UN sets new meeting amid impasse on cross-border aid extension to Syria's northwest

UN sets new meeting amid impasse on cross-border aid extension to Syria's northwest
The UN Security Council will hold a meeting on Friday after having delayed a vote on extending cross-border humanitarian aid to northwest Syria across the Bab Al-Hawa border, which council member Russia insists the extension be for six months only.
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Humanitarian aid is critical for vulnerable men, women and children in Syria's northwest region [Getty]

The UN Security Council has called a meeting for Friday after having to put off a vote on extending humanitarian aid deliveries to rebel-held northwest Syria from Turkey when no compromise could be reach on how long it would run.

Russia, one of the council's five members with veto power, insisted that the extension be for only six months, while many other council members, the UN secretary general and more than 30 non-governmental groups pushed for another year-long mandate.

Though another council session was called for Friday, it was unclear whether there would be further consultations or a vote.

Closed discussions among the 15 council members continued into Thursday evening but failed to bridge differences between the original draft resolution by Ireland and Norway to extend cross-border deliveries for 12 months and a rival Russian text calling for a six-month extension, with a new resolution needed for a later six-month extension.

"We’re working on getting a basis for consensus," Ireland’s UN ambassador, Geraldine Byrne Nason, said after Thursday’s meeting. "No one in that room wants to be divided on an issue of such importance, but we have more work to do. And we’re going to get working now, work overnight and hope to be back in the morning with the solution".

Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, said there is 99 percent agreement on a resolution, but he said Russia insists on a new resolution after six months.

Byrne Nason, asked whether there was any way around the Russian demand, replied: "We’re working on it overnight".

The UN said last week that the first 10 years of the Syrian conflict, which started in 2011, killed more than 300,000 civilians - the highest official estimate of civilian casualties. Northwest Idlib is the last rebel-held bastion in Syria and a region where an al-Qaeda-linked militant group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, is the strongest.

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Russia, a close ally of Syria's government, has repeatedly called for stepped up humanitarian aid deliveries to the northwest from within Syria, across conflict lines. This would give Syrian regime leader Bashar Al-Assad’s government more control.

In early July 2020, China and Russia vetoed a UN resolution that would have maintained two border crossing points from Turkey for humanitarian aid to Idlib. Days later, the council authorised the delivery of aid through just one of those crossings, Bab Al-Hawa.

In a compromise with Russia, that one-year mandate was extended on July 9, 2021, for six months, with an additional six months subject to a "substantive report" from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. This was effectively a year-long mandate because a second resolution wasn’t needed, and that mandate expires this Sunday.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric called cross-border aid critical for men, women and children in the northwest and stressed the importance of long-term planning, including to costs.

"In 2021, we had 800 trucks of cross-border aid go through each month, consistently reaching about 2.4 million people," he told reporters on Thursday. "The number of trucks that crossed in the calendar year, from January of this year to June 30th of this year, was 4,648 trucks".

The UN also carried out five deliveries across conflict lines last year and so far this year with about 2,529 metric tons of assistance including foods and health supplies, he said.

Russia’s Polyansky said he wasn’t certain what would happen Friday, but US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters: "Tomorrow we’re going to vote on a resolution and hopefully that is a vote that extends the resolution for 12 months".

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Thomas-Greenfield, who recently traveled to the Bab Al-Hawa crossing, added: "A six-month resolution does not provide the certainty and the confidence that the Syrian refugees require and NGOs require in order to continue to plan for and provide for support".

"Six months ends in January, in the middle of winter, the worst time possible," she said.

If no compromise could be reached, the draft resolution by Ireland and Norway would be voted on first. If it failed to get nine votes, or was vetoed by Russia, the Russian resolution with a six-month extension would then be put to a vote.