US, Russia clash over UN's aid lifeline to Syria / Elizabeth Hagedorn

Continued aid for several million Syrians hangs in the balance, as the United States and Russia gear up for another showdown at the United Nations Security Council over the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the war-torn country.

The 15-member body has until July 10 to renew the UN's mandate for an operation that permits food, fuel and other supplies to be sent into parts of Syria that are outside the control of President Bashar al-Assad, whose government has a long history of weaponizing aid. Under the current Security Council resolution, the United Nations and its partners reach 2.7 million people in northwest Syria’s Idlib and northern Aleppo provinces each month. 

The cross-border aid mechanism that began in 2014 originally set up four border crossings — two in Turkey, one in Jordan and one in Iraq — through which international aid could be delivered without Damascus’ permission.

Syria’s top ally Russia sees the humanitarian mission as a violation of Syrian sovereignty, and has in recent years used its veto power on the Security Council to force votes that have eliminated all but the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish border. 

The Security Council is scheduled to vote Friday on the continued passage of aid. The UN member states tasked with drafting the resolution, Brazil and Switzerland, circulated a proposal last week calling for a 12-month extension. 

Relief organizations say that’s the minimum time required to ensure needs across rebel-held Syria are met. Last July, Russia vetoed a proposed 12-month renewal, and the council settled on a six-month compromise. 

Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said aid agencies need more than six months to effectively plan and implement longer-term projects. 

Failure to reauthorize for a year or more "keeps the population very much reliant on aid because the international community doesn't have the time to invest in more sustainable solutions,” Majzoub said. 

The United States has publicly called for Bab al-Hawa’s 12-month renewal, as well as the authorization of two previously shuttered border crossings: al-Rai and Bab al-Salameh. The Syrian government agreed to open the two corridors for aid shipments under pressure from the UN following the February earthquakes. That access, however, is due to expire in August. 

“We want to be sure that they will stay open, and not at the whim of Assad,” a US official familiar with the negotiations told Al-Monitor. “A Security Council resolution is needed because that provides predictability and a way for the humanitarian actors to plan.”

Russia hasn’t said how it will vote, but its deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, told Al-Monitor there is “absolutely no need” for a 12-month extension of Bab al-Hawa and cited Syrian government’s “sovereign decision” to reopen the two other crossings. 

Asked whether Russia would support a six-month extension of Bab al-Hawa, Polyanskiy said "necessary tweaks” to the draft resolution were needed. 

“There are a lot of proposals that we have made to the text of the resolution, and we hope that they will be duly considered before we come to this issue of 12 months or six months,” Polyanskiy said. "We're still quite far from this."

In the past, Russia has used the vote on Syria’s aid to extract concessions, such as increased early recovery projects and “cross-line” aid delivered to opposition areas from Damascus. Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group, said that while a Russian veto is always a possibility, he expects Moscow to ultimately compromise on some form of an extension. 

“It does not look like Russia is aiming to kill the mandate,” Gowan said. “Moscow's goal appears to be to maintain leverage by keeping Bab al-Hawa open, but only for a relatively short period.”

The vote comes at a time of heightened need across Syria, especially for the roughly 4.5 million people residing in Syria’s last pocket of rebel resistance. The impoverished Idlib region, where many live in makeshift camps, is still reeling from the twin earthquakes that struck earlier this year, leaving some 6,000 dead in Syria’s northwest and countless more homeless. 

On Wednesday, a group of UN humanitarian leaders, including aid chief Martin Griffiths, appealed to the Security Council to keep open “any and all avenues” to deliver aid. 

“This pipeline is more important than ever,” they said in a statement. “The lives of millions of people hang in the balance.”

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