WHO alters UN-Syria aid memo in apparent concession to Russia, China

The World Health Organization (WHO) removed the text of a direct appeal by aid groups working with the UN for a border crossing they deem crucial to providing humanitarian aid to civilians to be reopened in an updated version of a memo, reported Reuters on Thursday.

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) - The World Health Organization (WHO) removed the text of a direct appeal by aid groups working with the UN for a border crossing they deem crucial to providing humanitarian aid to civilians to be reopened in an updated version of a memo, reported Reuters on Thursday.

The move by the WHO is seen as appeasement toward Russia and China, which both vetoed a UN Security Council resolution in December to keep open the Al-Yarubiah border crossing, which connects areas in Syria held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) eastward to Iraq. 

Read More: Russia, China veto UN vote, limiting humanitarian aid to Syria   

As a result, the areas became more dependent on Damascus’s approval for UN aid, further weakening the autonomy of the local Kurdish-led self-administration.  

Read More: Syrian Kurds criticize UN decision limiting humanitarian aid to Syria 

Russia has argued that al-Yarubiyah is no longer necessary as areas serviced by it are now under Syrian government control and could be supplied from Damascus, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report on Thursday.

Vassily Nebenzia, Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN, during a Security Council meeting on Wednesday urged other UN member states to “not to waste their time on looking for a way to advocate, explicitly or implicitly for getting Al-Yarubiah back and saying that this be the ‘only solution.’”

He called on member states to instead focus “on engaging humanitarian agencies in a constructive dialogue with Syrian authorities.”

Previously, the UN’s Yaroubiyeh operation had supplied 40 percent of medical provisions used in SDF-run areas. Especially now, during the coronavirus pandemic, the local Kurdish-backed administration says they need all the assistance they can get.

The US Ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, on Wednesday criticized the Russian position, saying it was essential to provide aid to the northeast, and that a request to Damascus “to deliver medical supplies to the northeast by land or air takes three to four months. Not days, months.” 

Read More: US calls on Security Council to restore cross-border aid to northern Syria 

“What’s more, when the Syrian regime does respond, the majority of time is to deny requests.” As a result, she continued, “only 30 percent of medical facilities in the northeast that were previously supported by cross-border deliveries from Yaroubia have continued to receive supplies.”

So far, there have been two confirmed COVID-19 cases in northeastern Syria and there are fears that the highly-contagious virus could hit Syria’s northeast hard since the healthcare system has been left in tatters by nine years of civil war.

The situation at overcrowded camps that lack clean water, adequate food, or reliable medical services would invariably get even worse should the virus spread through their populations. 

Salih Muslim, the spokesperson of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), told Kurdistan 24 that the move is an attempt by the WHO to force the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) “towards the Syrian regime.” He added that this could endanger thousands of civilians in the northeast of Syria since many humanitarian organizations were using the border crossing to provide medical aid.

Louis Charbonneau, the United Nations director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Kurdistan 24 that it’s essential that the WHO presents “unvarnished facts to the Security Council so they can make the right decision based on what’s needed to prevent a catastrophic outbreak of Covid-19 in Syria.”

“Their original recommendation to reopen al-Yarubiyah was the right one and they should stick to it. Reopening Yarubiyah to medical supplies and personnel needed to combat Covid-19 could save many lives,” he continued.

Furthermore, he said that research by HRW published earlier this week into the situation “has shown that Yarubiyah is necessary. The WHO said that last week as well,” and then added that the WHO offered no response when asked whether it had been pressured to change its recommendation.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Kurdistan 24 that the WHO, like other UN agencies, is state-centric in its response.

“In Syria, this means that WHO finds itself forced to cooperate with a regime that does not care about the well-being of Syrians, routinely withholds medical assistance from them, bombs hospitals and kills doctors, nurses and first-responders.”

She said that, as a result of the Russian veto, the “WHO’s response in north east Syria now depends on the willingness of the Assad regime to allow WHO to send aid from Damascus.” 

“The WHO’s duty toward the Syrian people as a whole should have led them to speak loudly about the need to reopen the Yaroubia crossing, but instead they chose, once again, to censor themselves to avoid upsetting the Assad regime,” she concluded.

Editing by John J. Catherine