People wearing masks stand in front of white bags of food aid

Russia's vote at UN could cut off humanitarian aid to northwest Syria

Millions of people could be cut off from assistance if the Bab al-Hawa crossing, along the border between Turkey and Syria, closes. Basma Alloush, policy and advocacy adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council, spoke with The World's Marco Werman about what's at stake.

The World

An upcoming vote on July 10 at the UN Security Council could upend crucial humanitarian aid for millions of people in Syria.

The vote will decide whether or not to extend authorization for assistance to be allowed to cross through Bab al-Hawa, the sole border crossing for humanitarian aid from Turkey to northwest Syria.

Russia, a supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has veto power and has used it in the past to restrict aid.

Related: She survived a chemical attack in Syria. But could her baby have been impacted?

Russian forces have helped Assad’s regime survive the more than 10-year conflict, and Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to be a broker for him in any international reconstruction effort for the country.

In a face-to-face meeting on Wednesday, US President Joe Biden hopes to convince Putin not to close down the crossing. 

The Russian leader has already pressed successfully for shutting down all other international humanitarian crossings into Syria, and argues that Assad should handle the distribution of any aid.

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Basma Alloush, policy and advocacy adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council, spoke with The World's Marco Werman about what would happen if the border crossing closes.

Marco Werman: Well, we know Putin is close to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president. We also know Assad has actively restricted humanitarian aid from reaching parts of opposition-controlled Syria. Could Assad be requesting Russia to oppose these open border crossings?

Basma Alloush: I think that could be something that could be happening in the background. I think from where we stand as humanitarian organizations, we constantly see humanitarian operations and the delivery of assistance being hijacked by different political actors and manipulated to meet different political agendas. And so, I think this might be another attempt within that space. But, I think, most importantly, is to make sure that assistance does reach people inside Syria, across the country, irrespective of who's in control of the territory that they live in.

Right. So, if this sole border crossing, Bab al-Hawa, is closed next month, what do you see as the options?

If Bab al-Hawa is closed, then that means the massive UN structure that operates under the cross-border resolution will cease to exist. We saw that in the northeast with the closure of the Yaarubiyah crossing, where the UN stopped programs, and that means that also [the] UN withdrew funding. And so, what we're expecting to see if the resolution is not renewed this July, that the UN will halt its programs, but then it will also withdraw its funding. And that means Syrians will be A, the first to suffer the consequences and B, the humanitarian response will be completely hindered and diminished. So, you'll probably still see some NGOs that will still continue to try to program, but with much less resources and very little ability to maintain the coordination and the capacity, or the scope, that they have to reach the people in the northwest.

So, Basma, I guess there is also the option of transporting these shipments of aid through the Syrian capital, Damascus. Is that a realistic option, and is that happening already?

So far, we haven't seen any cross-line missions successfully reach northwest Syria out of Damascus. So, I think the chance of that increasing to match the capacity and the scope that the UN has been able to do through cross borders is is very unrealistic. There's absolutely no substitute for the cross-border mechanism. The UN brings in over a thousand trucks through Bab al-Hawa, and it's really inconceivable that they'll be able to meet those needs and match the same scale of the response through crossline.

What do you see at stake if this single border crossing is shut down? Are we seeing a humanitarian catastrophe that would start to unfold?

Absolutely. I mean, we'll likely see a deterioration in the situation with the COVID pandemic. We're talking about over 90% of Syrians under the poverty line. And, you know, there's 13.4 million people in Syria that are in need of assistance; 3 million of those, at least, are in the northwest. And so, if we're no longer able to reach them, then that means that's 3 million people [who] will not be able to access food, won't be able to access clean water, proper shelter, things of the sort that are the basic, basic needs that people rely on and have grown very dependent on to be able to survive the day-to-day struggles in northwest Syria.

So, tomorrow, Biden is set to meet with Vladimir Putin. Can Biden have any influence on Russia's decision at this point? Do you know if it's even a topic in their meeting?

We're hearing that the cross-border resolution is going to be on the agenda. So, I think that is promising. And it's an indication of how the US government is really prioritizing this issue and raising it at all levels, including the most senior level within the US government. But in terms of how much influence they can have, we're hoping that the US and Russia will be able to put the politics aside and really facilitate humanitarian access and assistance to the people in need based on needs, not based on politics.

I mean, a bad-case scenario would probably imply a lot more migration. What about pressure from other members of the UN security Council? What countries are actively trying to lobby Russia not to cast a vote to shut the borders down?

I think from from what we've been hearing, there seems to be a consensus within the UN Security Council, within most of the members, on the need for the cross-border resolution. So, I think, in that sense, I think there is a proper understanding among council members that the cross-border mechanism is crucial. It's the life-saving mechanism and that we need to extend it. How much of that is going to resonate with parties that are not in favor of this mechanism is to be determined. But, it seems like for now, there is a consensus, for the most part, across New York, on the on the need for this resolution to be renewed.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.

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