U.N. and Western nations spar with Russia over aid to Syria

Turkish aid workers with children at a refugee camp in northern Syria.
(Associated Press)

The U.N. humanitarian chief warned Monday that a halt to cross-border aid deliveries to the last rebel stronghold in Syria would cause “suffering and death,” but Syria’s ally Russia accused the U.N. and Western nations of trying to “sabotage” assistance from within Syria.

Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock told the U.N. Security Council that an estimated 2.8 million people in the rebel-held northwest — 70% of the region’s population — require humanitarian assistance, with growing economic hardship aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said two-thirds of the northwest’s population is displaced, the vast majority sheltering in camps and informal settlements where malnutrition rates have been rising in past months. Almost 3 in every 10 children in the region under the age of 5 suffer from stunting, “a condition likely to impact irreversibly their physical and cognitive development,” he said.


Lowcock said delivery of aid through two crossing points from Turkey enabled 1,781 trucks primarily carrying food for 1.3 million people to get to the mainly rebel-held northwest in May, which is still “far from sufficient.” He said more children and infants are arriving at nutrition centers “showing signs of chronic and acute malnutrition,” and some mothers say they are cooking weeds to supplement food rations.

“The northwest continues to suffer a major humanitarian crisis,” Lowcock said. “The cross-border operation needs to be scaled up further.”

He said the Security Council’s failure to extend cross-border deliveries would halt the U.N. operation from Turkey and ”it would cause suffering and death.”

Russia holds the key to future cross-border operations.

It contends cross-border aid was meant to be a temporary response to the nine-year Syrian conflict and the situation on the ground has changed.

In January, Russia scored a victory for Syria, using its veto threat to force the Security Council to adopt a resolution reducing the number of crossing points for aid deliveries from four to just two, from Turkey to the northwest. It also cut in half the yearlong mandate that had been in place since cross-border deliveries began in 2014 to six months, as Russia insisted.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassaor Vassily Nebenzia said at Monday’s council meeting that cross-border aid is not the “magic bullet” for humanitarian problems in Syria but “has become a political tool for drawing lines of division inside Syria.”


He said cross-border deliveries were “incompatible with international law and humanitarian principles.”

Even more disturbing, Nebenzia said, is that cross-border aid delivery “is used as a leverage against cross-line and as pretext and excuse not to engage seriously in humanitarian deliveries from within Syria.”

“That, in our view, borders with sabotage,” the Russian ambassador said. “And this is not just a slogan. We have concrete facts that we can present.”

A proposed U.N. resolution drafted by Germany and Belgium would maintain two border crossing points from Turkey to the northwest and reopen an Iraqi crossing to the northeast for a year to deliver medical supplies for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last month, Russia’s Nebenzia said in response to Lowcock and calls by U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft for the Iraq crossing to the northeast to be opened: “Do not waste your time on efforts to reopen the closed cross-border points.”

Lowcock said Monday: “Efforts have been and will continue to be made to deliver cross-line assistance into the northwest. But at the moment it is simply impossible to replicate with cross-line assistance what is being delivered through the cross-border operation” from Turkey.

He said the World Health Organization has sent two shipments of medical supplies to the northeast overland as well as air deliveries but more than five months after the Al Yaroubiya crossing from Iraq was closed, “distributions of WHO medical items have not reached the majority of facilities that previously depended on supplies delivered cross-border.”

Craft, the U.S. ambassador, and European Union envoys insisted again Monday that U.S. and EU sanctions against Syria were not affecting the delivery of humanitarian aid, but Russia’s Nebenzia strongly disagreed.

“These reassurances are hypocritical,” Nebenzia said. “Your waivers and exemptions do not work. With one hand you advocate humanitarian assistance, through cross-border first and foremost, with another you choke ordinary Syrians.”