Russia Clashes With West at UN Over Aid to Imperiled Syrians
Truckloads of food and medicine bearing the United Nations insignia are getting ensnared in a political struggle between Russia and the West, with millions of Syrians caught in the middle.
Russia has been working since late last year to effectively end a UN humanitarian operation that delivers goods to Syrians from neighboring countries, arguing it undermines the sovereignty of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In response to a Western effort to extend aid on Tuesday, Russia instead proposed to cut it down further, diplomats said.
The latest UN resolution drafted by Germany and Belgium, which aimed to keep two border crossings open for a year, received 13 votes in favor at the Security Council but was vetoed by Russia and China, the diplomats said. In response, Russia circulated its own text, calling to keep only one crossing open for six months.
“For those who are in Syria, it is going to be a dire situation if we are not able to have the border crossings,” U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft said in an interview last week. “We have 11 million people in Syria and we have a regime there that can absolutely care less about its people.”
U.S. envoy James Jeffrey and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin held meetings in recent days in an effort to forge a compromise before the program expires on Friday, diplomats said. But Moscow’s latest move suggests it’s intent on winding down the UN operation, regardless of the humanitarian toll, arguing that all aid should eventually flow through Damascus.
During a call with his German counterpart on Tuesday before the vote, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “highlighted the importance of bringing the provision of humanitarian aid in Syria into line with the real situation on the ground and the norms of international humanitarian law.”
Since late last year, Russia has clashed with Western powers, who argue that the cross-border operations are necessary to save Syrian lives. In January, Moscow scored an initial victory: Under the threat of a Russian veto that would have ended all aid, the Security Council agreed to cut the number of crossings to two from four, while reducing their mandate to six months from a year.
“Russia is driven by the objective of having Assad regain control of the whole country,” Germany’s ambassador, Christoph Heusgen, said in a news conference last week. “And to have UN crossing points into Syria, where the UN has sovereignty, is something that doesn’t comply with the expectations of the Russians.”
‘Virtual Death Sentence’
Germany and Belgium last month introduced a resolution that sought to extend the two existing crossing points for 12 months while reopening a third crossing in the northeast. In the latest text, Germany and Belgium backed off from that demand in an attempt to compromise with Russia.
“Council members should not cave in to Russia’s threats,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “Syria needs the northwest and the northeast. Removing the northeast crossing could mean a virtual death sentence for many Syrians.”
As Covid-19 spreads in Syria, NGOs and the UN are warning of a catastrophe if aid is not maintained. In addition to urgent aid needs in the northwest — the last rebel stronghold in Syria — restrictions on aid are hampering the delivery of medical supplies to the northeast, Human Rights Watch said in a report in April.
Limited Cases Reported
The threat is not just from the outbreak itself, which so far has been limited, but from the already worsening economic and humanitarian crisis prompted by the virus, said Mark Lowcock, the UN’s head of humanitarian aid.
Lowcock reported that Syrian authorities have confirmed 256 cases of coronavirus, though testing is “extremely limited.” Undernourishment is so bad that some households are cooking weeds in order to survive, he told the Security Council.
The tussle over aid is at the heart of what to do with Syria as the war enters its tenth year with hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced and in desperate need of aid. Russia and China argue that much of the suffering is due to Western sanctions and economic blockades.
Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused the West of using aid as a “political tool” for dividing Syrians. The West argues that a genuine political process that is inclusive of all Syrians must first take place before the country receives reconstruction aid.