A U.N. aid operation from Turkey into opposition-held areas of northwest Syria may now resume for six months — with the possibility of six additional months — after its authorization expired Sunday due to disagreements within the U.N. Security Council.
“What is most important today is that the council, with this resolution, keeps the cross-border mechanism open and operating,” Irish Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason said. “That humanitarian assistance continues to reach those in need.”
Ireland and Norway hold the humanitarian file on Syria in the council and led the difficult negotiations.
“We recognize that a six-month renewal is shorter than we, as penholders, aimed for when we started this negotiation,” Byrne Nason added. “We recognize also that the vast majority of the council shared that view, and the view of humanitarian actors on the ground, that a 12-month mandate was needed.”
Although the border crossing will remain open for humanitarians for another six months, the outcome was essentially a diplomatic victory for Russia.
Moscow used its veto in the council on Friday to block the extension of the operation for one year, something 13 of the 15 council members voted for (China abstained). Russia then put forward its own text that called for six months, with the possibility for six more with a new resolution. Their envoy later told reporters that his delegation would veto any proposal that did not follow that formula.
Negotiations ran through the weekend and into Monday. The final compromise has the Russian 6+6 month formula, but also includes a demand from other council members that the U.N. secretary-general provide a “special report on the humanitarian needs in Syria” a month before the extension expires in January.
The United States, Britain and France abstained during Monday’s vote because they were not satisfied with the six-month extension.
“The vote we took this morning is what happens when one council member takes the entire Security Council hostage, with the lives of Syrian men, women and children hanging in the balance,” U.S. Deputy Ambassador Richard Mills told the council of Russia’s actions.
Russia has long sought to end the operation, which Damascus does not like. It has used its veto or the threat of it in recent years to shut down three other border crossings used by humanitarians to reach vulnerable Syrians.
The Assad regime prefers to control all relief supplies coming into the country and says the cross-border operation was a temporary and exceptional measure that is no longer needed. About 800 trucks each month carry relief supplies via Bab al-Hawa into the opposition-held northwest.
Russia’s deputy ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, said Tuesday the six-month extension would give the council time to decide “the ultimate fate” of the cross-border operation, and by January it would have arrived at a “well-considered decision.” He also urged the expansion of aid deliveries across conflict front lines in Syria – known as crossline operations – and the lifting of western sanctions on the Assad regime.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had personally appealed to council members to renew the cross-border mechanism for another year. On his way into another meeting, he told reporters the relief operation is essential for the people living in northwest Syria.
“It is a matter of life and death for many of them,” he said, adding he hopes the resolution will be renewed again in January.
More than 4 million Syrians benefit from humanitarian assistance that comes through Turkey at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. The U.N. and its aid partners reach 2.4 million people each month in the northwest with food and other aid.
A year gives humanitarians planning and procuring space, and it would have gotten the people who rely on the aid through the coming winter. Now, they risk losing assistance during the harshest months when council members must repeat negotiations in January.
Needs are highest now than at any other time during the conflict. The U.N. says 14.6 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance, of which 12 million are food insecure. The U.N. has appealed for a staggering $10 billion this year to assist people both inside the country and those who have sought safety in neighboring countries. The U.N. says nothing short of a permanent cease-fire will end the suffering.