Russia has vetoed the continuation of a U.N. aid operation that is a lifeline to more than four million Syrians living in areas outside of government control and signaled its readiness on Tuesday to completely shutter the nine-year-old aid operation.
“Now Moscow must answer to the international community — and you have to answer to the Syrian people,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said after Russia voted against a nine-month extension of the authorization that lets humanitarian aid flow from Turkey into northwest Syria, reaching 2.7 million people each month.
Brazil and Switzerland, which oversee the Syria humanitarian file on the 15-member council, had initially sought a one-year extension of the use of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. But once it became clear during negotiations that Russia would not go along with it, they sought nine months as a compromise. Some other Russian concerns were also addressed in the compromise text, which received 13 votes in favor. China abstained.
Over the last few years, Russia, with Syrian government backing, has forced the Security Council to shrink the cross-border aid operation and has threatened to totally close it down. Since 2021, Moscow has only agreed to 6-month renewals, instead of the year-long ones the council had approved since the operation was established in 2014, and which humanitarian groups have requested. Moscow and Damascus have also pushed for aid deliveries across conflict front lines from within the country, rather than from outside.
“The cross-border mechanism is an obvious violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria, which because of circumstances was possible 5 to 7 years ago, but looks completely anachronistic today,” Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the council.
After casting its veto, Russia put forward its own draft resolution, which offered only a six-month renewal. Humanitarians have repeatedly said this is insufficient for planning and efficiency. It would also mean the operation would come up for renewal again in early January — in the dead of winter.
Nebenzia said the choice was clear: “But let me state already here, if our draft is not supported, then we can just go ahead and close down the cross-border mechanism.”
He added that Moscow is not open to any kind of technical rollover, which is often used for a short amount of time to continue a mission while outstanding issues are worked out.
Tuesday’s votes took place after the mission’s authorization expired at midnight Monday, because the ongoing negotiations delayed plans for an earlier vote.
“Where we are right now is that trucks are not crossing the border at Bab al-Hawa,” Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield told reporters after the votes. “They have been stopped. So needed humanitarian assistance is not getting to the people.”
Following devastating earthquakes in February, the Syrian government did authorize the use of two other crossing points from Turkey. Those are available until August 13. The Assad government has not said publicly whether it plans to extend their use. But the U.N. says on their own they cannot match Bab al-Hawa, which sees about 85% of aid to northwest Syria transit the crossing.
“Bab al-Hawa remains the center of gravity for the U.N.’s cross-border response,” U.N. Spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters. He added that humanitarians pre-positioned supplies in northwest Syria ahead of the vote in order to meet short-term needs.
In the meantime, the Swiss ambassador said she is not giving up.
“The council has a responsibility in renewing the mandate for cross-border aid and we will keep up our work to find common ground and to ensure that we collectively live up to that responsibility,” Pascale Baeriswyl said.
Under a General Assembly resolution adopted in April 2022, Russia will now have to go before the U.N. membership within the next 10 days to explain its veto.