Aid convoy heads to Douma, Syria Photo: WFP/Basel Hassan

The Last Humanitarian Lifeline to Syria May Soon Be Severed | A View From Northern Syria and the United Nations

As the Syrian civil war escalated, the Syrian government began obstructing access to humanitarian relief in rebel held parts of the country. So, in 2014 the UN Security Council took the extraordinary step of allowing the United Nations to deliver humanitarian relief to parts of Syria without the consent of the Syrian government and in violation of Syrian sovereignty.

Since then, humanitarian aid has been able to reach besieged parts of Syria through border crossings, mainly from Turkey into Northern Syria. But in recent years divisions at the Security Council, namely Russian objections to this arrangement, have significantly limited this aid operation. There is now just one border crossing in which aid is delivered from Turkey to rebel held parts of Idlib province in northern Syria. And on July 10th, that last border crossing may close.

Today’s episode is in two parts. First, you will hear from Vanessa Jackson the UN representative for Care International. She explains the broader diplomatic context in which this last border crossing may be forced shut by Russia. Then, you will hear my conversation with Ismail Alabdullah who is a volunteer in Idlib with the White Helmets, a local humanitarian relief and rescue organization. He discusses at length the humanitarian situation in Idlib and the implications of severing the last cross border lifeline of humanitarian aid.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

Why did the Security Council Authorize the UN to Deliver Humanitarian Aid Without the Consent of the Syrian Government?

Vanessa Jackson [00:03:03] Yes, even back in 2014, this was a really extraordinary move by the Security Council. It was the first time that they had authorized the U.N. to deliver humanitarian aid without the consent of the host government so in this case, the government of Syria. And this was really because the situation on the ground for civilians in Syria was already very extreme. The resolution itself talks about nearly a quarter of a million people being trapped in besieged areas. It was a period where many towns were either hard to reach or actually besieged by the Syrian government and in some cases, other armed groups. You had things like barrel bombs and aerial bombardment being used and you had the resolution talking about arbitrary and willful withholding of consent to allow humanitarian aid in. So, all these hallmarks that we’ve come to be quite familiar with about the Syrian conflict were all already in play by about July of 2014, which is when the council took this step and we then saw the conflict actually escalate quite significantly in the subsequent years where Russia was much more involved as an active party to the conflict. And the toll that it began to take on civilians escalated along with that.

How does CARE provide humanitarian relief to Syria?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:34] So initially, this 2014 Security Council resolution authorized the delivery of aid across several border points into Syria. Can you just maybe briefly explain like how does that work? How does an entity like CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere) provide that aid across the border?

Vanessa Jackson [00:04:57] Yes, you’re right. There were four crossings initially, so one was done in the south into Jordan, two in the north into Syria and the fourth crossing also in the north, but into or from Iraq, into Syria. And the resolution really tried to incorporate this into a comprehensive or whole of Syria humanitarian response. So, the U.N. was operating in most parts of Syria at that time. So, there was what we call cross line operations happening, so aid moving within the country, but having to cross active lines of conflict. And then this resolution allowed this cross-border element to come in and it brought with it a very rigorous monitoring mechanism to make sure that there was minimal risk, that any of this aid would be diverted into the hands of any kind of armed forces; that it really would reach the people with the humanitarian needs on the ground. And we’ve seen the sophistication of that monitoring mechanism really become a gold standard in UN practice. It is by all accounts, including the Secretary General saying that it really is the most scrutinized humanitarian operation in the world. So, it combines many, many different forms of scrutiny. You know, everything is able to be tracked with a bar code, there’s third party, independent monitoring, there’s monitoring every step of the way from the moment it goes on to a U.N. convoy truck, to the minute it goes into a warehouse, to the time it reaches the hands of the civilian in a community inside Syria. So, I don’t think that it’s hyperbole. It really is quite sophisticated and technology intensive and resource intensive operation but that’s what we really need to give Security Council members the assurance that this operation is complying with humanitarian principles and humanitarian law from beginning to end.

Why have border crossings to deliver humanitarian aid to Syria reduced since 2017?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:17] So despite those assurances and despite the apparent effectiveness of this way of delivering aid to besieged populations in Syria since 2014, there has been a contraction of the number of border crossings that can be used to deliver this aid. Can you explain when it was that Russia began to put up some objections to this mechanism.

