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UN extends Syria cross-border assistance in compromise with Russia

The UN Security Council agreed to a six-month cross-border aid extension, followed by another six-month extension subject to reporting from the UN secretary-general.
protest near Bab al-Hawa

The UN Security Council on Friday voted to renew a cross-border aid operation into northwest Syria, averting further humanitarian disaster in the war-torn region but falling short of what relief organizations said was needed. 

Following a last-minute compromise between Russia and the United States, the 15-member council unanimously agreed to extend the UN’s use of the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border by six months, followed by another six-month extension subject to a secretary-general report on cross-line aid delivery.

The fate of the United Nations’ aid operation in northwest Syria, which was set to expire Saturday, rested with Syria’s veto-wielding ally, Moscow. The Russian government has argued that humanitarian assistance should be supplied through Damascus, rather than across its borders. 

The UN not only delivers food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies via the Syrian-Turkish border each month, but coordinates and funds the work of local and international nongovernmental organizations operating in opposition-controlled Idlib province. Three-quarters of the population in northwest Syria relies on outside aid, 85% of which the UN says arrives through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. 

The United States framed the extension of Bab al-Hawa as a success, despite having also pushed for the renewal of two other shuttered access points that supplied the rebel-held northwest and Kurdish-controlled northeast. 

"Thanks to this resolution, millions of Syrians can breathe a sigh of relief tonight knowing that vital humanitarian aid will continue to flow into Idlib through the Bab al-Hawa crossing,” US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said. 

But humanitarian organizations say the short-term extension of Bab al-Hawa and the failure to reauthorize the al-Yarubiyah and Bab al-Salam crossings once again puts Syrian lives on the line. 

“It is unconscionable to limit humanitarian assistance in this way,” said Georges Ghali, regional official with Oxfam. 

The UN Security Council’s decision “means that millions of Syrians who are suffering from the scourge of war, compounded by an economic collapse and a global pandemic, will continue to face an uncertain future,” Ghali said. 

Susannah Sirkin, director of policy at the US-based Physicians for Human Rights, called it a “shameful compromise.” 

“Today’s vote reflects politics at its worst, as the Russian Federation scores points instead of saving lives during a humanitarian crisis and pandemic,” Sirkin said.  

President Joe Biden spoke by phone with President Vladimir Putin on Friday, and the two men “commended the joint work of their respective teams” who reached a deal on the cross-border aid. Biden personally raised the issue with his Russian counterpart during their summit in Geneva last month.

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