Skip to main content

Millions of Syrians at grave risk if UN fails to strike deal on last border crossing

Syrian government's insistence on controlling aid from within the country is just another way 'to make the population surrender to the regime', aid workers warn
A human chain formed by workers from civil society, humanitarian aid, and medical and rescue services in a vigil calling for a UN resolution authorising aid through Bab al-Hawa on 2 July (AFP/File photo)

Aid workers are warning of a looming humanitarian catastrophe in parts of Syria if the UN Security Council fails to renew a resolution allowing the last humanitarian border crossing to remain open.

There had been a total of four border crossings approved in 2014 that allowed humanitarian aid to enter Syria from Turkey. Three were closed in July 2020 following a series of Russian and Chinese vetoes

Now, the Bab al-Hawa crossing, the sole lifeline for millions of people in Syria's northwest who live in areas out of Syrian government control, is at risk of closure unless the UN Security Council agrees to renew its mandate during a vote on Thursday.

'If this cross-border relief is not renewed, about 1 million people will go hungry' 

- Zaher Sahloul, MedGlobal president 

If that border crossing is closed this week, the only other way to get vital supplies to the people who depend on it would be through what is known as "cross-line" aid. 

For nearly a year, Russia has promised to veto any resolution allowing cross-border aid to continue, viewing its distribution to areas held by opponents of President Bashar al-Assad as a violation of Syria's sovereignty. 

Cross-line aid, as opposed to cross-border aid, would require humanitarian goods to be delivered to the Syrian government, which would then be responsible for sending convoys to areas in need. But aid workers warn that the Syrian government cannot be trusted to ensure aid reaches opposition areas.

"We have nightmares when we talk about cross-line assistance in Syria," Zaher Sahloul, president of MedGlobal, an international medical aid nonprofit group, said during a webinar on Wednesday that was hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).  

"If this cross-border relief is not renewed, about 1 million people will go hungry, education of children will be affected, there will be no clean water and hospitals would be affected in the middle of the Covid crisis," Sahloul said. 

The 'myth' of cross-line aid

There are 4.2 million people in Idlib alone, 80 percent of whom are dependent on the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. 

In the past, when the Syrian government was charged with delivering aid to opposition areas such as Idlib, the aid "was manipulated", Sahloul said, alleging that medical equipment and food supplies that were meant for people in need disappeared from the convoys.

"It led to a crisis of severe malnutrition in areas that were under siege," Sahloul said, adding that the intention of the government has been "to make the population surrender to the regime". 

"The large-scale weaponisation of humanitarian aid is something that the Syrian regime invented... Bombing hospitals and undermining health care workers is unique to Syria," he continued. 

On Tuesday, the United States, Ireland and Norway called on the Security Council to extend the agreement for another year. 

"We cannot accept less than what we have today. And that's one border crossing for 12 months that's providing support for millions of Syrians," the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said, warning that the border's closure would mean that "people will starve to death" if action is not taken.

'A UNSC resolution should not be necessary to deliver lifesaving aid to 4 million people in such acute need'

- Natasha Hall, CSIS

But the Syrian government has argued that foreign deliveries of cross-border aid is a violation of its sovereignty, and its key ally, Russia, has strongly suggested that Moscow plans to veto any renewal of the Bab al-Hawa crossing mandate.

In June, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Turkey was not essential for the delivery of aid into Syria, insisting that cross-line deliveries were possible from within the country.

But Natasha Hall, a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at CSIS, described such cross-line capabilities as "a myth" that has "heavily traumatised" communities in Syria where it has been attempted. 

"Ten years in we have extensive reporting on how the regime has and continues to instrumentalise aid," Hall said. 

"Cross-line aid to the northwest continues to be uncoordinated, delayed and inadequate," she said. "The Russians and the regime are currently besieging Daraa and bombarding civilian hospitals and water pumping stations in the northwest, and at the same time the Russians are arguing that cross-border assistance to this very area is unnecessary." 

'Paradigm shift'

Hall said that Russia has been "leveraging their UN cross-border veto" to secure at least partial Damascus involvement in aid deliveries. 

"The Russians have said that they are going to cut off cross-border aid if a cross-line convoy does not go through to the northwest. This has been their talking point during the past few months, but you can see that this is kind of a checkmate," Hall said. "If one cross-line convoy goes across - maybe two, maybe three - they can say that cross-border aid is not needed anymore, which is simply not accurate". 

"We saw over 12,000 [aid shipment] trucks cross through Bab al-Hawa last year. A few unreliable convoys that are somewhat stripped of supplies is not going to make up for that," she said. 

Instead, Hall recommended cross-line aid be used in other areas, monitored and reconditioned in a way that guarantees supplies make it to their intended destinations before considering its use in large opposition areas. 

"Right now we're not really seeing the confidence-building measures that we need, frankly - which is sort of an understatement - in order to really heavily consider cross-line aid as an alternative in the northwest," she said. 

At the same time, Hall questioned whether the ability to send aid into vulnerable areas of Syria should be dependent on a UNSC resolution at all.

In pictures: Displaced Syrians call on world to extend opening of vital border crossing
Read More »

"While it's on the chopping block at the Security Council this week, many legal scholars have argued that a Security Council resolution should not be necessary to deliver lifesaving aid to 4 million people in such acute need, especially in the face of prolonged and egregious war crimes," Hall said.

"But if Syria has taught us anything, it's that international humanitarian law is not enough. And in that scenario, donor governments need to be more forward-leaning than they have been to assist the holistic impact of aid in Syria because these problems are only going to grow. 

Charles Petrie, former assistant UN Secretary-General, agreed, pointing out that the need for a UNSC resolution or mandate to undertake cross-border aid "is a fairly new phenomenon", only really seen during the past two decades in the wake of the US's "war on terror".

Meanwhile, Petrie said humanitarian groups in general "are stuck in a classic view" that has failed to "learn the lessons of the new world" when it comes to aid distribution. 

"Whether it's cross-line or cross-border, is sort of secondary to the ability to actually support local communities. There needs to be a complete re-thinking of the approach," he said. 

Petrie said in Syria and other vulnerable areas that aid groups and world governments should shift towards focusing on empowering local organisations that can take the reins of local humanitarian work, bypassing the need for government intervention.

"We need a paradigm shift to move from viewing local organisations as the endpoint of delivering aid to seeing them as the essence of the intervention."

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.