A young boy in a camp for displaced persons in Idlib Province in northwest Syria (Ritzau Scanpix)
UPDATE, AUG 10:
The UN has accepted Assad regime involvement in the re-opening of three border crossings for humanitarian aid from Turkey into opposition-held northwest Syria.
Last month, having already forced the closure of three of four crossings into northern Syria, Russia blocked an extension for the Bab al-Hawa post.
The Assad regime then sent a letter saying it would “grant the UN and its specialized agencies permission to use Bab al-Hawa crossing…in full cooperation and coordination” with Damascus.
The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs initially cited “unacceptable conditions” such as a regime veto on the OCHA’s engagement with other entities and — given the long-standing blockade and diversion of aid by regime actors — its interference with operations.
But late Tuesday the UN indicated it has reached a deal with the regime for the operation of three crossings — Bab al-Hawa, Bab al-Salama, and al-Rai — for six months.
The deputy spokesperson of UN Secretary General António Guterres, Farhan Haq, welcomed the “understanding”. He gave no details, including whether the regime had met the OCHA’s conditions.
However, he indicated that the regime had come some way towards the UN’s position, saying the agreement would ensure the provision of aid “in a principled manner that allows engagement with all parties”.
Citing an unnamed Damascus-based aid worker, Reuters said a regime letter to the UN this week “indicated that it accepts UN principles” and that aid could move without “the new conditions” set out last month by Damascus. An August 6 letter from the regime’s UN ambassador Bassam Sabbagh to the head of UN humanitarian operations, Martin Griffiths, did not mention the conditions.
UPDATE, JULY 15:
The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has cited “two unacceptable conditions” in the Assad regime’s offer to allow access for humanitarian aid for six months into opposition-held northwest Syria.
The OCHA said the regime’s permission can be “a basis for the UN to lawfully conduct cross-border humanitarian operations via the Bab al-Hawa border crossing for the specified duration”.
But agency rejected the regime’s demand that the UN should not communicate with entities designated as “terrorist”. It emphasized:
The United Nations and its implementing partners must continue to engage with relevant state and non-state parties as operationally necessary.
[Engagement is] indispensable for gaining safe and timely access to civilians in need and is consistent with international humanitarian law.
The OCHA also dismissed the regime demand that the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent supervise the distribution of humanitarian aid in northwest Syria. The condition was “neither consistent with the independence of the United Nations nor practical, as the ICRC and SARC are not present” in the region.
It added that any arrangements with the regime “must not infringe on the impartiality (based on needs alone), neutrality, and independence of the United Nations’ humanitarian operations”.
UPDATE, JULY 14:
Following Russia’s veto of the continuation of UN aid through the remaining cross-border point into northwest Syria, the Assad regime has said it will grant the UN access for the next six months.
The Assad regime’s UN ambassador, Bassam Sabbagh, announced “the sovereign decision to grant the UN and its specialized agencies permission to use Bab al-Hawa crossing…in full cooperation and coordination with the Syrian Government”.
The regime’s letter was sent to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UK Ambassador Barbara Woodward, the current chair of the Security Council.
Letter from the Syrians obtained by Al-Monitor here 👇 pic.twitter.com/yIONBFMUBi
— Elizabeth Hagedorn (@ElizHagedorn) July 13, 2023
Emma Beals of the Middle East Institute explained, “Given the regime’s history of aid denial as a military strategy for the entirety of Syria’s more than 12-year war, it is simply untenable to manage aid into the northwest through regime consent.”
She said the UN aid requires “agreements that include guarantees, monitoring, and snapbacks if consent is withdrawn”.
Natasha Hall of the Center for Strategic and International Studies echoed, “If we knew the regime’s consent was reliable, we wouldn’t need the cross-border agreement.”
ORIGINAL ENTRY, JULY 12: Russia has used its Security Council veto to block renewal of humanitarian aid through the remaining cross-border point into northwest Syria.
In recent years, Russia — the essential backer of the Assad regime — has forced the closure of three of the four border crossings used by the UN since 2014: one of the two border crossings from Turkey into the northwest and both crossings from Iraq into Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria.
Moscow has also refused to allow more than a six-month extension for the Bab al-Hawa crossing from Turkey into Syria’s Idlib Province, effectively maintaining the threat to cut off 4 million Syrians — many of them displaced from other parts of the country — from all UN assistance.
The mandate for Bab al-Hawa expired on Monday.
UN Secretary General António Guterres sought a 12-month renewal. But Russia Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said that if Moscow’s demand for only six months was not supported, “then we can just go ahead and close down the cross-border mechanism”.
Nebenzia claimed that the aid is being used to “support terrorists in Idlib”, rather than the millions of civilians who have suffered during almost 12 1/2 years of conflict.
Of the 15 Council members, 13 voted for a compromise of a nine-month extension but the Russian veto killed the proposal. Only Russia and China voted for Moscow’s six-month alternative. Ten countries abstained, and the US, Britain and France voted No.
Russia agreed to the temporary use of two other crossings, Bab al-Salam and al-Ra’ee, after February’s deadly earthquakes across Syria and Turkey. The permissions for those expire on August 13.
“The Syrian People Are Counting on Us”
The UN said in a statement:
[We will] continue to advocate for expanding all avenues to deliver humanitarian assistance to millions of people in need in north-west Syria. The renewal of the authorization is essential, as Bab al-Hawa remains the centre of gravity for the UN’s cross-border response, including being in close proximity to Idlib, where most of the people in need in northwest Syria live.
US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield summarized after the session:
It’s a sad moment for the Syrian people. What we have just witnessed, what the world has just witnessed, was an act of utter cruelty….
We must keep at this – the Syrian people are counting on us – and we must all urge Russia to come back to the able in good faith.
Sofía Sprechmann Sineiro, Secretary General of Care International, said the Russian veto is “a low point in the Council’s humanitarian record since the start of the Syrian conflict”:
Today, the Council has allowed politics to drive its decision, rather than the humanitarian needs of Syrian people.
The UN Security Council’s decision will have catastrophic consequences for the region’s population of 4.1 million people whose survival depends on UN assistance. Within weeks, essential goods and services will become scarce and even less affordable.