Opinion: the UN Security Council's re-authorisation of cross-border aid for Syria is a lifesaving but inadequate compromise

Earlier this month, Ireland achieved what Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, described as "our biggest achievement" on the UN Security Council to date. The achievement in question was Ireland’s role in the Council’s unanimous adoption of Resolution 2585.

In the Resolution, the Council renews its existing authorisation for UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners to deliver aid to Northwest Syria via the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border. The renewal is for an initial six months with an allowance for a six-month extension until July 10th 2022, subject to the UN Secretary-General’s issuance of a ‘substantive report’ on ‘transparency in operations, and progress on cross-line access in meeting humanitarian needs’.

As co-penholder together with Norway, Ireland drafted the initial resolution and facilitated negotiations on the controversial text. However, the version ultimately adopted was a watered-down compromise between Russia and the US.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Six One News, report on Syrian aid delivery negotiations at the UN Security Council

The stakes could not have been higher. According to the UN, there are 3.4 million people, including one million children, in need of humanitarian assistance in Northwest Syria, which is controlled by armed opposition groups. Over 2.7 million of these are internally displaced and living in emergency accommodation.

Trapped in a warzone, they cannot return to their homes in government-held areas for fear of reprisals and they cannot legally enter Turkey, which is already home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees. They are literally reliant upon UN-supplied food, water, sanitation, shelter, clothes and medical supplies, including Covid vaccines, to stay alive. "I’ve worked in conflict zones for the last three decades", commented Mark Cutts, the UN's Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, "but north-west Syria is one of the most desperate humanitarian situations I’ve ever seen."

The adoption of Resolution 2585 was celebrated in diplomatic circles as a pragmatic compromise. It will undoubtedly save lives but, as Oxfam’s Regional Humanitarian Campaign Lead for MENA, Georges Ghali, surmised, "one crossing point for such a short period of time is woefully insufficient for the scale of humanitarian need".

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Della Kilroy talks to Syrian refugees and humanitarian workers about 10 years of conflict in Syria

When the Security Council first authorised the delivery of cross-border aid in 2014, it did so via four entry points: Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa on the Northwest border with Turkey, Al-Ramtha on the Southwest border with Jordan, and Al Yarubiyah on the Northeast border with Iraq. The authorising resolution was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and consequently was legally binding on all UN member states, including Syria.

Up to that point and in deference to Syrian sovereignty, the UN had declined to engage in cross-border aid deliveries as the Syrian government had refused to consent to them. Nevertheless, several international law experts argue that cross-border deliveries are lawful even absent Security Council authorisation as the parties to an armed conflict are not permitted under international law to arbitrarily withhold consent for legitimate humanitarian relief operations.

In December 2019, Russia and China blocked a draft Security Council resolution re-authorising deliveries via al-Ramtha and Al Yarubiyah. They subsequently refused to re-authorise the Bab al-Salam crossing in July 2020 leaving only Bab al-Hawa. Unfortunately, the curtailment of border crossings coincided with a deterioration in the humanitarian situation in Syria as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, an economic crisis, an escalation in hostilities in Idlib province, and severe flooding in Northwest Syria. Across Syria, there were 13.4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance as of March 2021, representing a 21% year on year increase.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Maurice Sadlier, Programmes Director for World Vision Ireland, discusses the Covid-19 situation in Syria

In June 2021, a coalition of non-governmental organisations appealed to the Security Council to re-authorise the closed border crossings. In particular, they stressed that the closure of Al Yarubiyah "delivered a huge blow to an already decimated healthcare sector in the North East", which is controlled by a Kurdish-dominated Autonomous Administration.

However, their request was refused by Russia and China. Russia alleged that UN aid is being misdirected to armed opposition groups, including the al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, despite the existence of a UN mechanism to monitor the dispatch of aid consignments. Russia further argued that cross-line aid deliveries from government-controlled to opposition-controlled areas were sufficient to address Syria’s humanitarian crisis.

Unsurprisingly, this counterproposal was rejected given that cross-line deliveries are subject to governmental oversight and bearing in mind the Assad regime’s persistent use of siege warfare as a military strategy in contravention of international law. In addition, humanitarian organisations have stressed that there is no substitute for cross-border operations in terms of scale.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ News, UN expresses regret over failure to end war in Syria

The controversy surrounding Resolution 2585 is symptomatic of a broader structural problem with the Security Council. Each of the Council’s five permanent members, Russia, the US, China, France and the UK, has the power to veto non-procedural resolutions under the UN Charter. The so-called P5, in particular Russia and the US, have at times exploited this power to further their own interests.

Given that it is one of the Assad regime’s core allies, it's something of a misnomer that Russia enjoys a veto over resolutions concerning the situation in Syria. Indeed, after Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court in 2014, Russian military personnel were implicated in the commission of international crimes in Syria.

Whilst this situation may appear incongruous, defenders of the veto such as academics Sara Davies and Alex Bellamy contend that it "allows Security Council members to set aside those issues on which they cannot agree but to remain engaged on those others – the great majority of cases – where they can". On the other hand, the veto has contributed to the international community’s unsatisfactory response to the Syrian crisis, which has persisted for over ten years, cost over half a million lives, forced 6.6 million Syrians to flee the country and left 6.7 million more internally displaced.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