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UN deal to restart Syria cross-border aid not going far enough: Aid groups

Agreement for one crossing to reopen, another to close, prompts warning of poor provision for millions in area, with Covid-19 adding to 'desperate situation'
A Turkish military convoy drives on a highway linking Idlib to the Syrian Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey (AFP)

Aid organisations have welcomed the announcement that cross-border aid is set to resume into Syria, but have warned that the limited reopening will not go far enough to address the crisis in the country.

On Saturday, the UN Security Council passed a resolution to restart cross-border humanitarian aid to the northwest of the war-torn nation, but only after caving to Russian pressure to close one of two access points there.

Following a week of division and seven ballots, the council passed a proposal submitted by Germany and Belgium allowing the use of the Bab al-Hawa crossing point for one year, but closing the border crossing at Bab al-Salam.

The measure passed with 12 of 15 votes, with Russia, China and the Dominican Republic abstaining, diplomats said.

Oxfam in Syria's country director Moutaz Adham said excluding the crucial Al-Yaroubiyeh crossing was a mistake. That crossing point from Iraq in the northeast was closed in January.

'The Security Council must stop playing politics and put children’s lives first. We call on [it] to urgently reconvene to scale up cross-border humanitarian assistance [to] children in Syria'

- Inger Ashing, Save the Children International

"While we welcome the renewal of the resolution to allow cross-border aid, we are very concerned that the reduced crossing will limit the provision of clean water, food, shelter and healthcare on which millions of Syrians rely," he said in a statement released on Sunday. "Increasing COVID-19 cases in Syria are adding to what was already a desperate situation.

"It is now vital that the Government of Syria facilitates access and allows more agencies operating from Damascus to increase their humanitarian response for communities who rely on cross-border aid. Donors must ensure that funding is immediately available to get aid to the northeast, through all means possible."

Save the Children made a similar appeal in a statement.

"Children's lives depend on these border crossings operating fully. This scale back means that fewer children will be able to eat, to receive healthcare, to find shelter after being uprooted from their homes," said Inger Ashing, CEO of Save the Children International.

"The Security Council must stop playing politics and put children's lives first. We call on the Security Council to urgently reconvene to scale up cross-border humanitarian assistance [to] children in Syria."

Vital aid needed

Authorisation for the continued transport of aid to Syria, a system in place since 2014, had expired on Friday night after Moscow and Beijing used their veto power and the council then rejected a counterproposal from Russia.

With the approval of the German-Belgian proposal on Saturday, the Bab al-Hawa crossing point on Syria's northwestern border with Turkey will be maintained for a year, until 10 July 2021.

This will allow badly needed humanitarian aid to continue flowing to several million Syrians living in the insurgent region of Idlib, which the Syrian government does not control.

For weeks, Russia, Syria's most important ally, had been demanding an end to the use of the Bab al-Salam border crossing, which leads to the Aleppo region in northern Syria. 

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European countries and the United States had wanted to maintain both crossing points.

EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell and European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic said that authorising only one crossing would hamper the delivery of aid.

"It is a matter of deep concern that the resolution adopted after repeated vetoes by Russia and China authorises only one crossing point out of the two previously available to the UN," Borrell and Lenarcic said in a joint statement.

"The unconstructive approach of certain members of the Security Council is all the more regrettable at a time when needs have never been greater and in the context of the coronavirus pandemic."

Acting British UN Ambassador Jonathan Allen said after the vote that the loss of aid access through the Bab al-Salam crossing would deprive "1.3 million people in northwest Syria of cross-border humanitarian assistance that they rely on".

German UN Ambassador Christoph Heusgen told his Chinese and Russian counterparts to report back to their capitals that he had asked: "How those people who gave the instructions to cut off the aid of 500,000 children... are ready to look into the mirror tomorrow."

Germany and Belgium said in a joint statement after the vote: "One border crossing is not enough, but no border crossings would have left the fate of an entire region in question."

China's UN Ambassador Zhang Jun said China always had reservations about the delivery of cross-border aid, but given the current situation in Syria it did not object to retaining it "at this stage," though he added that "it should be adjusted accordingly in light of the developments on the ground".

After the vote, the deputy Russian UN envoy Dmitry Polyanskiy said: "Russia is consistently in favour of humanitarian deliveries to Syria with full respect of the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity and with coordination of its legal government. This issue should not be politicised."

Russia has vetoed 16 council resolutions related to Syria since President Bashar al-Assad cracked down on protesters in 2011, leading to civil war. For many of those votes, Moscow has been backed in the council by China.