Syria: Russian threat to veto renewal of last aid corridor leaves millions at risk of humanitarian catastrophe

More than a million people in north-west Syria risk being cut off from food, water, Covid-19 vaccines and life-saving medication if the UN Security Council (UNSC) does not renew authorization for UN cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid through the Bab al-Hawa crossing at the Turkish border, Amnesty International said today. The UNSC is due to decide whether to extend the resolution in the next two weeks.

In 2020, China and Russia vetoed UNSC resolutions that would have allowed two other crossing points – Bab al-Salam in the north-west and al-Yarubiyah – to remain open. Bab al-Hawa is therefore the only existing and last remaining crossing for UN cross-border aid. Humanitarian workers in north-west Syria say that its closure would have a devastating impact in the north-west where such aid currently reaches 85% of people in need every month. 

“Because of Russia and China’s abuse of their veto power last year, Bab al-Hawa is now the sole remaining lifeline for civilians in north-west Syria. Closing it will have catastrophic humanitarian consequences, as we have seen this past year from the closing of the al-Yarubiyah crossing,” said Diana Semaan, Syria researcher at Amnesty International.

“We call on the Security Council to reauthorize humanitarian access through Bab al-Hawa, and to reopen the crossings at Bab al-Salam and al-Yarubiyah. It is shameful that political posturing at the Security Council is still impeding the international response to one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time.” 

It is shameful that political posturing at the Security Council is still impeding the international response to one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time.

Diana Semaan, Syria researcher at Amnesty International

On 22 June Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov hinted Russia will block the renewal of the Bab al-Hawa crossing, insisting that alternative humanitarian aid delivery routes are possible and that Turkey’s role is not essential.

Amnesty International interviewed 20 aid workers delivering humanitarian assistance to northern Syria. Aid workers detailed to Amnesty International how the closure of al-Yarubiyah, the border crossing from Iraq into the north-east, has led to severe shortages of medical aid and supplies.

They also said re-opening Bab al-Salam crossing would be crucial to ensure sustained, timely and cost-effective delivery of aid. Humanitarian workers said that relying on only Bab al-Hawa is risky in case hostilities resume, due to its proximity to frontlines. In addition, transportation of aid takes more time and is more expensive because Bab al-Hawa is far from northern Aleppo countryside which used to receive aid from Bab al-Salam. 

Syria and its allies are seeking to end the cross-border mechanism, established by the UNSC in 2014, and instead require aid to be channelled through the capital Damascus, known as “cross-line”. 

All parties to the Syrian conflict have an obligation under international humanitarian law to ensure unfettered access to impartial humanitarian relief for civilians in need. The Syrian government must ensure that civilians in all parts of Syria receive the humanitarian aid they need to survive. 

UN support irreplaceable

Between December 2019 and March 2020, the Syrian and Russian governments launched a brutal military offensive in north-west Syria that forced almost one million people to flee their homes and exacerbated an already horrendous humanitarian situation. According to the UN World Food Programme 40.7% of those displaced in 2020 are today food insecure.

All cross-border aid is now confined to Bab al-Hawa crossing and 50% of the aid and services delivered through this one crossing is provided by the UN. International and Syrian humanitarian organizations told Amnesty International that the UN’s support is irreplaceable. 

“Years of hostilities and mass displacement have led to a humanitarian disaster in north-west Syria. That Russia is even considering removing the region’s last lifeline is utterly callous,” said Diana Semaan. 

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on 23 June that a failure to renew authorization for Bab al-Hawa would have “devastating consequences”.

Aid workers said that they rely on the UN for critical medical supplies and to provide 70-80% of food and water assistance. 

The UN has played a critical role in the delivery of vaccines to north-west Syria, and in April 2021 the region received the first batch of 53,800 Covid-19 vaccine doses. All aid workers Amnesty International spoke to confirmed that if the resolution is not renewed in July, the area will not receive its second batch of vaccines cross-border. Even if vaccines were delivered from Damascus or from Turkey, without the UN’s technical and logistical assistance, local organizations would not be able to manage their storage and distribution. 

One aid worker in Turkey said that purchasing Covid-19 vaccines is “close to impossible” given global demand, adding that without UN support they would not be able to ensure safe storage.

Also, failure to renew the resolution would mean local NGOs lose UN funding for their programmes, especially protection, education and health, which are as essential as life-saving aid. 

One Syrian aid worker in Idlib told Amnesty International: “Fifty per cent of our funding comes from the UN, meaning that the number of people we reach will be cut in half if the resolution is not renewed […] Can you imagine the impact?” 

Medical crisis in the north-east

Many of these concerns are already being played out in north-east Syria, which is predominately controlled by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration. Around 1.8 million people there rely on humanitarian assistance to survive. In January 2020, the al-Yarubiyah crossing closed, ending UN delivery of aid across the border from Iraq. 

UN operations through al-Yarubiyah were supposed to be replaced by deliveries from government-held Damascus, but the volume of aid, especially medical aid, reaching the area declined sharply, due to the Syrian government’s bureaucratic impediments and restrictions on access. Humanitarian organizations also lost access to UN funding, leaving them struggling to maintain their operations. 

More than a year into the pandemic, the area continues to suffer from severe shortages in testing supplies, insufficient funding for Covid-19 facilities and difficulty in procuring oxygen. According to aid workers, at least nine NGO-supported health facilities are at risk of closing. NGOs have been unable to ensure continuous supply of critical medications to treat diabetes, cardiovascular and bacterial infections, as well as post-rape treatment and reproductive health kits – supplies that were previously provided by WHO and UNFPA cross-border.

Aid workers also said that the lack of an oversight or accountability mechanism makes it impossible to know if UN medical aid delivered to Syrian government officials in the north-east is being distributed to health facilities in the area. The Syrian authorities have a long history of diverting and obstructing humanitarian aid.

“The notion that the Syrian government can replace UN aid is absurd. Not only would it be impossible for the government to match the scale of support provided cross-border, the authorities are notorious for systematically blocking humanitarian access,” said Diana Semaan.

The notion that the Syrian government can replace UN aid is absurd. Not only would it be impossible for the government to match the scale of support provided cross-border, the authorities are notorious for systematically blocking humanitarian access

Diana Semaan, Amnesty International

According to humanitarian workers, no UN aid at all has reached the towns of Kobani and Menbij since the closure of al-Yarubiyah due to government restrictions. These towns, with a population of around 350,000 people combined, now rely mainly on support from international humanitarian organizations and the Autonomous Administration, which are unable to meet the needs of the population.

One health worker in Menbij said they were unable to treat chronic diseases such as cancer, thalassemia and diabetes and were forced to pick and choose between patients, due to the short supplies. She added that it was still unclear whether Menbij and Kobani would be included in the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out at all. 

“It is vital that all three crossings – Bab al-Hawa al-Yarubiyah and Bab al-Salam are reauthorized by the Security Council for at least 12 months as any fair assessment of the humanitarian situation urgently requires,” said Diana Semaan.