Just over half a mile from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing connecting Syria and Turkey, there is still a 6th-century triumphal arch, the remains of a Roman road stretching like an arrow on both sides. For millennia, this part of the world has been a crossroads of commerce, culture and history. Today is more important than ever.
Bab al-Hawa is Syria’s last lifeline, through which vital UN aid supplies arrive for 3.4 million people living in the war-torn north-west of the country. But before July 10, the the security council must vote in New York on the desirability of maintaining the flow of aid. What might seem like an obvious decision to outsiders is actually far from certain: Russia can use its veto power as a permanent council member to shut down the last UN access point, as it has managed to do with the other three crossings. of help.
The fact that UN assistance to Syrians living outside the regime’s control may suddenly end this week is a reminder not only that the international community has failed the Syrian people, but how the conflict has broken the mechanisms. built to keep the world safe.Syrian refugees in Idlib receive humanitarian aid, June 30. Aid workers say 1.8 million people living in camps will lose food supplies if the Bab al-Hawa crossing is suspended. Photograph: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
Compared to many deeper areas in the country, Bab al-Hawa is an island of order and stability: manicured lawns and trees surround the crossing offices and the asphalt is clean and smooth. Hundreds of commercial and aid trucks pass by each day.
Employees inspect more than 30,000 tonnes of aid a month, about 60% of which comes from the UN. The vast majority, 87.5%, are food, with the remainder made up of medicines, other health supplies, clothing, sanitation and hygiene equipment, according to the crossing’s spokesman, Mazen Alloush.
Humanitarian worker Bakri al-Obeid. Photographer: Ghaith Alsayed / The Guardian
“If the entry of UN aid is suspended, the crossing will not be closed, but it will be a catastrophe,” said aid worker Bakri al-Obeid. “The side effects would be enormous: around 1.8 million people living in camps will lose food supplies, 2.3 million will lose clean water and half of the hospitals will lose funding. Food prices will go up and bakeries will close. “
Across northwestern Syria, the need is acute. After a decade of war, the area is the last left out of Bashar al-Assad’s control, after the military intervention of his Russian allies in 2015 turned the tide of the war in favor of the government. The population of Idlib city and the surrounding countryside has risen from one million to about 3.4 million as displaced people have fled the advance of the regime, with two-thirds living in camps or other makeshift accommodation.
The region is, for the most part, ruled by a militant Islamist group, leaving civilians caught between the two forces. The 2020 ceasefire is routinely ignored: The regime’s airstrikes are aimed at regulating civilian infrastructure, pushing limited health facilities to breaking point.
Last years collapse of the Syrian pound sent food prices skyrocketing, and the arrival of Covid-19 has exacerbated the level of need across the country, but the Northwest is suffering the most.
“If the aid gate is closed, we would have to shut down the hospital operations in a week,” said Dr. Tarraf al-Tarraf, a urologist who switches to emergency surgery every time there is a new wave of bombing. “It will be a total disaster … To shut down Bab al-Hawa is to use aid as a weapon.”
A mother and her baby in the Idlib camp near the border gate of Bab al-Hawa, Syria, on June 30. Photograph: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
International aid has been deeply politicized since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. “It was clear from 2011 that it was going to be difficult to get the Russians to participate in a meaningful way,” said a senior Western diplomat of the UN’s early efforts to stop the regime’s violence against the Arab Spring protesters.
After it became clear that a series of peace talks known as the Geneva process, along with other diplomatic efforts, were not going to bring a timely end to the fighting, many at the UN decided to focus on what could be done to alleviate the humanitarian situation. situation.
Finally, in 2014, member states agreed to Resolution 2165, based on legal justifications, which allowed the UN to operate without the permission of the Damascus government and provide aid directly to rebel-held areas through four border crossings: two with Turkey, one with Iraq and one with Jordan.
“It was a very difficult negotiation, but we were able to carry it forward by taking advantage of the fact that the crisis in Ukraine was unfolding, as well as the Winter Olympics in Sochi, putting Moscow on the defensive,” said the diplomat. “It was a breakthrough in our efforts to bring relief to the people of Syria. Even if it didn’t work out as well as we would have liked, it was a big step. “
However, in January 2020, arguing that the situation on the ground had changed, Russia used the threat of a total veto to cut off the Iraqi border crossing; in July, it cut another in the northwest. (Al-Ramtha, on the Jordanian border, became less crucial after 2018, when the regime regained control of the area.)
A human chain is made up of humanitarian workers and activists during protests to keep the Bab al-Hawa crossing open, July 2, Idlib. Photographer: Rami Alsayed / NurPhoto / REX / Shutterstock
Today, only Bab al-Hawa remains, and the Russian delegation to the UN has again hinted that it will veto the extension of the resolution’s mandate when it expires next week.
Moscow has long argued that all UN aid to Syria, rather than part of it, should be distributed centrally through the Syrian government, blaming Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the militant group that controls Idlib, along with Turkey, who backs some rebel groups for not allowing aid from Damascus.
The children take refuge in one of the camps along the border between Turkey and northwestern Syria. Photograph: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
However, based on bitter experience, Syrians in the northwest know that if the regime controls the flow of aid, they are unlikely to see any of that. “When eastern Ghouta was under siege, the only humanitarian corridor was with the regime,” Obeid said. “People were starving.”
Efforts to keep Bab al-Hawa open and restore the other two crosses have accelerated in capitals around the world before the New York showdown. Mark Cutts, the UN deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said it is crucial that member states understand the scale of the potential crisis.
“We have managed to carry out a massive relief operation for 10 years, supporting civilians on different sides of the front line. We need the support of the security council to continue providing cross-border aid in northwestern Syria, where there is shelling and artillery practically every day, ”he said.
“The war has not ended. Our cross-border operation from Turkey has proven to be the safest and most direct route. Cutting that lifeline would be a crime. “
While aid agencies have realized since the first crossing was closed in 2020 that they may need to make contingency plans to bypass the UN and rely on local partners, there is no real or immediate work alternative to Bab al-Hawa.
Washington and Moscow also cautiously view the vote as a harbinger of future relations. “The problem is, even if Moscow doesn’t use its veto this time, it just kicks the road for six months, or maybe a year, depending on how long the mandate is extended,” Dareen Khalifa said. Syria Senior Analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“Putting the lifeline of three million Syrians in negotiations every six to 12 months is an unsustainable situation. And Syrian civilians end up paying the price. “