UN fails to extend aid deliveries to Syrian rebel-held area

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council failed in two rival votes Friday to extend humanitarian aid deliveries from Turkey to 4.1 million Syrians in the rebel-held northwest, with the U.S. ambassador warning that “people will die because of this vote.”

After days of consultations, the U.N.’s most powerful body remained divided over the key issue of the length of an extension.

Almost all council members favored a year-long extension, which the U.N. secretary-general and more than 30 non-governmental organization insist is the minimum time frame needed, but Russia demanded a six-month renewal, with a new resolution required for another six months.

The failure of the U.N.’s most powerful body to agree on an extension came two days before Sunday’s expiration of the council’s current one-year mandate for deliveries through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey to northwest Idlib.

Many ambassadors, including those from Ireland, Norway, the United States, France and China, said after the two votes that they will continue trying to get an agreement among the 15 council members so that aid is not stopped.

Soon after the two votes and speeches, council members went into closed consultations and discussions were expected to continue over the weekend.

Russia’s deputy ambassador Dmitry Polyansky told reporters there was “99% agreement” on a resolution and Russia wouldn’t support a nine-month extension, suggested by Brazil and the United Arab Emirates.

Unless council members decide to go with the Russian six-month proposal, Polyansky said, he sees no possibility for an agreement. Asked whether that meant that Russia would veto any proposed resolution that didn’t follow its draft with a six-month timeline, he replied “Obviously.”

The first vote was on the resolution for a one-year extension drafted by Norway and Ireland. It was supported by 13 countries, with China abstaining and Russia using its veto to defeat the measure.

Council members then voted on the rival Russian resolution for a six-month extension. The vote was just 2 countries in favor, 3 against and 10 abstentions.

China was the only country to join its ally Russia in supporting the resolution while the three other veto-wielding permanent council members — the United States, Britain and France — voted against it. But their vetoes were not needed because the resolution failed to get the minimum nine “yes” votes required for approval.

Calling it “a dark, dark day in the Security Council,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told members after the vote that the impact on Syrians in the northwest will be “swift and dire.”

“I have long said this is a life-and-death issue,” she said, blaming Russia’s veto for the deaths that are likely to come.

Thomas-Greenfield, who visited Bab al-Hawa in June, said aid workers told her that a six-month renewal would be “a disaster” for their supply lines and “would mean lifesaving assistance would shut off in the dead of winter when needs are at their highest, which would be a nightmare scenario for a region where millions of people are still displaced.”

International aid groups urged the Security Council to reach an agreement before the July 10 deadline warning that the Russian veto will harm millions of people in urgent need of assistance.

International Rescue Committee President David Miliband said there is currently no viable alternative to cross-border assistance, which means “this already extreme crisis is set to move to a humanitarian catastrophe.”

Tamer Kirolos, Syria Response Director at Save the Children, warned that failing to reauthorize the Bab al-Hawa crossing “risks the lives of hundreds of thousands of children” in camps who won’t know where their next meal is coming from.

Mercy Corps’ CEO Tjada D’Oyen McKenna said people in northwest Syria are witnessing one of the most dire periods of the 11-year conflict, pointing also to worsening drought, economic crisis, and the war in Ukraine’s impact on food and fuel prices. Stopping aid from Turkey means the future of the 4 million people in the northwest who relied on those deliveries to provide food and other necessities for their families “is now even more uncertain,” she said.

Syrian military analyst Ahmad Rahhal, a former brigadier general who defected during the conflict and joined the opposition, tweeted that “Russia’s crimes” are not only through its military and support of President Bashar Assad’s government but now “have reached the level of depriving children, women and elderly in north Syria or food.”

Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador, vowed to honor her promise to aid workers and refugees that “I would do everything in my power to renew this resolution.”

In case the Security Council doesn’t act, Thomas-Greenfield said aid groups told her they had pre-positioned about three months of supplies, and hopefully more supplies by now.

She stressed that if a U.N. resolution isn’t adopted and U.N. monitoring of aid deliveries ends, “the border is not closing,” and “we will continue to work with the humanitarian community to find ways to continue to provide humanitarian assistance directly to the Syrian people.”

The U.N. said last week 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. 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.

Russia, a close ally of Syria’s government, 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.

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 U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. This was effectively a year-long mandate because a second resolution wasn’t needed.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric called cross-border aid critical for men, women and children in the northwest and stressed the importance of long-term planning, including to costs.

“In 2021, we had 800 trucks of cross-border aid go through each month, consistently reaching about 2.4 million people,” he told reporters Thursday. He said 4,648 trucks crossed in the first six months of this year.

The U.N. also carried out five deliveries across conflict lines last year and so far this year with about 2,529 metric tons of assistance including foods and health supplies, he said.

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Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut

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