Syria: Russia plays ‘political games’ with aid access

syria refugees

The UN Security Council on July 9 unanimously voted to extend the sole humanitarian aid crossing into Syria—one day before it was set to close—following a deal between the US and Russia. The White House said presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin finally discussed the matter in a phone call. The vote on the Bab al-Hawa (Gate of the Winds) crossing came after weeks of intense negotiations between Washington, which wants to expand the number of aid corridors into Syria, and Moscow, which had threatened to block continuation of the aid program altogether in the name of protecting Syrian sovereignty.

The Assad regime has been seeking the sole right to oversee aid delivery throughout the country. But aid groups say closing the Bab al-Hawa crossing, on the Turkish border, would mean yet greater disaster for the millions of Syrians in desperate need in the remaining rebel-controlled zone in the north—principally Idlib province, which already faces a “hunger emergency” and “humanitarian catastrophe.”

Some 1,000 truckloads of aid pass through Bab al-Hawa each month—and humanitarian agencies say this is insufficient to address the scale of the disaster in Syria’s north.

In 2014, the Security Council approved four border crossings for aid into Syria. But Russia has repeatedly used its veto power to restrict aid access to the rebel-held north. In January 2020, Russia used a veto threat to close two crossings. Seven months later, under pressure from Russia and China, the UN closed a third crossing, leaving only Bab al-Hawa open.

The new agreement extends the status quo for six months, with a possible six-month renewal. Officials praised the deal. Washington’s UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield stated: “It’s a moment for millions of Syrians who will not have to worry about starving to death in the coming weeks. It’s important that the United States and Russia were able to come together on a humanitarian initiative that serves the interests of the Syrian people.”

But Sherine Tadros, head of Amnesty International’s UN office, took a more cynical view. stating: “This compromise resolution is once again an example of Russia ignoring the humanitarian needs of Syrians, and instead playing political games with the lives and welfare of millions of people… The closing of two additional crossings last year has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in both northwest and northeast Syria. Authorizing just the single crossing at Bab al-Hawa once again, for one or possibly two six-month periods, is essential but minimal and remains woefully insufficient to meet the overwhelming humanitarian needs of the civilian population.”

An unnamed former US National Security Council official put it even more bluntly, telling The Media Line: “The Russians held a gun to the heads of millions of desperate Syrians, and the US patted Moscow on the back for not pulling the trigger.”

Meanwhile, Russian and Assad regime bombardment continue to deepen the humanitarian crisis in the north. In recent weeks, Russian air-strikes have repeatedly destroyed offices and facilities of the Syrian humanitarian rescue group the White Helmets. The air-strikes have killed numerous civilians, many of them children.

(More at PBS NewsHour)

Photo: UNICEF via UN News