U.N. Deliberates Over Cross-Border Aid As Syrian Cholera Outbreak Worsens Wartime Conditions

In 2014, the United Nations Security Council resolved to transport food and medical supplies through Türkiye to Syria’s last opposition-held regions of Idlib and Aleppo, despite the Syrian government’s objections. The area’s 4,000,000 residents rely highly on this aid to combat both appalling living conditions and a devastating cholera outbreak, but the resolution’s authorization is due to expire on Tuesday. Tomorrow, the day before this expiration date, the Security Council will vote on whether or not to continue delivering aid through the only remaining humanitarian corridor into northwest Syria.

Syria’s displaced have struggled to withstand the frigid weather and flash floods during the northwest region’s severe winters. According to the International Rescue Committee, last January’s conditions were especially harsh, including heavy snowfall and cold winds. Thus, the need for efficient humanitarian access is persistent – failing to re-authorize the mechanism for such would lead to much human loss. But after Russia rejected a one-year renewal in July, multiple rounds of U.N. deliberation resolved with a decision to extend the resolution’s authorization for just six more months. Now, Syria’s ally country has another opportunity to veto or impose further restrictions on the resolution.

In a joint statement, several senior U.N. officials indicated that “millions” of people, especially the displaced, rely on the organization’s aid to receive “access to food and shelter; to help in coping with harsh winter conditions; to the surveillance, treatment and testing capacities needed to contain cholera; to safe water; and to protection from gender-based violence.” Without the resolution, the lack of recognized legal protection would prevent international N.G.O.s from being able to deliver the aid efficiently. This is because large donor nations have confidence that U.N. assistance will not be politicized, improperly allocated, or captured by extremist armed organizations, but Russia and Syria’s influence on the U.N.’s authorization vote have still turned the lives dependent on this assistance into a political bargaining tool.

Of particular concern is Syria’s ability to manage the cholera outbreak. The country’s health infrastructure needs considerable maintenance and restoration before it can resume providing a basic level of care. “The capabilities of the health sector are already very weak, and we suffer from an acute shortage of medicines, medical supplies and serums,” the head of Idlib’s health directorate, Zuhair al-Qurat said. “Stopping cross-border aid will have a multiplier effect on the cholera outbreak in the region.”

The U.N. and Syria’s health ministry agree that the leading causes of the outbreak are drinking and irrigating crops with unsafe water from the Euphrates River. Idlib and Aleppo are especially vulnerable, as they have relied on contaminated water sources for years; enduring over a decade of conflict, financial hardship, forced migration, and public health risks has put both Syria’s people and its healthcare system under severe strain. The country’s healthcare system is overloaded, and, for many, spending money on food takes precedence over paying for medical care.

Furthermore, poor living conditions and restricted access to essential healthcare (particularly in towns and campsites overcrowded with the internally displaced) have increased Syrians’ exposure during outbreaks of disease, while healthcare workers have remained in persistently short supply.

Although the situation has been developing for some time, it wasn’t until the cholera outbreak that authorities began to seriously consider the repercussions. According to Al Jazeera, eight cholera treatment facilities – with more than 200 beds, hygiene kits, and chlorine tablets to disinfect water – are all supplied by agencies under the U.N.’s authorization. Non-governmental organizations also deliver clean water by truck to households.

Even if the U.N. renews its resolution, the ongoing worldwide economic crisis and the steady decline in international humanitarian financing have left humanitarian organizations unable to fully answer northwestern Syria’s desperate need for aid, food, and medical care after 11 years of war. But by supporting this resolution, the Security Council can guarantee that the millions of Syrians living in Idlib and Aleppo will still have monthly access to life-saving aid like food, clean water, and medical care.