Do Five Million Syrian Lives Matter? Ask Russia and China

U.K. shadow minister for international development: Open border crossings are critical for Syrians. Without them millions will starve, and face COVID-19 with no medical aid at all. But at the UN Security Council, two countries are blocking those lifelines

Anna McMorrin
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Rawan al-Aziz, a 6-year-old Syrian displaced child, from Southern Idlib countryside, poses for a picture in a tent at Atmeh camp, near the Turkish border, Syria June 19, 2020.
Rawan al-Aziz, a 6-year-old Syrian displaced child, from Southern Idlib countryside, poses for a picture in a tent at Atmeh camp, near the Turkish border, Syria June 19, 2020.Credit: Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
Anna McMorrin

Within days, millions of vulnerable Syrians may lose their lifeline to critical aid. The UN Security Council has days left to renew and reauthorize cross-border routes from Turkey into north-west and north-east Syria, areas outside the control of Bashar Assad. These routes are critical lifelines for delivering humanitarian and medical relief to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. 

But Russia and China have just vetoed a resolution, drafted by Germany and Belgium and backed by all of the 13 remaining Security Council members, to keep those routes open. They have proposed an alternative resolution which simply does not met Syrian civilians’ extreme level of need. 

The window of opportunity to renew cross-border crossings before July 10th is closing, but with a determined and concerted effort, there could still be a chance to ensure that clear humanitarian needs are answered.

Death, disease and destruction have been ever-present in Syria since the conflict broke out almost a decade ago. But at the turn of the year, Mark Lowcock, the UN’s humanitarian affairs chief, described the humanitarian situation as having descended to a “horrifying new level.” 

Pre-existing conditions, such as inadequate access to healthcare, medicines and acceptable sanitation, food insecurity, water shortages, and squalid living environments, exacerbated by ongoing conflict, have been compounded further by the onset of COVID-19. In recent months, the human suffering in Syria has descended to new depths, a disgrace to the modern age. 

A member of a non-governmental aid organization measures temperature as a preventive measure for the coronavirus in the town of Kafr Takharim in Syria's Idlib province, on April 14, 2020.
A member of a non-governmental aid organization measures temperature as a preventive measure for the coronavirus in the town of Kafr Takharim in Syria's Idlib province, on April 14, 2020.Credit: Ghaith Alsayed / AP

We must rise to the challenge to protect Syria’s most vulnerable people and communities in the midst of the worst pandemic in living memory. Most of them, in common with the vulnerable in fragile states across the globe, have no recourse to tackle the virus. Over half of healthcare facilities have been decimated, clean water is scarce and access to PPE and medicines is critically low. 

The cross-border mechanism is a critical lifeline for over five million Syrians, providing food, shelter, and other services. Without them millions will starve, and worse, they will be denied access to critical healthcare and medicines, including those needed to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and prevent its spread in one of the world’s most fragile environments. The potential for the virus to incubate in the region would have devastating consequences for regional and global health. 

As the U.K.’s Shadow Minister for International Development, I and my party call on global leaders, my counterparts in the U.K. government, who sit on the UN Security Council, and to Russia and China to act now to avert the humanitarian emergency in Syria from spiralling out of control. 

The rubber-stamped UNSC resolution of January 2020 to ensure humanitarian crossing points was fraught with political tension, and for some time it looked like it would not pass at all. In the end a diluted resolution was approved, retaining two crossings at Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa between Turkey and north-west Syria. 

But those UN-authorized crossings into north-east Syria were axed six months ago and, ever since, aid organizations operating in the region have spoken frankly of the "devastating" impact this has had on health and wellbeing. A report released in May by the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, noted border crossings into north-east Syria "constitute a crucial component of the humanitarian response operation" and went further by suggesting the crossings alone are "clearly not sufficient to meet current needs" in light of COVID-19. 

Renewal of the resolution, in the context of the pandemic, is a basic requirement. Anything which falls short of this position could be fatal for millions of Syrians.

The UNSC decision not to renew the Al Yarubiyah and Al Ramtha crossings back in January – thanks to vetoes by Russia and China - was ill-judged and short-sighted. Pulling up the drawbridge on vital medical and humanitarian aid assistance at the onset of a global pandemic was foolhardy toward human life at best, and negligent at worst. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses troops at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, December 12, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses troops at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, December 12, 2017.Credit: Mikhail Klimentyev/Pool Photo via AP

Those vetoes were an abdication of responsibility on the part of global leaders to work in the interest of not just the international community, but of the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. Using veto power again is a doubling down of that injustice.

That is why Labour have championed efforts in the U.K. to seek not just the renewal of humanitarian cross-border access, but an expansion of the existing resolution before the deadline on 10th July. The same mistakes made in January on critical aid routes cannot be made twice. There was no humanitarian justification for the dilution of the resolution earlier this year, and there is no reason for vetoing it now. There must be sufficient political will.

I have argued consistently that you cannot solve humanitarian and health injustices in Syria unless you renew the two current north-west border crossings, reauthorize a third in the north-east at Al Yarubiyah, and extend the resolution for 12 months to allow for planning and delivery of aid programming to take place. 

Labour believe that it is the U.K.’s obligation to protect the world’s most vulnerable, and I am pleased the U.K. government has listened and is now pursuing a stronger approach at UNSC meetings. The U.K.’s voice and strength on the international stage is important in pushing other member states into acknowledging the overwhelming humanitarian need. Our position must be grounded in common sense and compassion. 

Children of internally displaced Syrian families look out of a tent's zipper door at a camp in Turmanin, Idlib province, near the Turkish border, on February 14, 2020.
Children of internally displaced Syrian families look out of a tent's zipper door at a camp in Turmanin, Idlib province, near the Turkish border, on February 14, 2020.Credit: Muhammed Said / Anadolu Agency / AFP

The humanitarian emergency in Syria will descend to a horrifying new low if access to critical border crossings for food and medical aid is blocked. Now is not the time for political posturing. International aid stands between eating or starving or allowing COVID-19 to spread unchallenged.

When negotiations began back in April, the possibility for a reauthorization seemed distant. Although it’s encouraging  that key voices in the UNSC – the U.K. and U.S., Germany and Belgium – now widely accepts this route as the best way forward for the long-suffering civilians of Syria, the path is blocked by Russia and China.

It is time for global leaders to show political courage and ensure they will do more than just talk about protecting the world’s most vulnerable. As the U.N. Secretary General’s office notes: "Lives depend on it."

Anna McMorrin MP is the U.K. shadow minister for international development. Twitter: @AnnaMcMorrin

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