29 July 2020

Limited Cross-Border Access into North-West Syria Placing Strain on Humanitarians to Reach Many in Need, Aid Worker Tells Security Council

The closure of the Bab al-Salam border crossing is making it harder for humanitarians to access certain areas of Syria, an aid worker told the Security Council during a 29 July videoconference meeting*, while the representative of a permanent Council member argued that it is possible to handle increased deliveries through a single crossing that remains open.

“The inability to access certain areas in a rapid mechanism through Bab al-Salam — which is critical for the work we do — means that we’re now adding more burden on our aid workers to deliver those more distant and harder to reach areas,” said Amany Qaddour, Regional Director of Syria Relief and Development, a non-governmental organization that provides medical services in north-west Syria.

It was the first time that the Council has met on Syria’s humanitarian situation since the adoption on 11 July of resolution 2533 (2020) that reauthorized the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid to the country through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing for another 12 months.  But the resolution did not approve passage of aid through Bab al-Salam.

“With the Security Council’s decision, on 11 July, to extend authorization for UN cross-border aid delivery into north-west Syria, we are working to address the operational challenges arising from your decision,” said Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock.

Both briefers highlighted the risk of the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Mr. Lowcock, who is also Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases remains in the hundreds — still a relatively low level — but the true number of cases is certainly higher; limited testing capacity, compared to what is available in neighbouring countries, and a reluctance, among some people, to acknowledge an infection masks the real scale of the outbreak, he pointed out.

He warned that Syria’s economy, devastated by nearly a decade of conflict, has entered a period of extreme fragility, marked by exchange rate volatility, high inflation, dwindling remittances and lockdown measures to contain the coronavirus.

The country’s economy is expected to contract by more than 7 per cent in 2020, with unemployment jumping from 42 per cent in 2019 to close to 50 per cent today.  Estimated remittances from Gulf States alone are now $2 million per day, down from $4.4 million in 2017.  Food prices are 240 per cent higher than in June 2019.  “What this means is that families across the country can no longer afford the very basics,” Mr. Lowcock said.

The ceasefire reached in March in the north-west between the Russian Federation and Turkey is largely holding, but some air and ground-based strikes have been reported in recent weeks, he continued, stressing the need to protect civilians.

The Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria, with a funding requirement of $3.4 billion in 2020, is 32 per cent funded halfway through the year, making it one of the better funded operations, he said, adding that another $384 million is needed for Syria under the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, of which 28 per cent has been received.

He appealed to invest in the education of Syria’s children.  A third of school-aged children in Syria — 2.5 million children — are out of school.  Another 1.6 million are at risk of dropping out of school.

In her briefing, Ms. Qaddour said that COVID-19 can create a crisis within a crisis, noting that Syria is even more vulnerable considering how fragile its health system has become, which is further compounded by the deterioration of the economic situation.  Many are on the brink of starvation and mass displacement.

Ventilators, intensive care unit beds and personal protective equipment are all in short supply, she said.  Adding to this, hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, have precarious living conditions in inadequate homes or shelters, and these conditions simply don’t allow for proper social distancing, self-isolation, or hygiene measures for that matter.

She stressed the need to look at health care as a continuum and include provisions that provide primary and community health, rehabilitative care for those with disabilities, and also mental health, given the immense trauma many have endured and the rise in depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation.

Urging the Council to share the risk with humanitarian agencies, she said that “the risks aren’t simply passed down to the people who have already absorbed so much risk.”

With the thousands of displacements this past year, women are seen giving birth under trees, without access to health care, she continued.  It’s tempting to blame such practices on social or cultural norms, she said, asking the Council to consider the complexity and deeply rooted factors that have culminated and led to these practices.

