Russia and West in showdown over aid to Syria’s rebel area

As UN mandate over crossings expires, Germany and Belgium call for a vote on a draft resolution, while Moscow floats its own version

In this August 15, 2018 file photo, a woman talks with a soldier of the Syrian army during distribution of humanitarian aid from the Russian military in the town of Rastan, Syria. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits, File)
In this August 15, 2018 file photo, a woman talks with a soldier of the Syrian army during distribution of humanitarian aid from the Russian military in the town of Rastan, Syria. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits, File)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Russia and the West are in a showdown over continuing the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria’s mainly rebel-held northwest after the current UN mandate expires on Friday.

Germany and Belgium on Thursday called for a vote on a draft resolution that would maintain the two border crossings from Turkey to the northwest for six months — a position supported by the UN secretary-general, UN humanitarian chief and many aid organizations. The result is scheduled to be announced early Friday afternoon.

Without waiting for the announcement, Russia announced late Thursday that it had circulated a new resolution which would authorize just one crossing from Turkey for a year. It put the draft in a form that can be put to a vote.

A series of tweets from Russia’s deputy UN ambassador Dmitry Polyansky announcing the new Russian resolution and urging Western support strongly indicated that Moscow will veto the German-Belgium draft.

Russia, Syria’s closest ally, has argued that aid should be delivered from within Syria across conflict lines. But the UN and humanitarian groups say aid for 2.8 million needy people in the northwest can’t get in that way.

In this Aug. 4, 2016 file photo, people gather to take basic food supplies and other aid from community leaders charged with distributing equitably the supplies to the 64,000-person refugee camp called Ruqban on the Jordan-Syria border. (AP Photo, File)

The German-Belgium resolution being voted on would extend the mandate for the two border crossings from Turkey to the northwest — Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa — for six months.

The Russian-drafted resolution would only authorize cross-border deliveries through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, for a year.

Germany’s UN ambassador, Christoph Heusgen, said Wednesday that while the Bab Al-Hawa crossing is used to deliver aid to Idlib province, the Bab al-Salam crossing reaches the region north of Aleppo, where an additional 300,000 Syrians displaced by the last offensive are now sheltering.

“Both areas are separated by conflict lines,” he said.

Russia’s Polyansky tweeted Thursday evening that Bab Al-Hawa “accounts for more than 85% of total volume of operations.”

“We categorically reject claims that Russia wants to stop humanitarian deliveries to the Syrian population in need,” he tweeted. “Our draft is the best proof that these allegations are groundless.”

In this Aug. 15, 2018 file photo, local residents receive humanitarian aid from the Russian military in the town of Al-Rastan, Syria. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits, File)

In a third tweet, Polyansky said Western nations should “seize this opportunity” and support the Russian draft which adapts “to the situation on the ground.”

“If they block our compromise proposal they will be responsible for the consequences,” the Russian envoy warned.

US Ambassador Kelly Craft has accused Russia and China of “breathtaking callousness and dishonesty” and distorting the realities on the ground.

Their actions in both resolutions underscore “a harrowing truth — that Russia and China have decided that millions of Syrian lives are an insignificant cost of their partnership with the murderous Assad regime,” she said in a statement.

Thursday’s rival resolutions capped a week of high-stakes rivalry over cross-border aid.

The initial German-Belgium resolution authorizing two crossings for one year won support from 13 of the 15 council members on Tuesday but was vetoed by Russia and China.

A Russian draft resolution authorizing one crossing for six months failed to get the minimum nine “yes” votes on Wednesday. And a similar Russian amendment to the latest German-Belgium resolution was dramatically rejected earlier Thursday, getting only two “yes” votes from Russia and China.

In this Sept. 10, 2018 file photo, members of a Turkish pro-government aid group, wait for the departure of trucks carrying humanitarian aid destined for Idlib, Syria, in Istanbul. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

In January, Russia scored a victory for Syria, using its veto threat to force the Security Council to adopt a resolution reducing the number of crossing points for aid deliveries from four to just two, from Turkey to the northwest. It also cut in half the yearlong mandate that had been in place since cross-border deliveries began in 2014 to six months, as Russia insisted.

The defeated German-Belgium resolution had dropped a call for the reopening of an Iraqi crossing to the northeast to deliver medical supplies for the COVID-19 pandemic. In May, Russia’s UNAmbassador Vassily Nebenzia said: “Do not waste your time on efforts to reopen the closed cross-border points.”

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