NEW YORK - After days of disagreement, the U.N. Security Council agreed late Saturday to a slimmed down cross-border aid operation from Turkey into northwest Syria, after pressure from Russia and China threatened to totally sever the lifeline.
"In the interest of the almost 3 million civilians who depend on the crossing of Bab al-Hawa, the council had to make the decision to compromise," said Belgium's Ambassador Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve, who with Germany holds the humanitarian file for Syria in the 15-nation Security Council and drafted the resolution.
After multiple rounds of votes, vetoes and negotiations from Tuesday through Friday, the council essentially bent to Russia's will on Saturday. They accepted the closure of Bab al-Salaam crossing, north of Aleppo, which means aid will be lost to the 1.3 million people who live outside the territory controlled by the government of Bashar al-Assad. Idlib's Bab al-Hawa crossing will remain open for another year.
The compromise came hours after the operation's mandate expired at midnight Friday.
The resolution was adopted with 12 votes in favor and the abstentions of Russia and China - as well as the Dominican Republic, which wanted to make the point that the resolution was not strong enough.
"Let's not be mistaken, this resolution is not what the United States and a majority of this council fought for over the course of the past six weeks - and indeed, for the past six months," said U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft. "This resolution is also not what the United Nations, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and dozens of NGOs operating in Syria have repeatedly urged this council to do." But she said it is necessary in order to keep aid convoys moving.
Food and vaccines
UNICEF has said that 500,000 children in the Aleppo area will now be left without critical services, such as food and vaccines, if Bab al-Salaam closes.
"Who are we to determine their future?" Dominican Republic Ambassador Jose Singer said of the children. "Who will they turn to now?"
Diplomats said an attempt to get Russia to agree to at least a three-month extension for Bab al-Salaam so people in that area could find an alternate route for assistance was also rejected during negotiations.
"The result of this disastrous development is simple - Russia aims at reaching its political goals, not preventing a humanitarian disaster," Estonia's Ambassador Sven Jurgenson said. "Undoubtedly, we will see the consequences of Russia's political game soon, and the chips they are playing with are people's lives."
Although Russia got what it wanted, it still abstained in the vote, complaining of the "clumsy" and "disrespectful" negotiation process.
"We could have arrived to this result much earlier," Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, said. "One most important border crossing to Idlib was what Russia was proposing since the very beginning."
Moscow, a staunch ally of Assad, has argued that all aid should go through Damascus so the government has control over where it goes in Syria.
The U.N. and humanitarian groups have requested more access and crossing points. The U.N. has asked the council to reauthorize use of a crossing from northern Iraq that was used for medical supplies, especially as Syria is now facing the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia and China forced the council to close that crossing in January.
In addition to conflict and COVID-19, Syria faces a crippling financial crisis. Its currency, the pound, is in free fall, commodity prices are skyrocketing, and many Syrians are struggling to afford food, making them even more reliant on humanitarian assistance.