Bab al-Hawa: A straightforward vote at the UN marred by Russian geopolitical calculations

The UN Security Council will vote on the closure of their final border crossing for aid into Syria on 10 July, 2021. [Getty]
7 min read
25 June, 2021

Giving birth in barely-standing hospitals, living in fear of airstrikes, freezing to death, sleeping in tents, struggling to find clean water, being unable to socially distance during Covid-19, and suffering both acute and chronic malnutrition are all daily symptoms of living in Idlib province in northwest Syria.

In the words of Charles Lawley, Head of Communications and Advocacy at UK charity Syria Relief, Idlib is at risk of becoming "the new Gaza".

The suffering of over four million people in the province is lessened by the daily arrival of trucks loaded with food, water, vaccines, clothing, and medical supplies from Turkey via Bab al-Hawa.

But these trucks may soon be parked. In a couple of weeks, the UN Security Council is set to vote on whether or not to close the UN's last aid crossing into Syria when its mandate expires on 10 July.

"Putin is advocating for all aid to be channelled from Syria's capital, Damascus, via three new government-controlled crossing points"

Bab al-Hawa, the crossing in question, is "literally a lifeline," according to Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

Russia's stake in the vote

While the US and other members of the Council support renewing the authorisation of Bab al-Hawa, Syrian President Assad's ally, Russia, is threatening to veto. Crucially, at the June US-Russia summit in Geneva, US President Joe Biden did not secure a commitment from Russian President Vladimir Putin to renew cross-border aid operations.

Putin is advocating for all aid to be channelled from Syria's capital, Damascus, via three new government-controlled crossing points. In this scenario, northwest Syria would depend on Assad's disposition to authorise aid shipments.

Russia considers cross-border UN operations as undermining Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity and thinks any international aid is an "affront to [Assad's] rule."

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Assad's toxic relationship with aid

Haid Haid, a senior consulting research fellow at the Chatham House think-tank, refuted this, stating that the principle of sovereignty should not be applied to Syria as Assad's government is a party to the conflict. Furthermore, he cites evidence that Assad's government is manipulating aid to reward some communities while punishing others.

"Not renewing the resolution would embolden Assad's regime to enforce stricter mechanisms and increase its influence on how aid is distributed."

In 2019, Haid determined that humanitarian aid in Syria "is reducing the government's expenditure on basic goods and helping it to mitigate the discontent caused by the lack of basic services and goods." 

Foreign aid also "maintains a massive flow of money into the crippled economy, keeping it afloat."

"The Assad regime is known to punish Syrians who live in non-regime held areas, and so the centralisation of aid could lead to discriminatory distribution"

Fadi Al-Dairi, Country Director for the Hand in Hand for Aid and Development Foundation, confirms that the UN in Damascus is not neutral. "The senior leaders, more or less, are working closely with the Syrian regime in promoting their agenda."

Lawley concurs, "I don't think anyone working inside Syria has faith that conflict will not weaponise the use of cross-line aid delivery and prevent it getting to where it's needed."

The Assad regime is known to punish Syrians who live in non-regime held areas, and so the centralisation of aid could lead to discriminatory distribution.

Politicisation of aid at the UN

According to Vanessa Jackson, CARE International's UN representative, aid has become a politicised issue in the Council. "It's divorced from the facts and figures and human stories on the ground and has become much more of a geopolitical calculation."

Vasily Nebenzya, Russia's representative to the UN, told the UNSC yesterday that the 2020 closing of the al-Yarubiya crossing actually led to increased aid provision. This is a wholly false claim, used to prop up Assad's case.

Northeast Syria received significant aid through the al-Yarubiya border crossing from Iraq, until it was closed in January 2020, after Russia and China vetoed its reauthorisation. This closing left 69% of the healthcare facilities unsupported and resulted in a loss of $23.6m for the Covid-19 response, leaving 1.4 million people in dire need of assistance.


The Jusoor Center for Studies posits that recent military escalations by the Syrian regime in Idlib are strategic and the Washington Institute wrote that Russia is posturing, showing the US that it "holds all the military leverage in Syria and continues to pursue its policies from a position of strength." 

