Russia expected to again block crucial aid to 4 million civilians in northeast Syria

Local officials in northeast Syria have urged the United Nations Security Council to reauthorize medical aid deliveries through an Iraqi border crossing to Syria’s northeastern region.

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Local officials in northeast Syria have urged the United Nations Security Council to reauthorize medical aid deliveries through an Iraqi border crossing to Syria’s northeastern region. Since its closure in December, over four million civilians living there have not been able to get crucial humanitarian aid amid worsening economic conditions and the threat of coronavirus outbreaks.

Experts expect, however, that Russia will likely block efforts to reopen the border gate.

“More than four million people in the northeast of Syria, including IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) from other cities, refugees, are all under threat of hunger and suffering as the cross-borders are closed to get humanitarian support,” Sinam Mohamed, the representative of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) in Washington, told Kurdistan 24.

“The main border which the region used to get humanitarian support from the UN was the al-Yarubiyah, which is now closed. This border is so important as it’s the only border which we were receiving support to the northeast of Syria. The regime is not allowing humanitarian aid reaching our region.”

“It is the UN responsibility to solve this issue and reopen the Al-Yarubiah border,” she charged.

Under a program begun in 2014, the Security Council authorized UN aid to be delivered to areas of Syria not under regime control. The program was subsequently renewed on an annual basis.

In December, though, Russia and China both vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have extended the program for another year. In addition, the Al-Yarubiah border crossing, which connects areas in Syria governed by the local Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) eastward to Iraq, was closed, as was a border gate in the south, on Syria’s border with Jordan.

That left open only two border gates with Turkey, in the north, to deliver UN aid to areas of Syria not under regime control.

The humanitarian aid program was finally renewed in January, in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 2504, but only for six months, and because of the closure of the Al-Yarubiah gate, the Kurdish-led AANES became more dependent on Damascus’s approval for UN aid, further weakening the autonomy of the local administration.

“In terms of the gate at Yaroubiah, a large amount of aid arrived, especially for the IDP camps and in the health sector. The WHO brought the majority of their medicines and supplies from there, both in and outside of the camps,” Mehmud Bro, an official of the Internal Affairs Bureau from the local administration, told Kurdistan 24 via the Rojava Information Centre.

“The closure of the gate has stopped that. Now, aid only arrives via the regime in Damascus. Damascus blocks the aid, it politicizes it. They redirect the aid to Damascus or to regions friendly to them. But they don’t care if our regions have medicine or not: in fact, they create pressure on the AANES in this way. It creates a humanitarian pressure.”

UN Security Council members are now discussing the reauthorization of two border crossings for northwest Syria for 12 months before their mandate expires on July 10, along with an emergency reauthorization of al-Yarubiyah.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement Tuesday in which he called for re-opening Al-Yarubiyah, as did UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in an earlier statement.

However, Russia is acting to end all cross-border aid to northern Syria, arguing it undermines Syria’s sovereignty and should therefore only go through Damascus.

“We believe that after the expiration of UN Security Council Resolution 2504 on July 10, 2020, humanitarian assistance to the Syrians should be carried out in coordination with Damascus, as provided for in international humanitarian law,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement in January.

Thomas McClure, a Syria-based researcher at the Rojava Information Center, told Kurdistan 24 that the “closure of Yaroubiah has driven widespread shortages in the health sector, with multiple health centers across Raqqa, Deir-ez-Zor and in IDP camps experiencing severe shortages and some forced to shutter as a result of the gate being closed.”

“This move is entirely political, with Russia attempting to force the autonomous regions of North and East Syria to submit to rule from Damascus by choking off vital lines of aid needed to handle covid-19 and the wider humanitarian crisis in Northeast Syria.”

McClure added that the re-opening Al-Yarubiyah “would send a message that things in Syria cannot just go back to how they were before the past ten years of war and destruction, that humanitarian aid cannot be used as a political weapon, and that the Assad government and their Russian backers will have to accept the reality of autonomy in the north-east.”

He stressed, though, that it seems likely that the gate closing is intended to place, “further unnecessary hardship on north-east Syria in order to serve the political interests of the Assad government.”

Editing by John J. Catherine