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Syria cross-border aid under threat as Russia, Western powers compete at UN Security Council

Aid officials fear politics could derail relief efforts for millions of people who are even more in need since February earthquakes.

Trucks carrying aid from UN World Food Programme (WFP), following a deadly earthquake, are parked at Bab al-Hawa crossing, Syria February 20, 2023. Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters
Trucks carrying aid from the UN World Food Programme parked at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Türkiye on 20 February 2023. Needs in northwest Syria have grown since the February earthquake disaster.

The Security Council has failed to renew the resolution that allows the UN to deliver aid across the border from Türkiye to northwest Syria, raising further questions about the sustainability of a relief effort that is crucial for millions of people.


The resolution, which lets the UN cross into rebel-held territories without the permission of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, expired on 10 July. The following day, Russia, a close ally of al-Assad, vetoed a new resolution that would have allowed access through one border crossing into the region, Bab al-Hawa, for nine months.


A competing Russian draft, which would have extended the use of Bab al-Hawa for six months but reportedly included language supporting al-Assad and requesting a report on the impact of European and US sanctions on Syria, did not get sufficient votes to pass. 


According to UN estimates, around 4.5 million people live in rebel-held northwest Syria and, after a decade of war and economic collapse, 4.1 million need some sort of aid. Some 3.3 million people are food insecure, and 2.9 million have been forced to flee their homes at least once. 


Al-Assad has temporarily allowed the UN to use two border crossings to northern Syria in addition to Bab al-Hawa following February earthquakes that further devastated the region, but these are not included in the resolution. 


Other NGOs, including Turkish aid agencies and local NGOs, are not reliant on the UN resolution to cross the border, but many say they need the logistical support it provides. 


“For us, the main concern is the uncertainty in all of this. This back and forth on this decision is gambling with people’s lives in northwest Syria.” 


Diplomatic obstacles are not the only threat to aid: The UN says it has received only 12% of the $5.41 billion it requires to help people across the country, where needs are at a record high. Last week, UN relief chief Martin Griffiths called this “a deeply shocking situation”.


Syrian and international NGOs have condemned the failure to come to an agreement at the Security Council, with a statement from more than 100 aid groups saying the move puts “politics ahead of the lives of Syrian civilians who are in urgent need of life-saving assistance”.


Similar resolutions have expired twice before, and both times compromise solutions were eventually found. That means there may be further drafts and votes at the Security Council, or UN agencies will have to stop shipments through Bab al-Hawa for now. But those involved in the aid response are increasingly questioning a system that requires regular renewal and leaves humanitarian aid beholden to politics.


The February earthquakes made a disastrous situation even worse. Tens of thousands of people were left homeless, and rising hunger rates have been compounded by the quakes, inflation, and aid cuts. 


“For us, the main concern is the uncertainty in all of this. This back and forth on this decision is gambling with people’s lives in northwest Syria,” said Amany Qaddour, regional director of Syria Relief & Development, a humanitarian NGO that operates on the ground in Syria, including in the northwest.


“We see this every year, and every year it’s become even more politicised. A short five months since the earthquake clearly hasn’t changed much [in terms of] how we’re approaching the sustainability of aid and continuity through the resolution,” Qaddour told The New Humanitarian. “If the earthquake wasn’t a seismic enough event to change how we are providing aid, I don’t know what else is.”

This project was funded by the H2H Network’s H2H Fund, which is supported by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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