Millions At Risk In Northwest Syria As The Last Aid Corridor Into The Region May Soon Be Forced To Close

Russia has vetoed the UN Security Council’s resolution to keep the Bab al-Hawa border crossing open for another twelve months. Bab al-Hawa is the last cross-border aid corridor into the Idlib region of north-western Syria, and by closing it, almost four million people would be at risk of starvation. 97% of the region’s population live in extreme poverty and rely exclusively on aid shipments brought through the crossing by the UN for survival. Over 4,600 aid trucks have passed through the crossing this year alone. Russia previously vetoed resolutions concerning three other humanitarian corridors into Syria in 2020, which forced them to close to UN aid. This leaves Bab al-Hawa as the last UN access route into the rebel-controlled north.

The veto comes in the wake of a joint appeal from all the major UN agencies to keep the crossing open for a further twelve months. “Failure to renew the resolution will have dire humanitarian consequences. It will immediately disrupt the UN’s life-saving aid operation, plunging people in northwest Syria into deeper misery and threatening their access to the food, medical care, clean water, shelter, and protection from gender-based violence currently offered by UN-backed operations,” they said. Russia was the only member of the Security Council to oppose the resolution, putting forward its own resolution that returns more power to Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A temporary compromise has been reached, keeping the crossing open for a further six months, but the future of UN aid passing through the Bab al-Hawa crossing remains contested.

Russia serves as the Syrian government’s main supporter internationally, and this latest move helps bolster the government’s sovereignty, putting the distribution of aid in the hands of Damascus. The current border operation functions without President al-Assad’s permission through a special UN mandate introduced in 2014. However, Damascus is notified of every truck that passes through the crossing. Russia wishes to filter all aid through Damascus, championing a crossline approach, in which aid is sent over the front line rather than across international borders, increasing Damascus’ control. However, this approach has already been heavily criticized for its inefficacy. Since 2014, Damascus has sent aid that has fed a mere 50,000 people, a fraction of the 1.7 million supported annually by the UN through the Bab al-Hawa crossing. As Idlib is outside of the Syrian government’s control and ruled by a jihadist alliance, it is in Damascus’ military interests to prevent supplies from reaching the region. That and the fact that aid is still highly sought after in government-controlled areas leads many to doubt how much, if any, of the aid redirected through Damascus would end up in Idlib. Bab al-Hawa is the only entry point into the country that avoids government-controlled areas, guaranteeing that aid reaches the people of Idlib.

Previous disagreements concerning the border crossings had been rectified by high-level discussions between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, with the effective cessation of communication between the two countries since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, diplomacy has not allowed an effective agreement to be brokered. Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy has stated that he will “obviously” veto any new resolutions that do not conform with the Russian resolution to return power to Damascus. Not only will this effectively cut four million people off from life-saving aid, but it will also potentially worsen the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, particularly in Turkey, which is already at a breaking point, housing more refugees than any other country in the world.

Russia’s veto is the latest example of the worsening relationship between East and West, and now the people of Idlib will pay the price. People’s lives should not be used as diplomatic bargaining chips and Russia should take immediate action to ensure that the people of northwest Syria can continue to access life-saving aid. There is no more effective way to support these people and it is vital that the crossing continues to operate as usual if it is needed. As UN experts noted in a press release, “The lives, health, and dignity of an important part of the population depends on the negotiation of the future resolution.”