In the ensuing discussion, Belgium’s representative, speaking also on behalf of Germany in its national capacity, shared concerns about the consequences of COVID-19 on current humanitarian operations.  Expressing frustration at continuous limitations of aid deliveries, he said the burden of responsibility lies on those countries which have systematically limited humanitarian access through the cross-border modality.  Member States who vetoed proposed resolutions to address this issue are voluntarily putting human lives at stake out of political motives.  Protection issues sadly continue to persist for those in arbitrary detention, the missing and victims of air or ground offensives, he said, calling on all parties to maximize restraint and consider the humanitarian repercussions of any military actions.  Condemning recent attacks by terrorist groups, he said any response should comply with obligations under international law.  Only a political settlement in line with resolution 2254 (2015) can put Syria back on track towards peace, he said, recalling that there is no justice without accountability.

Viet Nam’s delegate, echoing concerns about the worsening situation in Syria, reiterated that the first step towards progress revolves around opening humanitarian access, followed by facilitating aid deliveries throughout the country.  In this vein, he called on Damascus to continue to step up their cooperation with all relevant parties, including the United Nations, to improve and facilitate humanitarian access and response.  The only way out of current socioeconomic and security challenges is a comprehensive and sustained political solution, which is led and owned by Syria’s people, in line with resolution 2254 (2015) and in full accordance with international law.

The representative of the United States said that the continuation of the cross-border aid deliveries through a single crossing via Bab al-Hawa is fragile.  Most Council members, including her delegation, have demanded more crossings because they are necessary to address the needs of Syria’s people.  The Russian Federation and China ruthlessly stood in that way, vetoing two separate draft resolutions to deny the United Nations use of Bab al-Salaam for cross-border aid deliveries.  Their vetoes left millions of Syrians vulnerable in the country’s north-west and in need at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Her country has donated more than $11.3 billion in humanitarian assistance to Syria’s people since the start of the conflict.  Cross-line deliveries from Damascus are not working.  The United States will not accept the Assad regime’s policy of denying humanitarian aid to people living outside of its military control.  “We have heard Russia and China spin a false narrative that [United States] sanctions are to blame for the crisis in Syria,” she said.  “That’s just outlandish propaganda, but also a sinister attempt to whitewash [Syria President Bashar al-] Assad’s brutality and crimes against humanity.”

The representative of the Dominican Republic expressed concern about the poor capacity of Syria’s health system as cases of COVID-19 begin to be seen in the country.  Doctors and health-care workers have had to flee as a result of a decade of conflict which has not only destroyed critical infrastructure, but emotionally devastated millions of people.  Now, the closure of the Bab al-Salam border crossing is stretching humanitarian assistance into the north-west “to its very extreme limits”.  Also describing massive food insecurity, he said the only way to help civilians deal with those multiple crises is by increasing and sustaining humanitarian assistance through all feasible modalities.  In that regard, he emphasized the need to urgently reauthorize access through previously used United Nations crossing points, and to support a complete ceasefire in line with resolution 2254 (2015).

France’s representative said that an immediate cessation of hostilities and a humanitarian pause must be the priority.  All parties, in particular the Syrian regime, must ensure humanitarian access.  He expressed regret at the lack of consensus within the Council on cross-border assistance, saying that the politicization of humanitarian aid is unacceptable.  He also reiterated his country’s firm view that until a credible political process is firmly under way in Syria, France and the European Union will not finance reconstruction.  “Let us not be misled by the fable of the regime:  the economic crisis in Syria is the result of the regime’s destruction of its own country,” he said, adding that instrumentalization of the sanctions issue is unacceptable.

Indonesia’s representative urged all parties in Syria to protect civilians and to respect the call for a nationwide ceasefire.  “During this challenging time, military actions will not help those families who are struggling for food,” he said.  He highlighted the urgent need to suppress the spread of COVID-19 in Syria, emphasizing that such a delicate situation requires ongoing international support.  He stressed the need to maximize the Bab al-Hawa crossing through strong coordination between all relevant parties.  He also underscored the importance of ensuring the safety of humanitarian workers, adding that the Council’s actions must always focus on saving lives.

