U.N., U.S. Warn Russia That Syria's Lone Border Checkpoint for Aid Must Remain Open

The United Nations (U.N.) and the U.S. are warning Russia that ally Syria's lone border checkpoint, where humanitarian aid is delivered, must remain open.

The Bab Al-Hawa border crossing allows needed aid to pass through Turkey's border to northwest rebel-held Syria but the mandate that keeps it open expires July 10. Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia asserted aid should be delivered across Syria's conflict lines instead.

However, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield warned that "without cross-border access, more Syrians will die."

U.N. humanitarian chief Ramesh Rajasingham urged that if the mandate is not extended, it "would disrupt lifesaving aid to 3.4 million people in need across the northwest, millions of whom are among the most vulnerable in Syria."

Syrians receive aid such as food, access to clean water, medicine and COVID-19 vaccine doses through the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Displaced Syrian Child Near Bab al-Hawa Crossing
A displaced Syrian child looks to the camera as Turkish soldiers gather near the town of Batabu on the highway linking Idlib to the Syrian Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, on March 2, 2020. The U.N. and the U.S. are warning Russia that the border crossing must remain open as it allows humanitarian aid to pass through to Syria. Aaref Watad/AFP via Getty Images

Russia previewed a showdown with the U.N., U.S. and Western nations Wednesday over the delivery of humanitarian aid to rebel-held northwest Syria from Turkey, rejecting their warnings that closing the only border crossing will leave more than 1 million people without desperately needed food and cause people to die because they lack medicine.

Stressing the importance of strengthening Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity, Nebenzia accused the U.N. and the West of doing nothing to promote deliveries across conflict lines during the past year.

Unless Western nations "both in words and deeds prove their commitment to this goal," he warned that there is no point in speaking about renewing the mandate for the one remaining border crossing from Turkey to northwest Idlib.

"We still have some time before the 'D-Day'. Hopefully it will not be wasted," Nebenzia said.

Thomas-Greenfield, who visited the Turkish border crossing at Bab Al-Hawa in early June, said the United States is willing to work to expand aid to Syrians across borders and conflict lines.

But right now, she warned thousands of children will be denied food and be permanently stunted in growth and cognitive development, and millions of people will have reduced access to clean water, medical supplies and COVID-19 vaccines without cross-border access, she said.

"There is no Plan B," Thomas-Greenfield stressed. "The Plan B is to continue to push for the extension of the mandate. Plan B means that we have failed, and hopefully we don't fail."

"So, I'm going to work on this every single day until it's accomplished," she said.

Wednesday's showdown in the U.N. Security Council came ahead of its consideration of a draft resolution to keep the Bab al-Hawa crossing open, likely for a year instead of the current six-month mandate, and possibly reopen two others.

The council had approved four border crossings when deliveries began in 2014. Nebenzia said Russia agreed to that because Syria "was being torn apart by terrorism." He said Damascus since then has liberated almost 90 percent of its territory and was trying to improve the Syrian people's lives. "In these conditions, the cross-border mechanism is a mere anachronism," he said.

In 2020, Russia used its veto threat in the council to score victories for its close ally Syria, to halve the mandate and limit humanitarian aid deliveries to just the Bab al-Hawa crossing from Turkey.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in a virtual briefing to the council, said more than 70 percent of the population requires assistance, and almost all of them are "in severe need" of help to survive.

He stressed that cross-line operations "will never be able to replace cross-border assistance at the present levels," pointing to the more than 1,000 trucks that move through Bab al-Hawa every month.

"A failure to extend the council's authorization would have devastating consequences," Guterres warned.

Last week, 42 non-governmental organizations warned that closing the border crossing to Idlib would leave more than 1 million people without food because they only have the capacity to meet the needs of 300,000 people, he said.

"A cross-line operation would provide a vital addition to the cross-border lifeline, but it could by no means replace it," Rajasingham said. "Even if deployed regularly, cross-line convoys could not replicate the size and scope of the cross-border operations."

But Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh echoed Russia, calling the cross-border aid operation politicized and saying "the reasons and conditions that led to its adoption no longer exist," so it should end.

Ireland and Norway will be drafting the Security Council resolution to extend the cross-border mandate.

Ireland's U.N. Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason said the resolution, which will be circulated in the coming days, "will renew and expand the humanitarian aid delivery mechanism in response to the pressing humanitarian needs."

She warned that "failure to renew would cause a humanitarian catastrophe in the northwest of Syria."

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia
In this Sept. 17, 2018, file photo, Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia listens to remarks in a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, at U.N. headquarters. Russia has previewed a showdown with the United Nations, United States and Western nations Wednesday, June 23, 2021, over the delivery of humanitarian aid to rebel-held northwest Syria from Turkey. Richard Drew/AP Photo