The last remaining UN humanitarian aid route into Syria looks set to be shut down in a vote at the body’s security council next month, another casualty of the collapse in relations between the west and Russia.
On 10 July the council is due to vote on whether to keep open the Bab al-Hawa crossing from Turkey, which helps service rebel-held Idlib.
The number of permitted cross-border aid routes into Syria was reduced from four to one in 2020, as Damascus and Moscow – the country’s chief sponsor at the UN – try to assert Syria’s sovereign right to control its borders and administer the flow of overseas aid.
Thirty-two NGO leaders have called on the UN to maintain the crossing for another 12 months, but the chances of success are slim. The crossing requires a UN resolution and a Russian commitment not to use its veto to block the measure.
In a sign of the importance of the issue, foreign ministers from Ireland and Norway have visited the crossing, as has the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
The NGOs claim that, in 2021, the Bab al-Hawa route allowed humanitarian aid to reach more than 2.4 million people a month in the north-west of the country. This included food for 1.8 million people, nutrition assistance to 85,000, education for 78,000 children, and access to life-saving dignity kits for 250,000 women and girls.
By contrast, internal aid deliveries have reached fewer than 50,000 people. The likelihood of aid being delivered from Syrian-controlled territory to the rebel-held Idlib seems remote.
More than 60% of people in the region have been displaced from previous battles elsewhere in Syria. About 1.7 million are estimated to be living in camps. Militant Islamist groups control parts of the territory, and it is in Syria’s military interest to weaken the flow of aid.
Mark Cutts, the UN’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator in Syria, said: “It would be a catastrophe if the resolution is not renewed. Last month we had more than 1,000 trucks of aid.”
He said Syria is notified about every aid truck that crosses the border, and stressed the UN’s only aim was to help vulnerable people on both sides of the frontline.
NGOs warn that this year more Syrians are at risk of hunger than at any other point in the 11-year conflict. “Converging crises and economic shocks, including drought, inflation, economic collapse among Syria’s neighbours, and the Covid-19 pandemic have compounded an already dire humanitarian situation. As a result, today more than 14.6 million Syrians are dependent on humanitarian aid to survive, including 4.1 million people living in the north-west,” they said.
It was a huge diplomatic battle in July 2020 to persuade Russia to keep open the Bab al-Hawa crossing. Russia and China vetoed a UN resolution that would have maintained two border crossing points from Turkey.
The one-year mandate to keep the border crossing open was extended for a further year on 9 July 2021, but since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, relations with the west are close to collapse. The Russian delegation have walked out of UN meetings in disgust at the criticism levelled at Moscow.
There is as yet no sign that the invasion has diminished Russia’s support for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. If anything, the country is reinforcing its presence to prevent a fresh Turkish invasion of Kurdish-controlled northern Syria.