Niger’s delegate said that the humanitarian situation in Syria is becoming ever the more worrisome, with the combination of the effects of a protracted conflict, COVID-19 and the current economic downturn having rendered the situation even harder for the populations.  Commending the daily efforts of humanitarian agencies in delivering the much-needed assistance, he said their work is more than ever crucial as COVID-19 spreads across the country.  The current economic downturn and the devaluation of Syria’s currency have resulted in a steep rise in the price of food, medicine and other goods, he said, reiterating a call for a humanitarian relief of all unilateral economic measures that may hinder the Government’s ability to effectively fight this pandemic.

The Russian Federation’s representative said his delegation would like to know more about the United Nations operations in north-west Syria in line with the new cross-border mechanism, expressing hope that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs could organize an assessment mission to that part of the country to shed light on the situation on the ground.  Moscow would also appreciate more information on topics including the Declaration of Commitment signed by some armed groups and what measures the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has undertaken to increase cross-line deliveries.  Pointing out that cross-line aid deliveries are indeed rising, he said “do not try to pervert this fact in your attempts to blame Syrians for their reluctance to cooperate openly and fruitfully.”  Calling attention to the risk of an environmental disaster from oil spills, he said the United States was occupying Syrian oil fields and has done nothing to mitigate these threats.  Regretting to note that his delegation’s request for an additional briefer from the Secretariat for today’s debate was not handled appropriately, he said such reluctance raises many questions and may force him to request a separate Council videoconference meeting on this topic.

Turning to responsibility for the humanitarian situation, he said the onus lies with those countries who deliberately and discriminately introduce unilateral coercive measures and sanctions against Damascus while pretending that this does not affect the lives of ordinary Syrians.  The delegations that drafted the extension of the cross-border mechanism put their interests above the Council’s, resulting in more than a week of struggles then “enjoying themselves seeing our veto” instead of having a swift adoption, he said.  His Western colleagues chose to ignore the need to speed up efforts to effectively reach all parts of Syria, he said, adding that the same applies to the Secretary-General’s reports that mention the need to assess the impact of unilateral coercive measures.  His counterpart from France had mentioned this issue today but had failed to concur with it in the resolution on the cross-border mechanism, which is a double standard.  Agreeing that accountability will come, he said “those who you may see held accountable in the end may not be those whom you consider usual suspects.”  Noting that not all is measured in United States dollars, he said his delegation regularly issues bulletins on what is provided to Syria as humanitarian assistance.  The Russian Federation has been saving Syria from those who were or are still trying to ruin it, as what was done with Libya, he said, adding that:  “With one hand, you provide humanitarian assistance, with another you are trying to strangle the country.  Your reassurances that it does not affect ordinary people convince no one.  At least, they do not convince us or Syrians.”

Tunisia’s delegate said that until a political solution is reached, principled lifesaving aid must continue to be scaled up.  While resolutions 2532 (2020) and 2533 (2020) have set the framework for Syria, he underscored several points in light of the developments on the ground, particularly the urgent need to enhance prevention, mitigation and response measures to deal adequately with the mounting spread of the coronavirus.  As Syria’s medical infrastructure has been largely downgraded, underequipped or destroyed, it is essential that safe, unhindered and sustained delivery of tests, treatments and medicine be ensured across Syria, using cross-line and cross-border modalities.  Concerned about persistent low-intensity violence and the recurring disruption of water and electricity systems, he called on all parties to exercise self-restraint and protect civilians and civilian infrastructure.  The dire economic situation warrants that humanitarian and non-humanitarian assistance go hand in hand to cope with fragility, help achieve recovery and build long-term resilience.  Economic engagement and assistance of the international community is essential, alongside strengthened joint projects on rehabilitating severely damaged hospitals, schools and water, electricity and sanitation supplies.

