The countdown for UN vote on Syria aid lifeline begins

Bab Al-Hawa: The countdown for UN vote on Syria aid life-line begins
7 min read
09 July, 2021
Aid agencies have told The New Arab that a Russia veto of the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing would threaten the lives of thousands of children in Northwest Syria.
A day of reckoning: As the United Nations Security Council prepares to vote on the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing, millions of Syrian lives could be put at risk by a Russian veto [Getty]

For ten years, the population of Idlib province has heaved and swelled with millions of Syria's poorest and most vulnerable people finding refuge there

As opposition areas across Syria fell in quick succession to regime assaults, the families of rebel fighters or civilians fearing the security forces fled to Idlib where they now make up the majority of the 1.5 million living in Northwest Syria's camps. 

High birth rates have added to the population growth, which has seen the province’s pre-war population of around 1.5 million more than double in ten-years.  

"[A Russian veto] would essentially grant the regime power over the lives and deaths of millions of people they have long tried to subjugate"

On Saturday, the only border crossing into the opposition enclave could be shut if Russia and China veto an extension of Bab Al-Hawa mandate. It would leave hundreds of children without access to aid and at risk of disease and starvation.

Russia, which has threatened to veto the extension, argues that aid can still reach Idlib and Aleppo via Damascus. 

The idea of the Syrian regime becoming the gatekeeper of this lifeline of humanitarian supplies to opposition areas has been rejected by many NGOs, wary of Damascus’ notorious reputation for corruption, its politicisation of aid, and previous starvation sieges on rebel territories.

Doing so would essentially grant the regime power over the lives and deaths of millions of people they have long tried to subjugate. As if to demonstrate this, the regime and Russia have stepped up attacks on Idlib province in recent weeks, killing dozens of civilians. 

Around three-in-four people in Northwest Syria rely on UN aid and around 85 percent of these supplies come via Bab Al-Hawa. Closing the border would likely lead to catastrophic outbreaks of diseases – including Covid-19 - more children out of school, and inevitably starvation, probably on a scale unseen in the war. 

Save the Children has worked with its partners to provide aid to more than 2 million people in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, offering vital child protection, education health, sanitation, and nutrition services. 

"Aid agencies say that if Bab Al-Hawa is shut, it would be impossible to provide Syrians in the northwest with the level of support they need to survive"

Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s Syria Response Director, explained the dire situation for the hundreds of thousands of children who rely on agencies for food, school, and medicine. 

"Some of these children have been displaced several times already - some as many as ten times. And now, chronic malnutrition is rising. Child labour is widespread and child marriage is all too common," Khush told The New Arab in an email. 

"The dire economic situation is causing profound stress and desperation. Save the Children’s partners have documented newborn infants being abandoned on roadsides, in hospitals and even in a garbage can."

If the border crossing is not permitted by the UN to operate for another year, then the lives of 1 million people who rely on food assistance could be put in jeopardy. Health and Covid-19 services in Aleppo and Idlib provinces will also be essentially stalled.  

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"Without the cross-border resolution being renewed for 12 months, children will be denied access to health and nutrition services when they are sick, denied access to sufficient food to help them to grow up healthy, and denied the chance to go to school," Khush said. 

"They are more likely instead to be forced to work or marry early, to go hungry or to die from entirely preventable diseases."

Aid agencies say that if Bab Al-Hawa is shut, it would be impossible to provide Syrians in the northwest with the level of support they need to survive

The WFP, for example, provides food aid to around 1.4 million people in Northwest Syria via the border crossing. If Bab Al-Hawa is sealed then food supplies could run out by September and leave 1 million people with no access to food, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has warned. 

"For us as the IRC, it is our health programming that will be impacted the most if the UN is no longer authorised to deliver aid into Northwest Syria, as we would face challenges in procuring critical medicines," Suad Jarbawi, regional vice president for the IRC told The New Arab

"Additionally, many of our Syrian partner organisations will be seriously affected, as they receive a substantial amount of funding and support from the UN. One of them estimates that half of its health programming would lose funding, and this will have a severe impact on people living in the region who rely on the health care that we and other NGOs provide." 

When the cross-border mechanism was set-up by the UN in 2014, 10 million people relied on humanitarian aid. Since then, this figure has increased by 30 percent and by 20 percent over the past year, Jarbawi said, in part due to difficulties in reaching non-regime areas through a "principled, timely, sustainable and effective manner". 

Reaching opposition areas will be infinitely more difficult for aid agencies if the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing is closed. 

"Lessons can be learned from the detrimental impact that the loss of the Al-Yarubiyah crossing point (to Kurdish-held areas) has had on people in the northeast. Eighteen months since it was removed from the resolution, cross-line assistance is still only able to provide a limited response to meet the needs of only some populations in the northeast," said Jarbawi. 

"Its effectiveness is hampered by delays, insecurity, bureaucratic impediments and community acceptance.  

"These issues combined, have meant cross-line access is currently not able to provide timely, predictable, appropriate and effective delivery of aid and the IRC and other NGOs have experienced chronic shortages of essential supplies including medicines and reproductive health kits which previously were able to be delivered by the WHO directly to the northeast."

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The issue has impacted efforts to battle the Covid-19 epidemic, while the UN has voiced alarm about the overall aid shortages for northeast Syria. 

The Russian proposal of sending aid for Northwest Syria via Syrian-regime territories would be impractical, as NGOs based in Damascus are not able to transfer funds to Idlib. This would force agencies to deliver finances for projects in Idlib via cash, with transfers across conflict lines vulnerable to being diverted by various actors. International donors would also be far less likely to fund projects due to compliance requirements.  

"To date, there has been no cross-line humanitarian delivery from government-controlled to opposition-controlled areas of northwest Syria such as Idlib. There are a number of challenges to the movement of aid, including bureaucratic impediments and insecurity and ongoing conflict in the northwest which make the reality of crossing into Idlib extremely risky and challenging for humanitarian actors," said Jarbawi.

"Another major challenge is also lack of acceptance of services delivered by actors from Government of Syria controlled areas by local communities in the northwest. These sentiments have been repeatedly shared with NGOs operating in the northwest."

If Russia or China veto the border crossing mandate, then millions in Syria will risk starvation and disease. If the motion passes, then aid agencies will continue to struggle with the already considerable challenges of providing aid to the people of Idlib. While there are few good choices in the war, Russia and China's decisions will have life-changing impact for millions of children. 

Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin