A mix of increased cross-border and cross-line access is needed to sustain — and preferably increase — the delivery of aid into north-east Syria amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the senior United Nations humanitarian official in the country told the Security Council in a videoconference meeting[*] on 19 May.
Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, also cited an alarming spike in food insecurity and economic challenges related to the expanding global pandemic. Noting that the 15-member Council is slated to reconsider in the coming months its authorization of the two remaining border crossing points in north-east Syria, he encouraged members to promptly renew them — along with the mandate of a related United Nations monitoring mechanism — for another 12 months. “A delay will increase suffering and cost lives,” he warned.
Outlining the current situation in Syria, where 58 cases of COVID-19 have now been confirmed by the authorities, he said six more have been confirmed in the country’s north-east. Against that backdrop, building up Syria’s limited laboratory and case investigation capacity remains a top priority. While the World Health Organization (WHO) has been supporting the progressive expansion of testing capacities in Damascus, Aleppo, Lattakia and Homs — from conducting repairs to providing essential equipment, reagents and on-site training of laboratory technicians — testing capacity remains insufficient and significant shortages of personal protective equipment exist.
He outlined a range of preventative efforts being carried out by WHO and its partners, citing assurances by several States that their sanctions programmes will neither ban the flow of crucial humanitarian supplies nor target medicine and medical devices. Humanitarian exemptions should be applied expeditiously. Turning to a range of economic challenges exacerbated by the virus, he stated: “We are seeing the economic impact of the pandemic before we see infections peak.” The average price of food was 15 per cent higher in April than in March. In the north-west — which is heavily reliant on imported goods — the Syrian pound continues to lose value, having depreciated by 54 per cent since the end of April.
“The added impact of the pandemic is now driving food insecurity to record levels,” he continued. An estimated 9.3 million people across Syria are now considered food insecure, up from 7.9 million six months ago. Meanwhile, reports of killings of civilians across Syria are increasing, and there are signs that terrorist groups such as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) view the pandemic as an opportunity to regroup and perpetrate violence.
Turning to the delivery of food, medical supplies and other assistance, he said some 1,365 trucks crossed into north-west Syria from Turkey in April — a major scale-up. The reasons for the increase include Syria’s deteriorating humanitarian situation and the need to prepare for a possible COVID-19 outbreak. Recalling that Council members recently received the Secretary-General’s review of cross-line and cross-border operations — as requested by resolution 2504 (2020), which renewed the authorization of cross-border aid into Syria through two crossing points but declined to renew two others — he said that report makes clear the need to renew the two remaining crossings for another year.
“This decision cannot be left to the last minute — too many lives are at stake,” he said. Emphasizing that United Nations staff are working at the border every minute, even during Ramadan, he said sustaining supply pipelines in such a massive operation requires weeks or months of lead-time. In the north-east, work is under way to increase cross-line deliveries of medical supplies following the removal of Al Yarubiyah as an authorized border crossing. On 10 May, WHO was able to deliver a 30-ton consignment of medical supplies by road — the first overland delivery to the north-east in two years — with a second delivery expected to arrive in the coming days. However, the Secretary-General’s report reveals that much more needs to be done to bridge the gap in medical assistance in the north-east.
Noting repeated water supply disruptions at the Alouk water station — to which he has previously drawn the Council’s attention — he underlined the obligation of all parties to protect civilian infrastructure, adding that water access is even more critical amid the pandemic. He also outlined the broader United Nations humanitarian response, which operates largely from areas under Government control, saying that in the first quarter of 2020 food aid reached 3.3 million people; medical treatment reached 2 million; and water, sanitation and hygiene reached 1.2 million. Still, cross-border aid remains a lifeline for civilians who cannot be reached by any other means, and its mandate must be urgently renewed. “A delay will increase suffering and cost lives,” he concluded.
