Russia scored a victory for its close ally Syria on Friday, using its veto threat to force the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution significantly reducing the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid and cutting off critical medical assistance to over one million Syrians in the northeast.
Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce accused Russia of playing politics with humanitarian aid for the first time in the nearly nine-year Syrian conflict, and “playing dice with the lives of Syrian people in the northeast.”
U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft accused Russia of “triumphantly” supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s goveernment “to starve its opposition.” And she warned: “Syrians will suffer needlessly … (and) Syrians will die as a result of this resolution.”
The resolution adopted by the U.N.’s most powerful body reduces the number of crossing points for aid deliveries from four to just two, from Turkey to the mainly rebel-held northwest as Russia demanded. It also cuts in half the year-long mandate that has been in place since cross-border deliveries began in 2014 to six months, as Moscow insisted.
The vote capped months of contentious negotiations and came on the day the current mandate for cross-border aid deliveries to Syria expires. It also reflected the deep divisions that have prevented the Security Council, which is charged with maintaining international peace and security, from taking any significant action to end the Syrian conflict.
The resolution that was finally voted on by the 15-member council, received 11 “yes” votes and 4 abstentions from Russia, China, the United States and United Kingdom.
Indonesia’s deputy U.N. ambassador Muhsin Syihab, who voted in favor of the resolution, said afterward he believed all council members were “equally unhappy.”
Germany, Belgium and Kuwait, backed by the U.S., Britain, France and other council nations, initially wanted to add a fifth crossing point and extend the mandate for a year. But to meet Russia’s demands and avoid a total cutoff of cross-border aid they watered-down their resolution to two points for six months.
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said last month that cross-border aid was meant to be a temporary response to the Syrian conflict and the situation on the ground has changed. He said the Jordan crossing point hasn’t been used “for a lengthy period of time” and the volume through the Iraqi crossing “is insignificant … and could be done from Syria” so only the Turkish crossing points are needed — points he reiterated on Friday.
By contrast, the U.N. humanitarian office said it has been supporting 4 million Syrians through cross-border aid deliveries — 2.7 million in the northwest and 1.3 million in the northeast.
According to the U.N., 40 percent of all medical, surgical and health supplies to the northeast, along with water and sanitation supplies, are delivered through the Al Yarubiyah crossing point in Iraq.
U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council in November that the U.N. provided 1.1 million people with food through cross-border deliveries in October, double the number in January.
“There is no alternative to the cross-border operation,” he stressed. “There is no Plan B.”
Many countries that voted for the resolution expressed disappointment that more crossing points weren’t included, but said they did so to save lives in Idlib province and other opposition areas in the northwest.
Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, who co-sponsored the resolution, stressed “the heavy price” it came with. He appealed to Russia to get more than eight trucks with medical aid waiting at the now-closed Iraqi border crossing at Al Yarubiyah into northeast Syria.
Craft, the U.S. ambassador, said all U.N. officials agree that the humanitarian situation in Syria is worsening, and she called the watered-down resolution demanded by Russia “shocking, comprehensive indifference to human suffering.” She said: “In abstaining, we are lending a voice to four million Syrians entering the heart of winter.”
Pierce, the British ambassador, said: “We won’t vote to stop vital aid from reaching Syria, but neither will we vote in favor of a resolution that reduces aid provision to vulnerable populations and puts lives at risk.”
Nebenzia said he abstained even though Russia got just two crossing points from Turkey — Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa — and a six-month extension because Moscow didn’t agree with everything in the German and Belgium sponsored resolution.
China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun said Beijing has always had “reservations” about cross-border humanitarian deliveries to Syria. He called for “the will of its government” to be respected in such deliveries, a point Nebenzia also stressed.
But Pierce said cross-border deliveries do not require consent from the Syrian government.
Nebenzia said aid is getting into the northeast, where Syrian Kurds established an autonomous zone in 2012 and were U.S. partners on the ground in fighting the Islamic State extremist group. A Turkish offensive in October against Syrian Kurdish militants led the U.S. to abandon its Kurdish allies, both countries drawing strong criticism.
Nebenzia said Russia supported a provision in the resolution requesting Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to report to the Security Council by the end of February “on the feasibility of using alternative modalities for the (Iraqi) border crossing of Al Yarubiyah in order to ensure that humanitarian assistance, including medical and surgical supplies, reaches people in need throughout Syria through the most direct routes.”
The resolution also calls on U.N. humanitarian agencies “to improve monitoring of the delivery and distribution of United Nations relief consignments and their delivery inside Syria.”
Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari told the council that since the beginning of the conflict, the government “has made efforts to deliver aid without any discrimination” and its priority is to improve the humanitarian situation in the country.
Pierce responded saying Britain will be pursuing Syria’s aid deliveries to its own people in the future, “and we will be holding what he said to account.” She said she will also take Jaáfari’s words “as a commitment” to allow humanitarian organizations access to Syria to distribute humanitarian assistance to people most in need.