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Issue Brief June 4, 2021

Syrian lives in peril: The fight to preserve Syria’s last humanitarian border crossing

By Salman Husain, Yasmine Chawaf

In 2014, under immense pressure to ensure the delivery of aid to neglected Syrian populations, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution to authorize cross-border humanitarian operations from Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq to different parts of Syria. This allowed the UN to coordinate cross-border responses that have channeled billions of dollars in assistance to vulnerable populations in Syria; however, Russia and China have abused their veto power in recent years to reduce the four original border crossings to just the Bab al-Hawa crossing from Turkey to advance their political support for the Syrian government. Now ahead of a critical vote in July 2021, Russia has already signaled its willingness to veto any resolution that would seek to preserve what remains of the cross-border operations to Syria, placing millions of Syrian lives in jeopardy.

A new Atlantic Council report, “Syrian Lives in Peril: The Fight to Preserve Syria’s Last Humanitarian Border Crossing,” places humanitarian considerations at the forefront of the cross-border debate. In addition to examining the devastating impacts of losing Bab al-Hawa, this report explores the limitations of cross-line operations (from government-held areas of Syria to areas outside of its control), which are presented as feasible alternatives. It seeks to unpack the political arguments advanced by Russia to justify its opposition to the cross-border set up and to support the Syrian government to obtain a monopoly over all humanitarian operations, despite its track record of aid obstruction and human rights abuses. This report recognizes that no alternative set-up can compensate for the loss of the last remaining border crossing, and presents recommendations for actions that should be adopted in case the resolution is not renewed, as well as recommendations to address limitations of cross-line programming and aid obstruction in Syria.

The loss of Bab al-Hawa would have devastating effects on the lives of millions of Syrians who have endured years of war and displacement and now find themselves struggling to survive amidst a rapidly collapsing economy and global pandemic. The failure to prevent a veto would place the burden on the United States and all donor governments providing aid to Syria to mitigate the impacts of a humanitarian disaster that could become unmanageable with a UN withdrawal and an end to all formal cross-border operations to Syria.

Image: An Internally displaced Syrian woman hangs a piece of cloth to dry in Atmeh IDP camp, located near the border with Turkey, Syria March 4, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi