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Refugees, Aid groups condemn U.N. decision to limit Syrian aid crossings

"Lives will be lost. Suffering will intensify," aid agencies operating in Syria said in a joint statement.
Image: Displaced Syrian twins from east Idlib, pose for a picture in a tent at Atmeh camp
Jumana and Farhan al-Alyawi, 8-year-old displaced Syrian twins from east Idlib, in a tent at Atmeh camp, near the Turkish border, Syria, in June.Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

The United Nations Security Council on Saturday adopted a resolution that leaves only one of two border crossings open for aid deliveries from Turkey into Syria.

“The veto is against us,” Mustafa Alkaser told NBC News from a refugee camp in Syria's northwestern Idlib province.

“It’s against the refugees, against the free Syrians who once stood up against Bashar al-Assad and demanded their freedom and dignity," he said Sunday in a telephone interview. Al-Assad, Syria's president, has clung to power for 20 years — the last nine of which have been amid a bloody civil war.

Aid agencies and doctors have also criticized the decision that will lead to the closure of the Bab al-Salam crossing in northern Syria for aid deliveries. Food, medicine and other lifesaving assistance will now be transported through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing alone.

The decision came days after the first coronavirus case was confirmed in the region on Thursday, raising fears for an area where hospitals lie in ruins and camps overflow with people after nearly a decade of war.

“It will restrict the flow of lifesaving medical assistance including PPE, oxygen, medications and ventilators to vulnerable communities that can’t afford even the luxury of social distancing,” Dr. Zaher Sahloul, who has worked extensively in northern Syria, said via email.

Image: The border checkpoint at the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Turkey and Syria's northwestern Idlib
The border checkpoint at the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Turkey and Syria's northwestern Idlib province in July 2019.Aarref Watad / AFP - Getty Images file

He also criticized the “harsh and heartless political maneuvering” around border crossings following a week of high-stakes rivalry that pitted Russia and China against the 13 other U.N. Security Council members.

An overwhelming majority voted twice to maintain the two crossings from Turkey, but Russia and China vetoed both resolutions. Those vetoes were the 15th and 16th by Russia of a Syria resolution since the conflict began in 2011 and the ninth and 10th by China.

But early Saturday, the Security Council vote approving a single crossing from Turkey was 12-0, with Russia, China and the Dominican Republic abstaining. Russia, which has supported al-Assad, argued that aid should be delivered from within the country across conflict lines and said only one crossing point is needed.

After the vote, Dmitry Polyanskiy, first deputy permanent representative of Russia to the U.N., tweeted that his country was "consistently in favor of humanitarian deliveries to Syria with full respect of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and with coordination of its legal government."

“This issue must not be politicized,” he added.

China echoed his comment in a statement saying the country believes "the international community should increase humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people on the basis of respecting Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity." It also called on the U.S. to ease its sanctions on the Syrian regime to improve the humanitarian situation in the country.

But aid agencies also criticized the crossing closure.

"Lives will be lost. Suffering will intensify," aid agencies operating in Syria said in a joint statement.

They said it will be harder to reach an estimated 1.3 million people dependent on food and medicine delivered by the U.N. cross-border.

"Many will now not receive the help they need," the statement said. "With the first case of COVID-19 confirmed in Idlib, an area with a severely weakened health infrastructure, this is a devastating blow."

Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee, Doctors Without Borders and Human Rights Watch also issued separate statements condemning the decision.

Belgium and Germany, which had pushed hard to keep the second crossing open, called it a "sad day" for both the security council and the people of Syria.

In a joint statement, they said 1.3 million people, including 800,000 displaced Syrians, live in the Aleppo area, including 500,000 children who received humanitarian aid through Bab al-Salam crossing — and now have that aid cut off.

“One border crossing is not enough, but no border crossings would have left the fate of an entire region in question," they added.

U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft tweeted that the resolution was "not what the U.S. & others fought for and is far short of what the Syrian people need." Craft added in a separate statement that the outcome of the vote left her "sickened and outraged."

Back in Syria, Abdulkafi Alhmado, who lives in the countryside near the front line in the north of the country, accused Russia of using "the weapon of hunger" to try and secure victory for al-Assad.

He said the aid currently making its way into the country was barely enough.

Meanwhile, Alkaser, 38, said Russia and China's stance showed the inability of foreign powers to help the millions of people who have been displaced by the military conflict since 2011.

“There is nobody ready to really stand with us and help us after almost 10 years."

Ammar Cheikh Omar reported from Antakya. Yuliya Talmazan and Adela Suliman from London.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.