In the ensuing discussion, many Council members backed the Emergency Relief Coordinator’s assessment, stressing that now is not the time to risk a reduction of aid delivery by closing additional border crossings. Some also expressed concern that, according to the Secretary-General’s report, deliveries into north-east Syria have dropped significantly since the closure of the contested Al Yarubiyah crossing in January. While some speakers emphasized that the two remaining crossing points are more than sufficient, others disagreed, sounding alarm over the “potentially catastrophic” impact of the coronavirus on an already battered Syrian population.
The representative of the Dominican Republic joined other speakers in welcoming the Secretary-General’s detailed review of cross-line and cross-border operations and agreeing with its main finding — namely, that an “all-modalities approach” is the only way to meet the growing needs of Syria’s people. “[They] are facing the dire consequences of a long conflict, an economic crisis, food insecurity and now a potential public health crisis for which they are not prepared,” he said, adding that conflict triggered all those calamities. The Council must ensure conditions for the international community to provide support, including preparing for a possible COVID-19 outbreak in the north-east.
Niger’s delegate reaffirmed his country’s support for the cross-border delivery mechanism in Syria, especially amid the pandemic. “Considering the fact that even countries with better health care are struggling against [the virus], we remain concerned about the capacity of the degraded Syrian health infrastructures, due to years of conflicts, to adequately cope with the situation,” he said, citing the large numbers of displaced and vulnerable people. Expressing regret that the full capacity of the cross-border operation in the north-east could not be realized, he reiterated his support to resolution 2165 (2014) and called for the opening of the Al Yarubiyah border crossing on humanitarian grounds.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said that while COVID-19 has required movement restrictions, there is a need to strike a balance between these measures — aimed at containment — and the urgent need to preserve, scale up and coordinate the humanitarian response through all modalities. Humanitarian conditions are indeed complex and needs great across Syria. Stressing that counter-terrorism measures must respect international law, he called for the lifting of unilateral sanctions and for international efforts to help rebuild Syria. “Humanitarian considerations must take precedence over political tensions,” he said.
France’s representative said an immediate and sustainable ceasefire is the only way to effectively combat the pandemic in Syria. Noting that the regime of Syria President Bashar Al-Assad has unfortunately not responded to ceasefire appeals, he underlined the obligation of all parties to respect international humanitarian law, protect civilians and ensure humanitarian access. Amid the pandemic, it is crucial that supplies be shipped by the most direct routes; the cross-border mechanism has, therefore, never been more relevant. Emphasizing that it must be renewed, he warned Council members not to be fooled by the recent delivery of a WHO convoy. “Damascus is not providing the United Nations with the sufficient and timely authorizations needed to compensate for the loss of Al Yarubiyah,” he said, pointing out that cross-line operations have not improved since January.
The representative of South Africa spotlighted Syria’s right to restore control over the whole of its territory, declaring: “We cannot allow external role-players to use this devastating conflict in Syria as a proxy for their own interests.” Even the world’s most well-equipped and highly funded health-care systems have been strained by COVID-19. In Syria, millions of people live in refugee camps and informal shelters, with limited access to water and sanitation. “Social distancing and regular handwashing are a luxury many have no access to,” he said, emphasizing that humanitarian assistance is more necessary and challenging than ever. As cross-line deliveries to the north-east are critical, now is not the lime to limit or reduce the delivery of aid to the region.
Tunisia’s representative echoed those sentiments, adding: “After nine years of conflict, Syria is enormously underequipped to deal with the [COVID-19] pandemic, and Syrian health infrastructure is largely downgraded, fragmented or destroyed.” Restrictions imposed on cross-border and cross-line humanitarian movement widen gaps and compound shortages, amplifying vulnerabilities. Echoing calls to scale-up preparedness and response capacity across the country, he said water supply disruptions are a major concern as they hamper the hygiene and sanitation efforts needed to combat the spread of the virus. A dual approach to aid delivery combining cross-border and cross-line modalities is necessary but must be incremental as to respect and ultimately preserve Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, he said.
Meanwhile, the representative of the United Kingdom recalled that the largest donors to the Syria appeal — including in areas under the control of President Assad — are his country, the United States, Germany and the European Union. As the United Nations scales up its COVID-19 prevention in areas controlled by the Syrian authorities and in the north-west, it must be allowed to do the same in the north-east — where instead gaps in medical supplies have widened. “This could not be clearer,” he said, warning that “we must not play politics with this virus”. Should the crucial mandate in resolution 2504 (2020) not be renewed, there should be no illusions that the United Kingdom’s considerable humanitarian funding for the north-west would automatically transfer to delivery via Damascus, he added.
The representative of Viet Nam said COVID-19 should receive special attention, as it continues to increase the already complex humanitarian situation in Syria. While welcoming renewed efforts by WHO and Syria’s Government to address the pandemic, he expressed worry about the weak health system. He called on all relevant parties to create conditions for sustained, unimpeded humanitarian access across the country, urging that unconditional international support be provided in terms of capacity and resources to ensure an effective humanitarian response. He also reiterated support for a global ceasefire.
The representative of Estonia, Council President for May, spoke in his national capacity, voicing support for the efforts by Turkey and the Russian Federation to sustain a ceasefire in north-east Syria. To reach all civilians with humanitarian assistance, the Council must maintain both cross-border and cross-line operations, which are complementary. “We can see how delicate the balance is by looking at what happened in the north-east after the closure of Al Yarubiyah in January,” he said, noting that the area now faces an acute shortage of supplies. In fact, as the urgency grows amid the pandemic, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that aid is reaching only one third of the facilities recently supported by the cross-border mechanism. “We must seriously consider the reopening of Al Yarubiyah to get to help all those in need,” he said.
In contrast, the representative of the Russian Federation rejected all calls to reconsider the closure of that border crossing, which has already been decided by the Council. Instead, he called for more explanation as to why five alternative crossings are not considered viable. Expressing concern about the contents of the Secretary-General’s review, he pointed out that it ignores the impact of unilateral sanctions. It also cites the suspension of joint missions to Idlib by the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Cross due to COVID-19 concerns. However, no cases have been reported in Idlib, and the real reason for the suspension is that the group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, which controls the city, simply wishes to maintain its monopoly.
Citing examples of financial accountability problems with humanitarian operations, he said his delegation’s repeated calls for a list of implementing partners, lists of supplies, the systematic notification of Syrian authorities and the marking of convoys have all been ignored. Successful humanitarian operations only require that those delivering it stop inventing artificial obstacles and blaming Damascus. Referring to a recent European Commission guidance document on humanitarian assistance amid COVID-19 — which warned that sanctions may prevent countries from fighting the virus — he stressed that delegations’ repetitive slogans on humanitarian exemptions “are not worth a penny”.
Syria’s delegate reminded Council members that Damascus has repeatedly appealed to the United Nations, demanding an end to the “economic, commercial, financial and health terrorism” of unilateral coercive sanctions. While the United Nations and other intergovernmental groups largely agreed, the United States and its allies have persisted in violating international law and have deliberately continued to impose its sanctions against countries affected by COVID-19. The pandemic has once again highlighted the false humanitarian allegations promoted by some Western Governments, he said, adding: “We will not be deceived by any allegations made by these countries, and we will not give in to their dictates in any way.”
Demanding that the Council request a report on the impacts of sanctions in Syria, he described the donor conference slated to take place in Brussels as “nothing but a propaganda show” by countries seeking to politicize humanitarian work. Meanwhile, Turkish occupation forces in the north-west and United States forces in the north-east continue to support terrorist groups and their proxy militias. Described by some as so-called “moderate terrorists”, groups such as the Turkistan Islamic Party have reorganized themselves, and the Turkish regime continues to use water as a weapon against Syrian civilians. Affirming Syria’s rejection of cross-border activities, he voiced regret that some Council members are more interested in “starting fires instead of putting them [out]”.
Also participating in the meeting were representatives of Belgium, China, Germany, Indonesia, Turkey and the United States.
[*] Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.
For information media. Not an official record.