Russia says Syria can deliver aid, Turkey not essential

UNITED NATIONS — Russia’s foreign minister says Moscow disagrees that there is no alternative to deliver humanitarian aid to Syria’s rebel-held northwest except from Turkey as the U.N. and many Western nations maintain, insisting deliveries are possible across conflict lines within the country.

He hinted that Russia will block U.N. renewal of the one remaining border crossing whose mandate expires July 10.

Sergey Lavrov said that since April 2020 Russia has seen continuous attempts to block joint humanitarian convoys by the United Nations, International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Arab Red Crescent to northwest Idlib from Syria’s capital Damascus by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the strongest militant group there, “with the connivance of Ankara.”

“It obstructs sustainable deliveries from inside the country,” Lavrov said in a recent oral statement conveyed to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.

“Unfortunately, the information on Turkish side’s positive steps does not enjoy real-life proof,” he said.

In January 2020, Russia scored a victory for its close ally Syria, using its veto threat to force the Security Council to adopt a resolution reducing the number of border crossing points for aid deliveries from four to two — from Turkey to the northwest. It also cut in half the year-long mandate that had been in place since cross-border deliveries began in 2014 to six months.

Last July, Russia scored another victory for Syria by forcing the Security Council to limit humanitarian aid deliveries to just one crossing point, from Turkey to northwest Idlib at Bab al-Hawa.

Many countries including the United States had argued for restoring the Al-Yaroubiya crossing point from Iraq in the northeast that was closed in January 2020. It had been a primary delivery point for health and medical supplies, especially needed during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Russia argued that aid should be delivered from within Syria across conflict lines, and threatened to veto more than one crossing point.

With the mandate for the Bab al-Hawa crossing nearing an end, secretary-general Guterres and many countries have been speaking out and stressing the critical importance of keeping it open.

The Security Council is scheduled to discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria, including cross-border aid deliveries, on Wednesday.

Lavrov accused Western donors, who are the major providers of humanitarian aid to Syria, of “blackmailing,” by threatening to cut humanitarian financing for Syria if the mandate for Bab al-Hawa is not extended.

“We consider it is important to resist such approaches,” he said.

“We believe that further concessions to the Americans and Europeans under the pressure of financial threats will undermine the credibility of the United Nations, its Charter and the Security Council’s resolutions, which stipulate to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria, non-interference into (a) country’s internal affairs and compliance with international humanitarian law,” he said.

In early June, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield went to the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Turkey and stressed that there is “no viable alternative” to deliver aid and meet the vast needs of vulnerable people in northern Syria. She also said there is an urgent need for additional crossings.

Former U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, who just stepped down, told the council last month that delivering aid across conflict lines cannot replace cross-border deliveries and called the cross-border operation at Bab al-Hawa “a lifeline.”

If it isn’t reauthorized, he warned, food deliveries for 1.4 million people every month, millions of medical treatments, nutrition for tens of thousands of children and mothers and education supplies for tens of thousands of students will stop.

But Lavrov disagreed, saying Russia has received information that U.N. agencies providing humanitarian assistance to northwest Syria “are currently actively working on alternative routes of humanitarian deliveries in the event the cross-border point `Bab al-Hawa’ is closed.”

He said representatives of the U.N. World Food Program, which supplies 80% of cross-border deliveries, “have already agreed with Damascus and keep seeking the agreement by Ankara to fill WFP’s warehouse in the town of Sarmada in the (Idlib) de-escalation zone via cross-line delivery.”

Lavrov said the U.N. World Health Organization “is inclined towards the similar option” for delivering medical supplies including COVID-19 vaccines.

He said WFP and WHO have “well-organized cooperation with the Syrian authorities” who provide “timely authorization for their humanitarian missions.”

Lavrov also cited improvements in deliveries to the northeast after the closure of Al-Yaroubiya, saying coverage there has increased 35-45% and could increase to 60% if funds are available.

“The situation where Turkey in reality fully controls the provision of humanitarian assistance to Syria is also unacceptable,” he said.