In northern Syria, displaced blame Russia for end to vital aid

UN Security Council unable to agree on extension to cross-border aid to opposition areas, which expired on Monday.

Al-Hweijah Camp, Idlib
Displaced people living in opposition-controlled areas had to flee their homes in the face of a Russian-backed Syrian government advance [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Idlib, Syria – A decision made thousands of miles away is expected to have a direct impact on the residents of northwest Syria, as the United Nations Security Council failed to pass a resolution that would have extended vital cross-border aid to the opposition-held territory.

Russia exercised its veto power at the body on Tuesday to block the renewal of a major UN operation that delivers aid to northwest Syria from Turkey for a period of nine months.

Russia, a key ally of the Syrian government, instead pressed for a continuation of the current model of six-month renewals, with the UN, humanitarian relief organisations, and many members of the Security Council calling for an extension of the mechanism for one year.

Al-Hweijah Camp, Idlib
The Bab al-Hawa crossing serves as a vital lifeline for delivering aid to more than four million people [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

“Not only did Russia displace us from our land through the military operation it conducted alongside the [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad regime and the Iranian militias five years ago in our region, but today it continues its atrocities through its power in the Security Council by halting the decision to allow humanitarian aid into our area,” said Mohammed Khalif, a 45-year-old father of seven children.

Russia’s intervention in the war in Syria in 2015 turned the tide of the conflict, forcing back opposition forces to the now much-reduced areas under their control, and securing al-Assad’s position.

Khalif himself has been displaced in the war; originally from the Sinjar region in eastern Idlib, he currently lives in Al-Hweijah Camp, to the north of the province.

Displaced people living in the camps, such as Khalif, are among those who will be most affected if the entry of humanitarian aid is suspended.

Al-Hweijah Camp, Idlib
Nearly half of the people receiving aid through the Bab al-Hawa are displaced, living in opposition-controlled areas in and around Idlib [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

“The Russian veto is part of the approach adopted by the Syrian regime, with the assistance of Russia, to starve and suppress the Syrian people since the beginning of the protests in 2011,” said Khalif.

The mechanism established by the UN in 2014 aimed to deliver humanitarian aid to people living in opposition-controlled areas in northwest Syria without obtaining approval from the Syrian government.

However, the Syrian government is opposed to the mechanism and considers it a violation of its sovereignty.

Initially, the mechanism included four border crossings for the delivery of aid. But after years of pressure, especially from Moscow, only the Bab al-Hawa crossing remains operational.

Furthermore, authorisation for cross-border aid has been reduced to six months, subject to renewal, complicating the planning of humanitarian activities.

Russian aggression

“After losing my husband five years ago due to Russian air strikes, today Russia fights us through the veto, attempting to starve us to death,” said Aisha Eid, a 54-year-old mother of two.

Eid was displaced from the town of Al-Tah in the southern countryside of Idlib four years ago, and now lives in a camp in northern Idlib.

Since being displaced from their home, Eid and her children have worked on farms, earning a daily wage that does not exceed $4.

“The food basket we used to receive was barely enough for 10 days, but with our work, we managed to sustain ourselves. However, now that the aid entry has been suspended, I don’t know what we are going to do to survive starvation,” she said.

Al-Hweijah Camp, Idlib
Since being displaced from their home, Aisha Eid and her children have been working for landowners in harvesting crops [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

“We are facing a major catastrophe due to the Russian veto. I know dozens of families who could die of hunger if the suspension of aid entry continues,” she added.

The Bab al-Hawa crossing serves as a vital lifeline for delivering aid to more than four million people, nearly half of whom are displaced, living in opposition-controlled areas in and around Idlib.

According to the UN, the population is in dire need of humanitarian assistance to sustain itself after years of conflict, economic collapse, the spread of diseases, and increasing poverty exacerbated by the devastating earthquakes that killed thousands in Syria and Turkey in February.

The mechanism that expired on Monday allowed aid to reach 2.7 million people every month.

“Bab al-Hawa is the main crossing through which the vast majority of UN aid arrives in northwest Syria. The consequences of shutting down this lifeline are grave for the over four million people that rely on it. It puts at grave risk their rights to food, water, shelter, healthcare and education,” said Hiba Zayadin, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Zayadin told Al Jazeera that the earthquakes that pushed Syrians in northwest Syria even further into despair have simultaneously shown how critical the Bab al-Hawa crossing was for aid delivery and lifesaving efforts, and how inadequate the UN Security Council resolution was in the face of the emergency.

“The Russian veto is a heartless act that proves that a politicised Security Council should not be in charge of making humanitarian decisions that affect the lives of millions of innocent people,” said Zayadin.

During the same Security Council session, Russia presented its own draft resolution, which received support from Russia and China only, with 10 countries abstaining from voting and three countries (the United States, Britain, and France) objecting to it.

As a result, the Russian draft resolution was not adopted because it did not garner the necessary nine votes.

Al-Hweijah Camp, Idlib
Mohammed Khalif was displaced from the Sinjar region in the eastern countryside of Idlib, and he currently resides in Al-Hweijah Camp, located west of Maarat Misrin in the Idlib countryside [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

“Russia seeks a political price for its approval regarding the Syrian file, which includes pushing for the acceleration of early recovery projects in areas under the control of the Syrian regime and pushing for the entry of all aid through government-controlled lines, to enhance the regime’s utilisation of this assistance in addressing the escalating economic crisis it faces,” said Abbas Sharifa, a political researcher on Syrian affairs.

Sharifa told Al Jazeera that the Russian veto was accompanied by several political developments that have provoked Russia.

“These include Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s entry into NATO, the handing over of Azov Battalion members to Ukraine, Turkey’s demand for Ukraine’s entry into NATO, and the reaffirmation that the Crimean Peninsula is Ukrainian territory.

“Additionally, there has been an elevation in security coordination between Turkey and the United States regarding the security situation in Syria,” he said.

Al-Hweijah Camp, Idlib
Aisha Eid, a 54-year-old mother of two, was displaced from the town of Al-Tah in the southern countryside of Idlib for the past four years [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera