The closure of the Bab al-Salam border crossing is making it harder for humanitarians to access certain areas of Syria, an aid worker told the Security Council during a 29 July videoconference meeting*, while the representative of a permanent Council member argued that it is possible to handle increased deliveries through a single crossing that remains open.
“The inability to access certain areas in a rapid mechanism through Bab al-Salam — which is critical for the work we do — means that we’re now adding more burden on our aid workers to deliver those more distant and harder to reach areas,” said Amany Qaddour, Regional Director of Syria Relief and Development, a non-governmental organization that provides medical services in north-west Syria.
It was the first time that the Council has met on Syria’s humanitarian situation since the adoption on 11 July of resolution 2533 (2020) that reauthorized the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid to the country through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing for another 12 months. But the resolution did not approve passage of aid through Bab al-Salam.
“With the Security Council’s decision, on 11 July, to extend authorization for UN cross-border aid delivery into north-west Syria, we are working to address the operational challenges arising from your decision,” said Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock.
Both briefers highlighted the risk of the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
Mr. Lowcock, who is also Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases remains in the hundreds — still a relatively low level — but the true number of cases is certainly higher; limited testing capacity, compared to what is available in neighbouring countries, and a reluctance, among some people, to acknowledge an infection masks the real scale of the outbreak, he pointed out.
He warned that Syria’s economy, devastated by nearly a decade of conflict, has entered a period of extreme fragility, marked by exchange rate volatility, high inflation, dwindling remittances and lockdown measures to contain the coronavirus.
The country’s economy is expected to contract by more than 7 per cent in 2020, with unemployment jumping from 42 per cent in 2019 to close to 50 per cent today. Estimated remittances from Gulf States alone are now $2 million per day, down from $4.4 million in 2017. Food prices are 240 per cent higher than in June 2019. “What this means is that families across the country can no longer afford the very basics,” Mr. Lowcock said.
The ceasefire reached in March in the north-west between the Russian Federation and Turkey is largely holding, but some air and ground-based strikes have been reported in recent weeks, he continued, stressing the need to protect civilians.
The Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria, with a funding requirement of $3.4 billion in 2020, is 32 per cent funded halfway through the year, making it one of the better funded operations, he said, adding that another $384 million is needed for Syria under the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, of which 28 per cent has been received.
He appealed to invest in the education of Syria’s children. A third of school-aged children in Syria — 2.5 million children — are out of school. Another 1.6 million are at risk of dropping out of school.
In her briefing, Ms. Qaddour said that COVID-19 can create a crisis within a crisis, noting that Syria is even more vulnerable considering how fragile its health system has become, which is further compounded by the deterioration of the economic situation. Many are on the brink of starvation and mass displacement.
Ventilators, intensive care unit beds and personal protective equipment are all in short supply, she said. Adding to this, hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, have precarious living conditions in inadequate homes or shelters, and these conditions simply don’t allow for proper social distancing, self-isolation, or hygiene measures for that matter.
She stressed the need to look at health care as a continuum and include provisions that provide primary and community health, rehabilitative care for those with disabilities, and also mental health, given the immense trauma many have endured and the rise in depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation.
Urging the Council to share the risk with humanitarian agencies, she said that “the risks aren’t simply passed down to the people who have already absorbed so much risk.”
With the thousands of displacements this past year, women are seen giving birth under trees, without access to health care, she continued. It’s tempting to blame such practices on social or cultural norms, she said, asking the Council to consider the complexity and deeply rooted factors that have culminated and led to these practices.
In the ensuing discussion, the representative of the United States said that the continuation of the cross-border aid deliveries through a single crossing via Bab al-Hawa is fragile. Most Council members, including her delegation, have demanded more crossings because they are necessary to address the needs of Syria’s people. The Russian Federation and China ruthlessly stood in that way, vetoing two separate draft resolutions to deny the United Nations use of Bab al-Salaam for cross-border aid deliveries. Their vetoes left millions of Syrians vulnerable in the country’s north-west and in need at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her country has donated more than $11.3 billion in humanitarian assistance to Syria’s people since the start of the conflict. Cross-line deliveries from Damascus are not working. The United States will not accept the Assad regime’s policy of denying humanitarian aid to people living outside of its military control. “We have heard Russia and China spin a false narrative that [United States] sanctions are to blame for the crisis in Syria,” she said. “That’s just outlandish propaganda, but also a sinister attempt to whitewash [Syria President Bashar al-] Assad’s brutality and crimes against humanity.”
The representative of the Dominican Republic expressed concern about the poor capacity of Syria’s health system as cases of COVID-19 begin to be seen in the country. Doctors and health-care workers have had to flee as a result of a decade of conflict which has not only destroyed critical infrastructure, but emotionally devastated millions of people. Now, the closure of the Bab al-Salam border crossing is stretching humanitarian assistance into the north-west “to its very extreme limits”. Also describing massive food insecurity, he said the only way to help civilians deal with those multiple crises is by increasing and sustaining humanitarian assistance through all feasible modalities. In that regard, he emphasized the need to urgently reauthorize access through previously used United Nations crossing points, and to support a complete ceasefire in line with resolution 2254 (2015).
France’s representative said that an immediate cessation of hostilities and a humanitarian pause must be the priority. All parties, in particular the Syrian regime, must ensure humanitarian access. He expressed regret at the lack of consensus within the Council on cross-border assistance, saying that the politicization of humanitarian aid is unacceptable. He also reiterated his country’s firm view that until a credible political process is firmly under way in Syria, France and the European Union will not finance reconstruction. “Let us not be misled by the fable of the regime: the economic crisis in Syria is the result of the regime’s destruction of its own country,” he said, adding that instrumentalization of the sanctions issue is unacceptable.
Indonesia’s representative urged all parties in Syria to protect civilians and to respect the call for a nationwide ceasefire. “During this challenging time, military actions will not help those families who are struggling for food,” he said. He highlighted the urgent need to suppress the spread of COVID-19 in Syria, emphasizing that such a delicate situation requires ongoing international support. He stressed the need to maximize the Bab al-Hawa crossing through strong coordination between all relevant parties. He also underscored the importance of ensuring the safety of humanitarian workers, adding that the Council’s actions must always focus on saving lives.
Niger’s delegate said that the humanitarian situation in Syria is becoming ever the more worrisome, with the combination of the effects of a protracted conflict, COVID-19 and the current economic downturn having rendered the situation even harder for the populations. Commending the daily efforts of humanitarian agencies in delivering the much-needed assistance, he said their work is more than ever crucial as COVID-19 spreads across the country. The current economic downturn and the devaluation of Syria’s currency have resulted in a steep rise in the price of food, medicine and other goods, he said, reiterating a call for a humanitarian relief of all unilateral economic measures that may hinder the Government’s ability to effectively fight this pandemic.
China’s representative said that his country is deeply worried that Syria is now going through severe economic collapse. It is undeniable that unilateral sanctions are having a grave impact on the humanitarian situation, he said, adding that so-called humanitarian exemptions cannot justify the actions of those States that have imposed sanctions. The international community should increase humanitarian assistance to Syria’s people based on respect for the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. United Nations agencies are making full use of Bab al-Hawa, and, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, it is possible for this crossing point to handle the increased deliveries. Rejecting irresponsible comments by the United States and some other countries towards China, he said that Beijing has always taken a constructive and responsible approach vis-à-vis the cross-border issue. If the United States truly cares about the humanitarian situation in Syria, it should stop putting on a hypocritical political show, immediately lift its unilateral sanctions and stop its hegemonic policy of regime change and bullying in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, he said.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines expressed her support for resolution 2533 (2020), noting that the humanitarian needs in Syria are enormous and increasing and the cross-border mechanism continues to serve as an essential component in the provision of life-saving humanitarian assistance. Syria’s humanitarian emergency has been made worse by the country’s rapidly declining economy, she said, voicing concern about the numerous interruptions in the operations of the Allouk water station. She underscored the importance of preserving the ceasefire in the north-west and of establishing a lasting nationwide cessation of hostilities.
South Africa’s representative observed that many Syrian households are turning to “negative coping mechanisms” to make ends meet. He called for the immediate lifting of all unilateral sanctions imposed on Syria, especially given the spread of COVID-19. Humanitarian response efforts should focus on preparedness and response planning to minimize the potential impact of the coronavirus on refugees and internally displaced persons. He also called for scaling up cross-line assistance inside Syria, now that the Al Yarubiyah and Bab al-Salaam border crossings are closed to humanitarian deliveries. He went on to ask the Under-Secretary-General about the possibility of using the proceeds from Syrian oil production to fund relief efforts.
Estonia’s representative said the work of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is even more important considering the rising numbers of COVID-19 in Syria. Agreeing that those most vulnerable to the virus live in overcrowded camps for internally displaced persons, he said unimpeded humanitarian access to such areas is crucial for an effective outbreak response. Referring to discussions in the Council’s recent meetings on the situation, he noted that the issue of sanctions is sometimes mistakenly raised. “There is no evidence that European Union sanctions in any way hinder Syria’s socioeconomic situation, or humanitarian response in the country,” he stressed, instead calling for more attention to the ongoing conflict and the root causes of instability. The war has destroyed Syria’s physical infrastructure, with the Assad regime deliberately bombing civilian facilities, and trust in Government institutions remains low. In addition, he said, lawlessness and warlordism — characterized by the presence of rogue military commanders, shabiha networks and Iranian-linked militias — also contribute to insecurity.
Also speaking today were the representatives of Belgium, Germany, Russian Federation, Tunisia, Viet Nam, United Kingdom, Syria and Turkey.
- Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.
For information media. Not an official record.