It took five votes over a week for the 15-member United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to extend the provision of aid to millions of displaced Syrians through Turkey. The outcome, however, was what Russia and China had hoped for.
For days, the members of the UNSC haggled with the allies of Bashar al-Assad to renew authorization of the two existing border openings—Bab al-Salaam and Bab al-Hawa, through Turkey. But Russia and China vetoed all attempts. They even brought in their own proposal demanding the United Nations assess the impact of West-imposed sanctions on Syria. Finally, a day after the deadline to extend the authorization had passed, an agreement was reached to let the aid filter in but through just one of the two remaining border crossings.
Amnesty International said it amounted to abuse of veto power and described it as “despicable and dangerous.” Sherine Tadros, Amnesty International’s Head of UN Office, said: “It’s impossible to overstate the importance of ensuring the crossing points, [for] delivering vital aid, stay open. For millions of Syrians, it is the difference between having food to eat and starving. For hospitals, it is about having enough supplies to save lives.”
The closure of Bab al-Salaam crossing would deny aid to 1.3 million Syrians living in cramped camps in Aleppo countryside, 500,000 of whom are children.
The closure of Bab al-Salaam crossing would deny aid to 1.3 million Syrians living in cramped camps in Aleppo countryside, most of whom were displaced several times during the course of the war. Five hundred thousand of the inhabitants in these camps are children.
Germans, who have been at the forefront of post-conflict management in rebel-held Syria, reprimanded the Russians, and the Chinese, in clear terms. Germany’s Ambassador to the UN, Christoph Heusgen, said, “How [are] those people, who gave the instructions to cut off the aid of 500,000 children . . . ready to look into the mirror tomorrow?”
Kelly Craft, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, described Russia and China’s veto as heartless and said it put millions of lives at risk. “This heartlessness shouldn’t surprise any of us, yet I am shocked each time my colleagues from both countries choose to blithely threaten the lives of millions,” she said in a statement.
Russia and China, as usual, turned a deaf ear to Western criticism. The duo have repeatedly used their veto at the UNSC to save Assad from being tried at the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes. This time, however, they wielded it as leverage to seek concessions from America’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran and its allies. While they highlighted their principle objection as violation of Syrian sovereignty and said that aid can and must go through territory controlled by the Syrian government, they used the latest obstruction to convey to the Americans that they would not allow the West to provide aid to Syrians in rebel-held Syria whilst they imposed sanctions on Assad and his men to weaken his survival.
The Syrian economy is going through its worst crisis since the war began nine years ago. As the Syrian pound devalued – from 50 Syrian pounds to US$1 before the uprising, to 3,000 Syrian pounds to US$1 last month, the US enforced the Caesar Act (named after a Syrian official who fled the country with 55,000 photographs of tortured and killed Syrians in the state’s prisons) and sanctioned 39 entities linked to Assad. But the legislation went a step further and threatened to sanction citizens of any country that helped the regime in rebuilding war-ravaged Syria. The US and many European countries fear that if reconstruction precedes a political resolution, the funds would end up lining the pockets of the regime instead of helping Syrians.
Moscow spent billions of dollars in sustaining Assad and hoped to profit from the post-war construction boom.
Moscow spent billions of dollars in sustaining Assad and hoped to profit from the post-war construction boom. Beijing, too, had been waiting for the payday for the support it rendered. But the Caesar Act has thrown a spanner in the works. Russia and China are expecting relief on sanctions from the US so they can carry on as envisaged. In their statements, both Russia and China demanded that the US lift its “unilateral” and “coercive” measures imposed on Syria. Zhiang Jun, China’s permanent representative to the UN, said the US’ double standards on humanitarian issues were revealed when it imposed the “Caesar Act.” And, in a veiled threat, Jun added that the supply of aid — even through the single crossing — is alright “at this stage,” implying that unless the US eased sanctions pressure, Putin and Jinping won’t shy away from shutting down the last border opening come the renewal in six months.
Back in 2014, the UN had set up the cross-border aid delivery mechanism. In January, Russia and China claimed that the conflict was nearly over and refused to re-authorize the al-Ramtha border crossing on the Syria-Jordan border, and the Al Yarubiyah crossing on Syria’s border with Iraq. From four last year, the number of authorized crossings to supply aid have now been reduced to one.
Activists said aid is being blocked at a time when the first case of the coronavirus in the region has come to light and some of the poorest Syrians need more aid than ever before. They deem sending it through Assad-held Syria as a useless option.
Independent activists have long accused the UN aid mechanisms of aiding Assad by buckling under the regime’s pressure and supplying aid through the regime.
Independent activists have long accused the UN aid mechanisms of aiding Assad by buckling under the regime’s pressure and supplying aid through the regime, which controls it and distributes a disproportionate amount in loyalist areas.
The UNHCR and the UNDP have partnered with Bashar al-Assad’s wife Asma Assad who runs the Syria Trust for Development — a network of charities founded in 2001. She monopolized charity in the country especially since she eliminated competition from her only rival, Bashar’s maternal cousin, business tycoon, and regime banker Rami Makhlouf. The latter distributed food and provided medical treatment to the regime’s Alawite fighters through his own charity called Al Bustan, but recently he was stopped by the regime and asked to pay millions in back taxes. The feud came out in the open as Makhlouf went online to protest against what he alluded as Asma Assad’s machinations.
The US too has noticed Asma’s rise and, to counter it, sanctioned Syria’s first lady under the Caesar Act. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned the Syrian regime that there will be more sanctions this summer and put special emphasis on Lady Assad’s contribution in replenishing the palace’s coffers. In a statement, Pompeo said: “I will make special note of the designation for the first time of Asma al-Assad, the wife of Bashar al-Assad, who with the support of her husband and members of her Akhras family has become one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers.”
It seems unlikely that the Russian and Chinese posturing would provide sanctions relief, but more aid would now inadvertently pass through the regime and make it easier for them to divert it to the loyalists. Millions of displaced Syrians in the last rebel-held areas, however, are penniless, jobless, hungry, and desperate for help too. Their miseries have only compounded.