US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has urged the United Nations Security Council to reopen border crossings into Syria blocked by Russia, saying world powers should be ashamed by their inaction.
Chairing a virtual Security Council session on Syria on Monday, the mild-mannered top US diplomat spoke with clear passion as he voiced outrage at Syrians’ continued suffering 10 years into the war.
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“How is it possible that we can’t find in our hearts the common humanity to actually take meaningful action?” said Blinken, who brought up his own two children when referring to the crisis.
“Look into your hearts,” he implored. “We have to find a way to do something – to take action to help people. That is our responsibility. And shame on us if we don’t.”
United Nations relief supplies into Syria, where most of the population relies on aid, as of July 2020 can enter only one crossing – Bab al-Hawa on the Turkish border.
Veto-wielding Russia, which is allied with President Bashar al-Assad, successfully opposed other crossings on the grounds that they violate the Damascus government’s sovereignty.
The Security Council, at the insistence of Russia, voted in January 2020 to cut four crossing points for humanitarian aid to Syria to just two from Turkey to the rebel-controlled northwest. And in July, again under threat of a Russian veto, the council cut back to a single border crossing from Turkey.
Blinken urged the reopening of the second border crossing from Turkey that used to deliver aid to about four million Syrians and the crossing from Iraq that brought aid to 1.3 million in the northeast.
“Sovereignty was never intended to ensure the right of any government to starve people, deprive them of life-saving medicine, bomb hospitals or commit any other human rights abuse against citizens,” he said, pointing to a Russian attack last week near the Bab al-Hawa crossing that disrupted all aid delivery into Syria.
Russia and the Syrian government have launched several air and missile attacks in recent weeks on rebel-held areas of northwestern Syria near Turkey.
Russian jets hit a gas facility, a cement factory and several towns and cities near the Turkish border on March 21. Syrian army artillery killed seven civilians and injured 14 medics in an attack on a hospital in the area, according to witnesses and rebel sources who spoke to the Reuters news agency.
A US air raid on February 26 meanwhile destroyed buildings in Syria near the Iraqi border that US officials said were owned by an Iraqi militia group tied to rocket attacks on US forces in northern Iraq.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergey Vershinin, in his own remarks to Monday’s video conference was sharply critical of cross-border aid deliveries.
He accused aid groups of discriminating against Damascus-controlled regions and refusing to fund Syria’s recovery and the return of refugees in order to preserve cross-border operations that he said “violate the norms of international humanitarian law”.
“They’re doing this with one goal in mind, to undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria for political motivations because they simply do not like the government of the country,” Vershinin said.
He also blamed the “dramatic negative impact” of unilateral sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union for the “economic suffocation” of Syria, pointing to 90 percent of Syrians living under the poverty line, 60 percent going hungry and two million children not getting an education.
The Security Council meeting took place as the international aid community braced for significant shortfalls at a donor conference that started Monday in Brussels co-hosted by the UN and the European Union. Russia’s Vershinin criticised them for not inviting the Syrian government.
The issue of border crossings is expected to come to a head again in July when the one remaining crossing comes up for renewal by the Security Council.
“The Security Council takes up so many challenges that are complicated. This is not one of them. The lives of people in Syria depend on getting urgent help. We have to do everything in our power to create ways for that aid to get to them – to open pathways, not to close them,” Blinken said.
He warned that the UN must provide aid to Syrian doctors and health workers to help Syria address the coronavirus pandemic.
“Already, doctors, nurses, health workers in Syria are getting sick and dying at alarming rates due to COVID-19. That’s only going to get worse,” Blinken said.