UN extends critical aid from Turkey to Syria’s rebel north

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Monday to keep a key border crossing from Turkey to Syria’s rebel-held northwest open for critical aid deliveries for another six months. Syria’s ally Russia — in a surprise move — supported the resolution.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said after the vote that cross-border aid remains “an indispensable lifeline for 4.1 million people in northwest Syria.”

The vote, the U.N. chief stressed, “comes as humanitarian needs have reached the highest levels since the start of the conflict in 2011, with people in Syria grappling with a harsh winter,” according to his spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

All eyes had been on Russia, which in the past abstained or vetoed resolutions on cross-border aid deliveries. It has sought to replace aid crossing the Turkish border to northwestern Idlib province with convoys from government-held areas in Syria. Since the early years of the war, Turkey has sided with and supported Syria’s rebels.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said supporting the resolution was “difficult,” describing the northwest as an enclave “inundated with terrorists.” The vote, he said, is not a change in Moscow’s “principled position” that cross-border aid deliveries — which began in 2014 — are temporary and should be replaced by Syrian government-controlled deliveries.

Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh criticized Western countries for “politicizing humanitarian work,” and said Western sanctions “have aggravated the suffering of the Syrians.” He claimed the government has been “working relentlessly” to provide basic services to Syrians.

Last month, Guterres warned in a report to the council that Syria’s already dire humanitarian situation is worsening. If the aid deliveries from Turkey to Idlib weren’t renewed, millions of Syrians might not survive the winter, he warned.

Deliveries across conflict lines within the country cannot substitute for “the size or scope of the massive cross-border United Nations operation,” Guterres said. On Sunday, a convoy of 18 trucks entered the area of Idlib through front lines held by Syrian government forces.

The resolution put the Security Council on record as “determining that the devastating humanitarian situation in Syria continues to constitute a threat to peace and security in the region.”

Guterres said humanitarian access across Syria — both through cross-border operations and deliveries across front lines — must be expanded. He urged Security Council members and others “to continue supporting humanitarian partners’ efforts to deliver assistance to those who need it throughout Syria,” Dujarric said.

The Security Council initially authorized aid deliveries in 2014 from Turkey, Iraq and Jordan through four crossing points into opposition-held areas in Syria. But over the years, Russia backed by its ally China, has reduced the authorized crossings to just one from Turkey — and the time frame from a year to six months.

Many of the people sheltering in the northwestern Idlib area have been internally displaced by the nearly 12-year conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.

The resolution, co-sponsored by Brazil and Switzerland, will allow for aid deliveries through the Bab al-Hawa crossing from Turkey for the next six months, until July 10.

Speaking on behalf of the Security Council’s 10 elected members, Ecuador’s U.N. Ambassador Hernan Perez Loose said the resolution will address “the dire and urgent needs of the Syrian people,” but he reiterated the need for “more certainty and predictability for humanitarian organizations.”

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield stressed that an extension of only six months — while allowing the “Syrian people to breathe a sigh of relief” — makes it “harder and more costly for aid workers to procure, hire and plan” assistance. It also hinders so-called recovery projects, or restoration of critical functions that helps communities bounce back — a key Russian demand.

“A 12-month extension is needed for the U.N., and it is needed for our humanitarian partners and for recipients,” she said, a view echoed by Britain, France and other council members.

David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, expressed relief at the cross-border aid renewal guaranteeing assistance over the winter, but stressed that the six-month extension “will once again be short-lived” and that deliveries from Turkey will still be needed in July.

Russia’s Nebenzia warned, however, that there will be “no discussion about a mechanical extension of the cross-border extension” unless Western members of the council “fundamentally change” their views on providing aid to Syria.

He accused the West of not being concerned about the needs of ordinary Syrians and inflating “the myth” that cross-border deliveries can’t be supplanted by convoys across front lines. He also sharply criticized the West, saying Idlib receives half the funds for early recovery projects while the majority of Syrians live elsewhere.

In addition to pushing for more deliveries across front lines, Russia has also pushed for early recovery projects in Syria. Guterres said in the December report that at least 374 early recovery projects have taken place throughout the country since January 2021, directly benefiting over 665,000 people, but he said more is needed.

The resolution also calls on all U.N. member states to respond to Syria’s “complex humanitarian emergency” and meet the urgent needs of the Syrian people “in light of the profound socioeconomics and humanitarian impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In Syria, an Idlib-based doctor welcomed Monday’s vote.

“The decision to extend aid through the border is the only real lifeline for Syria’s north, especially for the medical sector,” said Safwat Sheikhouni.

Had the resolution not been extended, it would have been a “catastrophe” for local residents because it would have led to the closure of the offices of most humanitarian organizations there, he said.

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Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this story.

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