China’s representative said that his country is deeply worried that Syria is now going through severe economic collapse.  It is undeniable that unilateral sanctions are having a grave impact on the humanitarian situation, he said, adding that so-called humanitarian exemptions cannot justify the actions of those States that have imposed sanctions.  The international community should increase humanitarian assistance to Syria’s people based on respect for the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  United Nations agencies are making full use of Bab al-Hawa, and, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, it is possible for this crossing point to handle the increased deliveries.  Rejecting irresponsible comments by the United States and some other countries towards China, he said that Beijing has always taken a constructive and responsible approach vis-à-vis the cross-border issue.  If the United States truly cares about the humanitarian situation in Syria, it should stop putting on a hypocritical political show, immediately lift its unilateral sanctions and stop its hegemonic policy of regime change and bullying in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, he said.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines expressed her support for resolution 2533 (2020), noting that the humanitarian needs in Syria are enormous and increasing and the cross-border mechanism continues to serve as an essential component in the provision of life-saving humanitarian assistance.  Syria’s humanitarian emergency has been made worse by the country’s rapidly declining economy, she said, voicing concern about the numerous interruptions in the operations of the Allouk water station.  She underscored the importance of preserving the ceasefire in the north-west and of establishing a lasting nationwide cessation of hostilities.

South Africa’s representative observed that many Syrian households are turning to “negative coping mechanisms” to make ends meet.  He called for the immediate lifting of all unilateral sanctions imposed on Syria, especially given the spread of COVID-19.  Humanitarian response efforts should focus on preparedness and response planning to minimize the potential impact of the coronavirus on refugees and internally displaced persons.  He also called for scaling up cross-line assistance inside Syria, now that the Al Yarubiyah and Bab al-Salaam border crossings are closed to humanitarian deliveries.  He went on to ask the Under-Secretary-General about the possibility of using the proceeds from Syrian oil production to fund relief efforts.

Estonia’s representative said the work of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is even more important considering the rising numbers of COVID-19 in Syria.  Agreeing that those most vulnerable to the virus live in overcrowded camps for internally displaced persons, he said unimpeded humanitarian access to such areas is crucial for an effective outbreak response.  Referring to discussions in the Council’s recent meetings on the situation, he noted that the issue of sanctions is sometimes mistakenly raised.  “There is no evidence that European Union sanctions in any way hinder Syria’s socioeconomic situation, or humanitarian response in the country,” he stressed, instead calling for more attention to the ongoing conflict and the root causes of instability.  The war has destroyed Syria’s physical infrastructure, with the Assad regime deliberately bombing civilian facilities, and trust in Government institutions remains low.  In addition, he said, lawlessness and warlordism — characterized by the presence of rogue military commanders, shabiha networks and Iranian-linked militias — also contribute to insecurity.

Turkey’s representative said it is regrettable that at this critical time when more humanitarian access is needed, lifeline cross-border operations have been reduced, leaving vulnerable people on the line amid the regime’s aggression and the ongoing global pandemic.  The exclusion of the Bab al-Salam crossing point will make humanitarian access extremely difficult for 1.3 million Syrians in northern Aleppo who continue to depend on United Nations assistance for their survival.  The Council’s failure to authorize the use of other available border crossings from Turkey, particularly Bab al-Salam, will only increase the suffering of those in need, particularly the most vulnerable, such as women and children.  Shutting down the most direct route to food, shelter and medical assistance will not serve the political calculations of those behind it, he observed, noting that Turkey will continue to assist United Nations cross-border aid operations in coordination and cooperation with all stakeholders.  Noting that it is a joint responsibility to bring assistance to those in need, he said the Council should urgently consider reauthorizing the use of Bab al-Salam crossing in light of the increased requirements.

There can be no sustainable humanitarian solution to the Syrian crisis without a political solution based on resolution 2254 (2015), he said, adding that Turkey continues to do its part, contributing to humanitarian efforts and fighting against terrorist groups.  Activities include 22 joint ground patrols with the Russian Federation along the M-4 highway and the entire 72-kilometre patrol route in July.  Turkey remains committed to the full implementation of the Additional Protocol in order to ensure lasting calm in Idlib.  While the Syrian regime must be held accountable for what amounts to war crimes, Syrians should not be left alone by the international community.  “They deserve our collective action; in doing so, we should also continue to expose and shame those who are on the wrong side of history and humanity,” he stressed.

Also speaking today were the representatives of Germany, United Kingdom and Syria.


* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.