aid was reduced to just the Bab al-Hawa crossing for a year as they demanded.

In July 2021, Russia pressed for a further reduction, finally agreeing to a six-month extension with another six-months contingent on a report from the secretary-general on progress in cross-line deliveries. But in July this year, Russia insisted on U.N. authorization for just six months.

Strongly appealing for Bab al-Hawa to remain open for U.N. assistance, Guterres warned that “a halt to cross-border deliveries in the midst of winter months would risk leaving millions of Syrians without the aid needed to endure harsh weather conditions.”

He said cross-border aid “remains a lifeline for millions of people” and Security Council renewal of the resolution authorizing continued deliveries is not only “critical” but “a moral and humanitarian imperative.”

According to his report, 7.5 million people live in areas not under Syrian government control, mainly across the north with a small number in Rukban in the southeast, and 6.8 million of them need humanitarian assistance due to hostilities and widespread displacement.

More broadly, Guterres said, “after 11 years of conflict, the country still has the largest number of internally displaced people in the world, drives one of the world’s largest refugee crises, and the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate.” The already dire situation is compounded by cholera spreading across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic, a worsening economy and climate and other human-caused shocks, he said.

“As a result of these challenges, in 2023, 15.3 million people, out of a total population of 22.1 million, are estimated to require humanitarian assistance, compared to 14.6 million people in 2022,” the secretary-general said. “This is the highest level of people in need since the start of the conflict” in 2011.

Data on humanitarian needs collected by the U.N. and its partners from over 34,000 households in July and August found that 85% of households were completely unable or insufficiently able to meet their basic needs, an increase from 75% in 2021, according to the report.

The report also cited a 48% increase in severe acute malnutrition among children aged 6 months to 5 years in 2022 compared to 2021. At least 25% of children under the age of five in some districts are stunted and at risk of irreversible damage to their physical and cognitive development as well as “repeated infection, developmental delay, disabilities and death,” it said.

Secretary-General Guterres said winter weather is expected to worsen the situation for millions of Syrians, and among the most vulnerable are those in the northwest who rely on cross-border aid deliveries and face declining humanitarian conditions due to ongoing hostilities and “a deepening economic crisis.”

“Today, in the northwest, 4.1 million people, 80% of them women and children, out of a population of 4.6 million, are estimated to need humanitarian assistance to meet their most basic needs,” he said.

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