A Russia UN veto on aid for Syria’s Idlib would be deadly

If the UNSC does not pass a resolution extending aid transfer to northwest Syria, millions will face famine and disease.

A worker unloads bags and boxes of humanitarian aid from the back of a truck in the opposition-held Idlib, Syria on June 9, 2021 [Reuters/Khalil Ashawi]

Only a few days separate us from an upcoming UN Security Council meeting which will discuss the authorisation of aid delivery to northwest Syria. First outlined in UN Resolution 2165 of 2014, this mechanism allows for the delivery of aid to territories under the control of Syrian opposition groups through crossings on the Turkish-Syrian border.

The resolution’s authorisation has to be renewed every year and the current one, which allows for aid shipments only through Bab al-Hawa crossing, expires in July. The crossing serves as the humanitarian community’s gateway into Idlib and north Aleppo provinces. Currently, the area is home to some 4 million Syrians, most of them displaced by years of civil and proxy war and the recent advance of the Syrian regime and its allies on rebel-held areas.

Since 2014, when the resolution was passed, aid agencies have struggled to provide for the ever-increasing population of displaced people. Nevertheless, every year they have managed to distribute tens of thousands of metric tonnes of food, medical supplies, tents and other necessities to sustain the displaced people.

Now, humanitarian operations in Idlib are under threat if Russia uses its veto in the UNSC. Shutting down direct humanitarian assistance supplied through the Bab al-Hawa crossing amid the added burden of the pandemic will undoubtedly result in a massive humanitarian catastrophe.

An impending humanitarian catastrophe

The humanitarian imperative to reauthorise the direct delivery of aid through the Turkey-Syria border could not be more urgent. According to Human Rights Watch, 75 percent of the 4 million people living in northwest Syria depend on aid to meet their basic needs. Some 2.6 million are internally displaced and most of them live in refugee camps in precarious conditions, which over the past two years have only been made worse by the deteriorating economic situation and the pandemic.

Years of war devastated the Syrian economy, but over the past two years, the Syrian currency suffered unprecedented devaluation due to the economic crisis in Lebanon, sanctions imposed by the US, and other factors. This led to massive inflation, with the price of food, fuel and other necessities skyrocketing.

Amid these worsening conditions, last year about one million people were displaced in northwest Syria as the Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iran, went on an offensive against opposition-held areas.

The confluence of inflation and displacement has brought north Syria to the brink of famine. In the first three months of 2020, about one million people were displaced from Hama and southern Idlib to the northern part of the province. Although a ceasefire was announced in March 2020, Damascus continues to amass forces in southern Idlib. Shelling also continues, which causes an increasing number of civilian casualties and more displacement.

The soaring inflation and continuous insecurity have left some 12.4 million Syrians hungry, according to the World Food Programme. Many of them are internally displaced in Idlib.

The pandemic has worsened further the living conditions in northwest Syria. When the coronavirus started spreading in the region, Idlib’s health system was already devastated by the continuous targeting of hospitals and clinics by Syrian and Russian forces. In the first few months, doctors were unable to diagnose infections for lack of COVID-19 testing kits and had to work unprotected due to the short supply of personal protective gear.

Officially, there have been more than 24,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 680 deaths in the region. The vaccination campaign in Idlib started only recently, with the first batch of vaccines arriving in April.

If humanitarian assistance deliveries through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing are shut down, this would undoubtedly result in a major humanitarian crisis. Despite repeated pressure campaigns by governments and aid organisations and in violation of customary humanitarian law, the Syrian regime only allows aid to enter areas that it controls and prevents deliveries to rebel-held territories.

If aid is discontinued to the region millions would face the prospect of famine and disease and thousands may die as the health system collapses without any supply of medical equipment and the vaccination campaign comes to a halt.

Cynical political moves

Over the past 10 years, the Syrian conflict, which began when the regime brutally cracked down on peaceful protests demanding political change, has transformed into a complex proxy war. Russia, Iran, the US and Turkey have all been involved in the conflict, supporting a wide array of armed groups. The rivalry between these actors has played out not only on the ground in Syria, where it has resulted in immense devastation, but also on the political stage of the UN.

Today, Russia, which as the Syrian regime’s main ally shares responsibility for the displacement and suffering of Syrians in Idlib, is trying to use its veto power to strike down the renewal of the UN resolution for its own political purposes.

It wants to put pressure on the civilian population and opposition forces in Idlib to accept its proposed political solution, which favours the interests of the Syrian regime. One of the initiatives it has sponsored and which it wants the Syrian rebel groups to accept is the Constitutional Committee, which supposedly brings together Syrian regime operatives and opposition members. The committee is tasked with writing a new constitution in Syria to usher in reconciliation between the opposition and the region but, by design, it is heavily skewed in favour of Damascus’ interests.

In threatening to veto the UN resolution, Moscow also hopes to put pressure on the US and Turkey, who have been supporting opposition forces since the start of the conflict, and use it as a bargaining chip in their strained bilateral relations with the US. In fact, the situation in Syria was brought up during the recent summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden, although no agreement was reached.

Russia’s bad-faith use of its veto power is hardly surprising. Over the past few years, Syria has emerged as a stage of immensely cynical geopolitical calculations by various regional and world powers. Decisions made and actions taken have almost never been in the best interest of the Syrian people.

The bombed-out ruins and bare-bone tent cities of Idlib illustrate what it means to live under humanitarian austerity. If Russia vetoes the UN resolution on humanitarian assistance to northwest Syria, these 4 million Syrians will have to face a humanitarian disaster that callous geopolitics purposefully caused.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.