Vanessa Jackson [00:07:56] Yes, that’s right. It really has been a very fraught resolution, and that really began towards the end of 2017. So, the first few years were relatively smooth, and the council was relatively united about the humanitarian imperative on the ground but as the conflict developed and as I said, Syria became a very active party to that conflict, we saw the narrative begin to shift for countries, particularly Russia, but also China really followed suit. And the conversation from their side became more about the sovereignty of the Syrian government under international law. It is the government that’s responsible for humanitarian assistance to its own populations and so they began to challenge this narrative that the international community needed to allow the UN to be taking on that humanitarian responsibility. And so, in 2017, that was when consensus was broken, and we saw both Russia and China abstain from the resolution. So, they didn’t stand in the way of its renewal, but they began to voice objections and suggest alternative ways of meeting humanitarian needs that were more in line with the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Syria. That happened again in 2018. The resolution was adopted again, but they abstained and then in December of 2019, there was much more serious challenges and we saw Russia for the first time use its veto on a humanitarian resolution concerning Syria. And it really took the council — they had to sort of meet all over the Christmas and New Year period — and it took them until the 10th of January to actually finally agree on a text but in that process, two of the four crossings were not reauthorized, and Russia insisted that the length of time that the operation could continue would only be six months rather than the 12 months which had been standard practice.

What kind of humanitarian aid is delivered to Syria from across their borders?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:13] So that means that every July now, since then, there has been this real fraught moment in which aid agencies like yours are unsure if the aid operation will continue.

Vanessa Jackson [00:10:32] That’s exactly right. And I think most importantly, it’s important to stress how difficult and upsetting this is for people inside Syria, because this really is a life and death operation for them. They know that if the food, the shelter, the winter clothing, the medical assistance, the medical teams, the midwife training, you know, all these things, and they’re not just food and goods, there are a lot of important lifesaving services that are part of this cross-border operation. So, I think we need to remember for the people of Syria just how stressful and anxiety provoking every June, July period is for them when this cloud hangs over their future. And I think we’ve seen that anxiety really escalate. In July 2020, the third crossing was closed so we were literally down to one crossing. Luckily, it was the major crossing from Turkey into Syria and now that’s supporting 4 million people in northwest Syria. So, again, where we’re facing this same uncertainty and a serious question as to whether or not the council will renew this resolution. And, you know, obviously, with the situation globally being even more complex this year with a conflict in Ukraine that’s having real spillover effects for the global region, but the Middle East in particular, that just adds another dimension of concern and anxiety for the Syrians and anyone who’s wanting to see this cross-border mechanism continue.

How likely is it that the Bab al-Hawa border crossing will remain open to outside humanitarian aid for Syria? How does Russia’s war on Ukraine affect the Security Council negotiations on Syria’s cross-border humanitarian aid?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:34] Since 2019, Russian objections have led to the closing of all but one border crossing: the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which you noted is the major one. And last year it took the personal intervention of Joe Biden speaking directly with Vladimir Putin to have him sort of smooth the edges and allow the continued operation of this single border crossing. But now we’re in a geopolitical environment that’s so different from what it was just a year ago and it seems that the lines of communication between the West and the Russians are so severed right now that the chances of the Security Council passing this resolution to allow this crossing to remain open seem fairly slim at this point. Am I reading this wrong?

Vanessa Jackson [00:13:34] I think that’s the real point of debate like just how much of a spill over into council dynamics will Ukraine be in this particular resolution negotiation? We are actually hearing positive noises that there’s a tacit agreement among many council members that Ukraine should be kept separate, that for whatever disputes and disagreements — and they are quite passionate when it comes to Ukraine — that needs to be quarantined from the discussion about Syria and Syria needs to be treated as a purely humanitarian, complex situation that the Council has a responsibility to resolve by putting the needs of Syrians first. So, we very much hope that those noises are actually accurate and that we can see the politics kept at bay. That’s obviously a very optimistic reading, but that’s really encouraging that I think a lot of council members realized just how serious this decision is and, yes, as you said in the past, we have seen Moscow and Washington at the highest levels actually having the closed door negotiations to find a way through the politics, to make sure that we do get a renewal, that the lifeline stays open, and that it is for a minimum of 12 months. We had a very convoluted formula last year, but in practice it meant that there was a full 12-month renewal for the operation and that’s really what we have to say this year as well. We might end up with some additional new language in the text to provide some kind of a sweetener for Russia and countries like China that are saying they want to see a shift from this cross-border focus to much more aid being delivered cross line so from Damascus to different parts of Syria, but I think that that’s really where the negotiations are going to reveal exactly what can these parties agree. And obviously, there are other players involved. It’s the Turkish government as well because it’s the crossing on their territory. So, I think to the best of people’s ability of just trying to keep the focus on the humanitarian needs of Syrians is really how we hope this whole conversation will be framed over the next couple of weeks.

