Russia has blocked a nine-month extension of a key Syria aid route at the United Nations Security Council, throwing the vital mechanism that provides life-saving support to millions of people into doubt.
The UN-brokered agreement that allows for the delivery of aid overland from Turkey into rebel-held areas of Syria expired on Monday, but a vote scheduled for the same day to extend the authorisation was postponed.
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On Tuesday, however, Russia exercised its veto to prevent a nine-month extension, and instead suggested a six-month extension.
That however was also rejected by the Security Council, with only Russia and China voting in favour, and the United States, the United Kingdom and France against.
The Security Council has long been divided over Syria. Most members support cross-border operations, including the US and UK, which have called for a full-year extension, while Russia has insisted on just six months.
Russia’s Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia, signalled that the aid operation would not continue if other countries pressed forward with attempts to extend authorisation beyond six months.
After casting the veto and before the council vote on Russia’s proposal, he told the body: “If our draft is not supported, then we can just go ahead and close down the cross-border mechanism. … The technical rollover for any period of time we’re not going to accept.”
China abstained on the vote for the nine-month renewal drafted by Switzerland and Brazil, while the remaining 13 Security Council members voted in favour.
United States Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield called the veto “an act of utter cruelty”.
The 15-member Security Council had been negotiating a text to allow the UN operation, which allows for food, water and medicine to be trucked to opposition-controlled northwest Syria without the authorisation of the Syrian government, to continue using the Bab al-Hawa crossing for 12 months. But Russia, which backs the government and has fought in the war in Syria, put forward a rival text proposing six months on Friday.
The cross-border authorisation has for years been renewed for six-month periods, but the short timespan leaves Syrians in opposition areas fearful that they are liable to be cut off from lifesaving aid at short notice.
In a statement, International Rescue Committee President and CEO David Miliband condemned Russia’s veto, saying that the critical lifeline resolution has no “viable alternative”, and the Security Council members’ refusal to maintain access to aid avenues “defies reason and principle”.
“Council Members should be guided by humanitarian imperatives rather than politics, and ensure Syrians in need, wherever they are, can be reached through the most direct routes,” he said.
The crossing provides for more than 80 percent of the needs of people living in rebel-controlled areas – everything from diapers and blankets to chickpeas. The government in Damascus regularly denounces the aid deliveries as a violation of its sovereignty.
Syrian communities in the northwest “were already pushed to the brink”, said Miliband in the statement, urging the Security Council to “urgently” reauthorise access through Bab al-Hawa for another 12 months, especially “after so many years of failure for the Syrian people”.
Russia has been chipping away at the aid mechanism for years.
The accord originally allowed for four entry points into rebel-held Syria, though now only the Bab al-Hawa crossing remains passable.