Others have said the recent strikes are a deliberate campaign to force displacement. Since the bombardment has increased, around 5,000 civilians have fled their homes. Lawley calls this a geopolitical game of chess in which the world's most desperate people "are being used as pawns."

Turkey's silent presence

While international discussions have largely focused on the US and Russia, commentators have overlooked Turkey's relative silence. 

Haid thinks Ankara can play a crucial role in influencing Russia and in "providing clear alternatives and guarantees for an alternative delivery mechanism." 

Erdogan stridently opposes the reopening of al-Yarubiya, as he does not want aid reaching Syria's Kurdish population. However, Erdogan does wish for Bab al-Hawa to remain open. 

Some have predicted that Putin may support the reauthorisation of Bab al-Hawa for the sake of Russian-Turkish ties. If this happens, experts suggest that Russia may request the lifting of sanctions on the Syrian regime in exchange.

"At least 31 people have died in Syria since the beginning of June and cracks in the facade of the ceasefire are growing"

Idlib's fragile situation

Covid-19 has acted like a pressure cooker for the demand on humanitarian aid and NGOs are stretched at the seams. This is why many are echoing the Secretary General's call for the Security Council to reauthorise not just Bab al-Hawa but other crossings, as well. 

Dr Salem Abdan, Idlib's Health Director shares his worries with The New Arab, "this is very painful for all health workers in the area. We hope for an extension, if it doesn't happen we will all say that no one in the world is staying with us. We are alone."

In the rebel-held northwest, there is a large displaced population who have been in the crosshairs of conflict for years. Syrian and Russia's 11-month aerial bombardment campaign showed "callous disregard" for the lives of civilians, killing around 1600 people, and damaging medical facilities, hospitals, schools, homes and markets. 

A March 2020 ceasefire, brokered by Turkey and Russia, gave a glimmer of hope for peace, but renewed hostilities and pro-Assad attacks on the northwest have been escalating day-by-day. At least 31 people have died in Syria since the beginning of June and cracks in the facade of the ceasefire are growing. 

In June, a school and a hospital were both brutally bombed and there was little worldwide reaction. Haid pointed out obvious "Syria fatigue" and Lawley agrees, saying Syria is experiencing a "real consequence of apathy."

"If the [Syrian regime] could cut off the air we breathe it would"

What happens if Bab al-Hawa closes?

In already fragile conditions, the reduction of aid could push families to breaking point.

Four-year-old Ghazal Al Hasan, when asked her thoughts on the potential closure of Bab al-Hawa, said, "Where will we get diapers for our brothers? Where will we get bread and milk and flour? How will we eat?"

30,000 displaced persons, including Ghazal, live at the Atma Camp, 20 minutes from the crossing.

Other members of the camp, such as Mohammed Al Ali, call the crossing "the lifeblood of this area." 

Abd Alhadi Al Hasan said, "Do you expect us to get aid from the criminal [Assad] regime? The regime that made us homeless and deserted? The system that starved us?" And Mohammed Al Ali, exasperated, said "If the system could cut off the air we breathe it would."

Mohammed Al Ali in the Atma camp in northwest Syria. [Mohammed Tawfiex Tax]
Mohammed Al Ali in the Atma Camp in northwest Syria. [Mohammed Tawfiex Tax]

OCHA's latest update on the humanitarian situation in northwest Syria describes, in depth, the looming crisis and pertinently warns that cross-line convoys, "even if deployed regularly, could not replicate the impact of the cross-border operation."

Bab al-Hawa's closure would force NGOs to pick up the slack. Jackson states, "it really is not an encouraging picture. There are so many reasons why we cannot scale up to fill the shoes of the UN. We don't have the ability to absorb $300m, which is roughly what the UN is providing into northwest Syria."

While cross-line access can scale up in theory, in practice some protracted impediments will struggle to be fixed in the short term.

"We've just sort of accepted Syria as a place where bad things happen. Would we do that anywhere else in the world?" Lawley postures.

Rachel Hagan is a freelance women's rights and global affairs journalist with a particular focus on Middle East affairs. 

Follow her on Twitter: @rachelhagan_