Russia rejects renewing aid from Iraq to Syria’s northeast

UNITED NATIONS — Russia’s U.N. ambassador on Wednesday called a proposal to reopen a border crossing from Iraq to Syria’s northeast for delivering humanitarian aid “a non-starter.” He also refused to say what will happen to the only crossing now in operation, from Turkey to the country’s rebel-held northwest.

A U.N. Security Council draft resolution proposes sending aid through both crossings, but Vassily Nebenzia said at a news conference that Russia is discussing only the possible continuation of deliveries through the Bab al-Hawa crossing to Idlib in northwest Syria. He refused to say whether Russia will vote to keep it open or use its veto to close it.

Russia has come under intense pressure from the U.N., U.S., Europeans and others who warn of dire humanitarian consequences for over a million Syrians if all border crossings are closed.

Nebenzia was commenting on a draft resolution circulated to the Security Council last Friday that would keep Bab al-Hawa open and reopen the Al-Yaroubiya crossing from Iraq in the mainly Kurdish-controlled northeast that was closed in January 2020.

The Security Council approved four border crossings when aid deliveries began in 2014, three years after the start of the Syrian conflict. But in January 2020, Russia used its veto threat in the council first to limit aid deliveries to two border crossings in the northwest, and then last July to cut another.

So today, aid can only be delivered through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, and its mandate ends July 10.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has accused Western donors, who are the major providers of humanitarian aid to Syria, of “blackmailing” Moscow by threatening to cut humanitarian financing for its close ally Syria if the mandate for Bab al-Hawa is not extended.

“We consider it is important to resist such approaches,” he said in a recent oral statement conveyed to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and obtained last week by The Associated Press. “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.”

Nebenzia reiterated Russia’s criticism of cross-border aid and said humanitarian assistance should be delivered across conflict lines within Syria to reinforce the Syrian government’s sovereignty over the entire country.

He reiterated Lavrov’s criticism of the continuous attempts since April 2020 to block a convoy by the United Nations, International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Arab Red Crescent to Idlib from Syria’s capital, Damascus. The Russian minister blamed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the strongest militant group in Idlib, “with the connivance” of Turkey, for refusing to allow the cross-line delivery.

Nebenzia was pressed at a news conference on Russia’s reaction to the resolution, which was drafted by Ireland and Norway, both serving two-year terms on the Security Council. The draft was discussed Wednesday by council experts for the first time, he said.

The Russian ambassador said he told Ireland and Norway “in the very beginning that what we hear from our colleagues about reopening the closed cross-border points is really a non-starter.”

That appears to doom Al-Yaroubiya’s reopening.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who recently visited the Bab al-Hawa crossing, expressed disappointment Friday that the draft resolution didn’t call for aid deliveries through three crossings, including the second crossing from Turkey to the northwest at Bab al-Salam, which was closed last July.

“Millions of Syrians are struggling, and without urgent action, millions more will be cut off from food, clean water, medicine and COVID-19 vaccines,” she said.

Nebenzia said the Syrian government wants to close cross-border deliveries, and dismissed claims there is no alternative.

There were predictions of “disaster” when Al-Yaroubiya was closed, “but today facts on the ground confirm, and the U.N. says that they have increased increased humanitarian assistance to the northeast … through the cooperation with the Syrian government,” he said.

He said cross-border aid was approved in 2014 “in special circumstances when there was no access to many parts of Syria.”

“But, of course, today it is now an outdated operation and eventually it will be closed,” he said.

Asked whether he didn’t see the need for even a single crossing now, Nebenzia said: “I will not give you a definitive answer at this time. I will only tell you we continue consulting on this issue.”