‘Catastrophic’ consequences: Dire warning over Syria aid shutdown

Critics say if UN Security Council fails to renew cross-border relief operation, it will be ‘catastrophic’ for civilians in northwest Syria.

Jumana and Farhan al-Alyawi, 8-year-old displaced Syrian twins from east Idlib, pose for a picture in a tent at Atmeh Camp
Crucial aid deliveries assist 2.4 million people a month, including 1.7 million with food [File: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters]

Millions of people in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province face “catastrophic” consequences if a cross-border aid operation is shut down during a Security Council vote next month, humanitarian advocates warned.

In Idlib, northwest Syria, much-needed humanitarian relief supplies are brought in through a single border post on the Turkey-Syria border, Bab al-Hawa. However, the UN mandate that regulates the operation will expire on July 10, and its renewal remains uncertain.

About three million people in Idlib depend on UN aid, mostly women and children who have been displaced often throughout the bloody 10-year war.

The aid is delivered to the rebel stronghold every month via the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, the only direct link Idlib has to the outside world, and comprises food, COVID-19 vaccinations, medical supplies, and other necessities.

“Most of the region depends on the aid and help from governmental and non-governmental organisations. Therefore, in the light of the lack or even the absence of the most necessities of life aid in terms of food and medical supplies, along with the continued deterioration of the living conditions of civilians, the region would face a different kind of death toll,” Samer Bakkour, lecturer of Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, told Al Jazeera.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday warned the UN Security Council about what will happen to Syrian civilians if the border is closed.

“A failure to extend the council’s authorisation would have devastating consequences,” Guterres said.

Russia – the main backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government – opposes an extension, saying the aid deliveries only benefit the rebels who control Idlib.

Millions in need

The UN Security Council designated four border posts to directly access to northwest Syria in 2014 – bypassing the government in Damascus – in its attempt to supply people there with essentials. However, by 2020, all but one were closed, as Russia and China opposed continuing the remaining locations.

This minimal access enabled humanitarian organisations to assist 2.4 million people a month, including 1.7 million people with food, 85,000 people with nutritional services, and 78,000 children through education.

However, the compromise could now come to an end and veto-powered Russia has already indicated it will not agree to another extension, arguing that aid instead can be delivered to northern Syria through the capital, Damascus.

Bakkour noted Syria’s refugee crisis is the world’s worst since World War II. “So it was not easy for the UN, or even non-governmental organisations, to work on the Syrian crisis,” he said.

However, UN aid remains “insufficient” and it has not found answers to the central issue in the country: the displacement of more than 11 million Syrians – 6.1 million internally and 5.5 externally, said Bakkour.

Calls by international aid organisations, such as Islamic Relief, are growing to renew the UN resolution.

“We want the UN Security Council to renew the cross-border resolution for at least another 12 months so that aid can continue to pass through the Bab al-Hawa crossing,” Alun McDonald, head of external relations at Islamic Relief, told Al Jazeera.

A health worker checks boxes of COVID vaccines delivered to Idlib through Bab Al-Hawa [Ghaith Alsayed/AP]

‘Last lifeline’

However, many feel the current situation in Syria warrants much more than merely upholding the status quo. Several NGOs have been calling to restore currently closed border crossings to guarantee sufficient access to lifesaving assistance and allow them to respond effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Ideally, we also want the crossings that were closed last year – at Bab al-Salam and al-Yarubiyah – to be reopened. Since their closing, the need for food, medical supplies, and COVID vaccines has further increased,” said McDonald.

“If the Security Council fails to renew the resolution, it will be catastrophic for civilians in northwest Syria. At a time when people desperately need more aid, it is shocking that the Security Council is even considering an action that would block aid to the most vulnerable. For many families, the Bab al-Hawa crossing is now their last lifeline, and shutting it down will cost lives.”

McDonald said closing the crossing would cut more than one million people off from lifesaving food aid at a time when malnutrition is already rising.

“If the border shuts then food aid supplies could run out within two months. There are no options inside Syria to match the scale of aid that can be brought in across the border,” he said.

On top of the humanitarian crisis, the COVID- 19 pandemic has also exacerbated suffering in Syria. The number of infections reached a new high in May with at least 25,205 confirmed coronavirus cases and 1,851 deaths. Many say the actual figures are likely much higher.

“COVID-19 cases have spiralled again recently, and hospitals cannot cope. Islamic Relief supports hospitals where medical staff are working round the clock as their caseloads have quadrupled recently from a devastating combination of COVID, malnutrition, and rising mental health issues,” said McDonald.

“We work with doctors who have to put two children in every bed because they do not have sufficient space. People are dying because health facilities lack medicine, equipment and supplies such as oxygen and ventilators… Blocking aid during a global pandemic would be morally reprehensible,” he added.

Mental health disaster

An almost forgotten aspect to the suffering in Syria is the trauma a whole generation has endured, said McDonald.

“We are seeing a mental health crisis among an entire generation of children who now know nothing but conflict. About half the children in northwest Syria are out of school, and their prospects for the future become bleaker the longer the crisis goes on. Many children suffer frequent nightmares, anxiety, and are too afraid to go to school because so many classrooms have been bombed.”

A “major diplomatic push” is needed that not only stops the targeting of civilians and their infrastructure but that creates a lasting solution to the war, McDonald said.

However, for now, the main focus must be renewing the UN mandate to deliver relief supplies across Turkey’s border to Syrian civilians desperately in need, proponents say.

Source: Al Jazeera