WASHINGTON — The U.S. and its allies on Wednesday ramped up the pressure on Russia to allow the continued operation of a critical humanitarian aid route into Syria weeks ahead of a critical deadline.
Bab al-Hawa, the crossing between Turkey and Syria that is the last authorized humanitarian corridor, is at risk of closing because Russia has threatened to veto an extension of a U.N. Security Council resolution that requires it to stay open.
At a meeting of the council on Wednesday, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, speaking by teleconference from Brussels, said the humanitarian situation in Syria is worse than any time since the conflict began, affecting 13.4 million people.
He said it is especially acute in northwest Syria, where 72 percent of the people rely on U.N. assistance through that last remaining corridor, and in the Northeast, where food needs are exacerbated by severe drought.
He said closing the corridor from Turkey when the current mandate expires on July 10 would result in "devastating consequences.
"It is time to end this decadelong nightmare," he said.
Ramesh Rajasingham, the U.N.'s humanitarian relief coordinator, said closing the corridor would be "catastrophic."
Keeping the corridor open was a key request from President Joe Biden to Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Geneva last week.
Russia has unique leverage over Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, who has reclaimed control over 70 percent of his country after a 10-year civil war, largely through Russian military help. Two U.S. officials told NBC News that Putin did not say yes or no to Biden's request at the summit, but national security adviser Jake Sullivan later described the exchange as "constructive."
That led administration officials to hope Putin might see the issue as a way to build bridges with the U.S. president, according to people familiar with the situation, should the Russian leader persuade Assad to go along.
"The two presidents talked about having a more predictable and stable relationship. This should be a fairly easy area to show that" in the coming weeks, one official said.
But at the U.N. Secretary General's monthly lunch Monday, according to sources who were present and spoke to NBC News, the Russians were "very strong" in repeating their insistence that all the humanitarian aid should be delivered instead through the Assad regime in Damascus.
That is a non-starter for the U.S, Great Britain and France, who say Assad would never let the aid reach the refugees, whom he considers rebels and has repeatedly bombed from their homes. One possibility is that Russia would insist on lifting sanctions on Syria as the price for continuing to permit U.N. aid deliveries.
On Wednesday, France's Ambassador to the U.N., Nicolas de Riviere, ruled out any sanctions relief until there is a political solution to the conflict.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield shared what she had seen when she went to that last remaining border crossing from Turkey into Syria at Bab al-Hawa three weeks ago, on a trip accompanied by NBC News.
She quoted one refugee as telling her that for them, Covid-19, which is rampant, is "just another way to die." She said that without the humanitarian aid, thousands of children will be denied food, and others will die because health facilities will no longer have supplies.
"Millions of people will have reduced access to clean water, medical supplies and of course, vaccines," she said. "They are terrified that is the choice this council will make. Tragically, their fears are not unfounded because that is exactly what this council has done to them before." She noted that there used to be four crossings for humanitarian aid into Syria, not just one.
"Without cross-border aid, more Syrians will die, and we know that" she told the council. Urging its members to extend the program for another year, she said: "We must do it now, and not leave mothers and fathers to wonder whether they can feed their children on July 11th."
Russia's Ambassador to the U.N., Vasily Nebenzya, took a hard line, claiming the border crossing is used by terrorists, who he said, without presenting evidence, also use the people in North West Syria as human shields.
Two people familiar with the situation told NBC News that it is not clear whether Moscow has conveyed new instructions to its U.N. diplomat since the Geneva summit, hoping there is still a chance for Russia to back down before the border crossing is set to close on July 10.
"The crossing at Bab al-Hawa is literally a matter of life and death," Thomas-Greenfield said afterward. "This will be one of the most consequential votes we take at the council and the people of Syria are depending on us."
Asked if lifting the sanctions on Syria should be part of the resolution on humanitarian aid, she said they should not be included because the situation in the country is not a result of sanctions.
"The situation in Syria is the consequence of actions that have been taken by the Assad regime," she said.