AMMAN — The already disastrous humanitarian conditions of millions across Syria are set to deteriorate further after Russia and China blocked the renewal of the UN Security Council mechanism allowing aid to be delivered into Syria’s opposition-controlled areas.

The UN Security Council— with the consensus of its 15 members— adopted Resolution 2165 in 2014, allowing humanitarian assistance to be delivered to civilians outside government- controlled areas through four border crossings in southern, eastern and northern Syria after notifying the Syrian government.

Later that same year, the Security Council voted on Resolution 2191, which extended the previous resolution for twelve months. It was followed by a series of similar decisions until the last of them was vetoed by Russia and China at the end of 2019 and replaced. 

Under Resolution 2504— submitted by Germany and Belgium and passed in the Security Council on January 10—  humanitarian aid will continue to be provided to Syria without prior permission from Damascus through the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salama border crossings with Turkey.

The decision ended the entry of deliveries from the al-Yarubiyah crossing with Iraq and al-Ramtha crossing with Jordan. While closure of the Jordanian al-Ramtha border crossing will not affect humanitarian operations drastically since the regime has controlled southern Syria since the summer of 2018, the closure of al-Yarubiyah poses a challenge to humanitarian aid delivery, according to Vicente Ortega Cámara, director of the office of the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECID) in Jordan, a UN partner organization with programs in Syria. 

Some organizations, such as the UN, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Population Fund, were actively moving aid across Iraqi borders into Syria, especially for medical purposes, he said. 

Between March 2018 and October 2019, 109 trucks carrying essential life-saving assistance passed through al-Yarubiyah, David Swanson, Public Information Officer at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Amman, told Syria Direct. In that time, water sanitation and hygiene programs were delivered to 90,000 people, educational programs reached over 14,000 people, and nutrition programs reached 84,000 people across Syria, he said.  

Further, during 2019, essential medical and surgical equipment crossed over al-Yarubiyah, delivering assistance to an average of 700,000 people every month, according to Swanson.

“The UN cross border efforts through al-Yarubiyah provided medical supplies reaching over 2.4 million people. The health sector will be the sector most affected,” he added. 

At its meeting on December 20, 2019, Russia and China vetoed the UN Security Council’s resolution guaranteeing continued entry of aid. Moscow, in particular, insists on coordinating all humanitarian operations with Damascus.

Map showing the locations of the four border crossings, which were included in Security Council Resolution 2165 (Syria live map)

Controlling humanitarian assistance 

Before the summer of 2018, al-Ramtha crossing —controlled by the Syrian armed opposition factions— was a crucial humanitarian route for civilians in southern Syria.

"The decision to stop operating at al-Ramtha crossing now does not affect the residents of southern Syria,” a former official at a regional humanitarian organization who worked also at the OCHA office in the Amman, told Syria Direct. But “freezing it serves the interests of the regime. The OCHA office in Amman is prevented from controlling any cross-border humanitarian action across al-Ramtha, to the south. Converting humanitarian work to Damascus means operating the Damascus office and controlling the material."

Several sources who spoke to Syria Direct conveyed fears of the Syrian government's policy and its impact on humanitarian operations through Damascus. 

“Humanitarian actors must be given safe, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access to those in need, without discrimination, and by all those best placed to respond to needs through various response modalities,” Swanson said. 

The future of northwest Syria

In Idlib, over 700,000 people have been forced to flee the Syrian and Russian government attacks in the last eight months and live in formal and informal camps where access to adequate shelter, food, winter clothes, blankets and heating is extremely limited.

The future of humanitarian work in Syria is under threat, especially in the northwest, which is witnessing a military escalation of government forces and allied militias. Since July 2019, the UN has repeatedly warned about the “worst humanitarian disaster” unfolding in Idlib as violence continues.

At a press conference on January 15, spokesman for the United Nations Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric expressed concern for “the safety and protection of over 3 million civilians in Idlib and surrounding areas in northwest Syria.”

“It is clear that this [Resolution 2504] will cause operational challenges to us but we will try to meet those challenges and do whatever we can to meet the needs of the Syrian people,” Dujarric said.  

"The Syrian northwest depends heavily on humanitarian aid, which in turn is reflected in the commercial and economic cycle of the population," said Hisham Dirani, director of Binaa, a nonprofit humanitarian organization providing humanitarian services inside Syria by way of engineering and project management. "Humanitarian assistance provided by regional and local organizations is also mainly based on the legal and political framework of the decision to introduce aid across borders."

While UN partners and international organizations have begun preparing an emergency plan, according to Cámara, Dirani believes alternative solutions are few and ineffective. 

"The risks are enormous,” Cámara admitted to Syria Direct.

Failure to extend the Security Council resolution concerning Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salama past the six month period would repeat the scenario of eastern Ghouta in Idlib, the former official argued; before Syrian government forces seized Ghouta, the regime hindered the entry of UN aid and took control of the quantity and items entering the area. 

"Aid cannot move from Damascus to the opposition areas without the approval of the regime or interference in the timing and quantities of its entry," he said. "Extending the decision for only six months may mean that the Russian-Turkish negotiations will allow the regime to control the entire crossing before the end of the period. Therefore, from Russia's point of view, there would be no need for a longer extension.” 

Additional reporting by William Christou.