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Humanitarian aid to Syrians threatened as Russia and China veto proposals at U.N.

International humanitarian aid trucks cross into Syria at a crossing on the Turkish border on Thursday. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

International humanitarian assistance to millions of displaced and destitute Syrians was threatened with imminent shutdown after Russia and China on Friday vetoed a last-minute U.N. Security Council resolution to extend a six-month agreement allowing aid flows into northwest Syria that was due to expire at midnight.

One of the world’s largest humanitarian operations, the cross-border shipments of food and medical supplies assist at least 3 million Syrians, the majority of them women and children. Most have fled from other parts of Syria into the country’s northwest corner, the last major redoubt that has not fallen to the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, and his Russian and Iranian allies, during the nine-year civil war.

The region’s already dire circumstances worsened this week with confirmation of the first case of the novel coronavirus — a physician who entered Syria late last month to work in one of the remaining area hospitals.

After the 13-2 tally, the council immediately began closed-door consultations that extended into the night and appeared likely to continue early Saturday. Diplomats said that, despite the deadline, convoys that pass continuously across the Turkish border would likely continue for at least a day or two as negotiations were underway. But without a council mandate and a means to safely enter Syria, the many international aid agencies that operate there under the U.N. umbrella would have few if any options. The Friday vote came after three efforts to pass competing resolutions submitted by the West and Russia failed earlier in the week.

“With their reckless brinkmanship, Moscow and Beijing are gambling with millions of Syrian lives,” Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement after the vote. “They have deliberately stood in the way of this council’s ability to get life-
saving food and medicine into Syria. This heartlessness shouldn’t surprise any of us, yet I am shocked each time my colleagues from both countries choose to blithely threaten the lives of millions.”

Syria’s Assad confronting toughest challenges of the nine-year war

In its own statement, Russia’s U.N. embassy blamed the stalemate on the refusal of the United States and others to lift sanctions against Assad’s government and to recognize its sovereignty by ­funneling all international aid through Damascus rather than directly to Syrians in need.

After a similarly contentious debate in December, Russia agreed that U.N. agencies could use two of what had been four border crossings.

In the intervening months, conditions in the northwest have worsened, as Russian and Syrian aircraft bombarded the area, including hospitals, other medical facilities and schools. Large numbers of civilians, many of them already displaced by conflict elsewhere in the country, fled toward the closed Turkish border.

Moscow and Damascus maintained that the attacks were against terrorist groups that have come to dominate the remaining Syrian opposition forces in the region. They include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the leading Islamist militant organization, designated a terrorist group by the United States and the United Nations.

In the wake of the bombardments, a newly released U.N. report said that HTS “indiscriminately shelled densely populated civilian areas,” pillaged civilian homes and “detained, tortured, and executed civilians expressing dissenting opinions. . . .

“What is clear from the military campaign is that pro-government forces and UN-designated terrorists flagrantly violated the laws of war and the rights of Syrian civilians,” the report said.

The United Nations provides coordination and logistics for the large-scale aid operation, with a wide range of governments and nongovernmental organizations providing money and supplies.

As debate over the expiring aid resolution began early this month, Russia — backed by China — insisted that the aid crossings were no longer needed and that Damascus should be recognized as the legitimate recipient of humanitarian aid. The United States and others accuse the Assad government of siphoning off the majority of assistance it has received and have said they will provide it with no aid until it agrees to a U.N.-mandated political resolution to the war.

Bargaining began with the introduction of a German-Belgian resolution that would allow both existing border crossings to remain open for the next 12 months. All but Russia and China voted for it.

That was followed by a Russian proposal calling for one of the two crossings to remain open for six months, and agreement for the U.N. secretary general to report on the economic effect of sanctions on Syria. It received only four of the council’s 15 votes, with Vietnam and South Africa joining Russia and China.

Germany and Belgium countered with a new resolution, for two crossings for six months. Russia offered an amendment — one crossing for six months. The amendment was defeated, with support only from Moscow and Beijing. Vietnam and South Africa abstained.

Friday’s failed vote was on the last German-Belgian proposal.

International aid agencies bemoaned the failure and warned of catastrophe with the appearance of the coronavirus, from which the region had largely been spared. Even if agreement is eventually reached to leave one crossing open, “it will not be possible to scale up the covid-19 response,” said Tue Jakobsen, who manages humanitarian operations in the region for CARE.

Mustafa al-Eudo, deputy director of the Idlib Health Directorate, said the community there has been working for months to raise awareness and gather supplies for the possible arrival of the pandemic.

So far, they have set up three hospitals and four isolation areas for the virus that “will help us in the first stage, to a certain extent,” he said. But “we’re talking about only 30 ventilators” and “a limited number of beds” in intensive care units and “a big deficiency” in protective gear for medical personnel.”

“Medical centers need to be equipped,” he said, and refugee “camps need care and aid.”

Dadouch reported from Beirut.