UN humanitarian aid trucks enter northwest Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey on June 1, 2021. © 2021 Associated Press

(New York) – Russia should not block the United Nations Security Council from reauthorizing and expanding cross-border humanitarian aid operations across northern Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. Millions of people in northeast and northwest Syria need cross-border distribution of food, medicine, Covid-19 vaccines, and other lifesaving assistance.

On July 10, 2021, Security Council authorization for Bab al-Hawa on the Turkish-Syrian border, the last crossing where UN cross-border aid delivery is permitted, will expire. Council members are discussing proposals for reviving all previously authorized cross-border aid points into northern Syria. But Russia has threatened to use its veto power to shut down the entire UN cross-border aid program, making groundless claims that cross-border aid is no longer needed.

“Ending cross-border aid would be tantamount to a death sentence for many of the millions of people in northern Syria dependent on humanitarian assistance,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “Russia should allow reauthorization of all previously approved crossing points for the north. Claims that the Syrian government is ready and willing to facilitate aid ring hollow, since it has long obstructed, not enabled, aid distribution.”

Ten years of conflict have decimated Syria’s infrastructure and social services, resulting in massive humanitarian needs and making millions of people reliant on aid. Over 13 million Syrians needed humanitarian assistance as of early 2021.

In 2020 Russia forced the Security Council to shut down three of four authorized border crossings, cutting off UN cross-border aid for the northeast entirely and making it more difficult to distribute aid in the northwest. The then-UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, and other UN agency heads warned council members in June that shuttering the last authorized gateway into northwest Syria, which is under the control of anti-government groups, would be a “catastrophe.”

Aid workers told Human Rights Watch that non-UN agencies have nowhere near the UN’s capacity to buy supplies and transport them into the northwest. They said that shutting down UN aid supplies and ending UN funding would deny aid to millions of people. Non-UN aid groups in northeast Syria, which is mostly under the control of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration, a quasi-autonomous authority, say they have been unable to bring in enough aid, particularly for health care, since the UN was forced to stop its cross-border operations between Iraq and Syria in January 2020.

As of June 29, only 17,500 Covid-19 vaccine doses earmarked for healthcare workers and only limited other supplies to respond to the pandemic have reached the northeast from Syria’s capital, Damascus. No aid reaches the northwest from Damascus.

On June 25, Ireland and Norway circulated to other Security Council members a draft resolution that would reauthorize Bab al-Hawa in the northwest and restore al-Yarubiyah on the Iraqi border for 12 months. In addition to those two crossings, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Turkey, and Estonia have called for restoring Bab al-Salam in the northwest as well. Bab al-Salam was shut down in 2020 and has slowed down the delivery of aid, particularly to northern Aleppo.

The draft resolution makes clear that cross-border aid remains necessary because the “devastating humanitarian situation in Syria continues to constitute a threat to peace and security in the region.”

The Syrian government has long obstructed what is known as “cross-line” aid, supplies crossing from government-held parts of the country into non-government-held parts of Syria. Russia has been unable or unwilling to press Damascus to allow aid to reach the northwest and to increase aid to the northeast.

In 2014, the Security Council recognized the Syrian government’s “arbitrary and unjustified withholding of consent to relief operations and the persistence of conditions that impede the delivery of humanitarian supplies” and authorized UN agencies to take supplies from Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan into northwest, northeast, and southern Syria respectively. Other parties to the conflict have at times also obstructed the delivery of humanitarian aid.

“There is no alternative to cross-border humanitarian aid operations,” Charbonneau said. “A government that has spent the last decade killing tens of thousands of its own citizens and undermining humanitarian aid operations can’t be relied upon to provide aid to those same people.”