What will humanitarian aid to Syria look like if the Bab al-Hawa border crossing closes on July 10?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:21] Should the border crossing effectively close on July 10th, what would that mean for CARE? What sort of aid that you are delivering now would you no longer be able to deliver?

Vanessa Jackson [00:16:37] I think the real question is, what does it mean for U.N. assistance? I think for many of the international NGOs like CARE, our operations will continue, and we might be able to scale up a little bit but the bulk of the humanitarian assistance and the services that come across the border are from U.N. agencies. And one of the biggest ones is the World Food Program (WFP), which provides about 80% of the food going into northwest Syria so we know that that’s feeding nearly 2 million people a month. We know that if the resolution is not renewed, there’s only enough food in Syria to probably last through until early September and that might give us the INGOs a chance to scale up but we know we can probably only scale up to feed an additional 300,000 people, and that is going to leave a gap of 1 million people by September who will no longer receive WFP food assistance and we won’t be able to meet those needs either. So, this is the scale of what really is at stake. How can anyone at this point in time when the needs are higher in northwest Syria than they’ve ever been in the entire 11 years of conflict; how could the Security Council in all good conscience vote to not reauthorize food, medicine, shelter for people in northwest Syria who will be going into a really severe winter in about four months’ time?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:18] Well, Vanessa, thank you so much for your time and coming back on the show to discuss this once again.

Vanessa Jackson [00:18:24] Thank you. And I hope we get a very positive outcome for all the people in Syria. Thank you.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:31] If all goes according to plan, I won’t have to speak with you next year around this time.

Vanessa Jackson [00:18:35] Right.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:36] All right. Thank you.

Vanessa Jackson [00:18:37] Fingers crossed. Thank you so much, Mark.

How has conflict in Syria changed since the Russia-Turkey agreement of 2020?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:42] A big thank you to Vanessa. And before we get to my conversation with Ismail Alabdullah of the White Helmets, some context: Idlib is located in northern Syria and borders Turkey. It is where millions of people have fled to escape the Syrian regime and it is the last major rebel stronghold. The main rebel group operating in Idlib is known as HTS, which is an offshoot of al Qaeda and a U.S. designated terrorist organization. In 2020 fighting in Idlib significantly subsided when Russia and Turkey entered into an agreement. My conversation with Ismail Alabdullah kicks off with me asking him to describe the fighting in Idlib since that 2020 arrangement.

Ismail Alabdullah [00:19:34] The situation from the very beginning of that is that a cease fire agreement was reached by Turkey and Russia. The war hasn’t ended. The war is not over. In Idlib we experienced continuous bombing attacks from Russia and the Syrian regime. From that day, the beginning of 2020, up to now, every day we have bombings, we have casualties, we have people dying. We responded to hundreds of calls of bombing. Russia hasn’t stopped. The regime hasn’t stopped. They say in their media that the battle for Idlib will be in any time, so the fear is still in the hearts of the civilians.

What are the humanitarian needs in Idlib?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:27] What is the humanitarian situation in Idlib today? Are there food shortages, medicine shortages? How are civilians experiencing this conflict in Idlib?

Ismail Alabdullah [00:20:41] Those who were displaced from parts of Syria and now living in northwest Syria, living in a warzone, they are experiencing something like people living in tents without anything. The humanitarian aid is needed just to survive; people are living in survival mode every day. A lot of families who lost breadwinners in that conflict cannot afford to have food on their table every day. We have a big number of children, maybe thousands of children who are poor. They don’t know what the school is. If they hear something like “the door of their house” they don’t know the meaning or they don’t know what the meaning of a key is to open their house. So, people are experiencing things never experienced in this century, experiencing a generation of children without school. An example with what’s happening this summer: now that Assad’s regime has a new strategy, they are bombing the agriculture to deprive and to prevent people from getting their livelihood. They don’t want people to have secure livelihoods to feed their children.

Why are Syria and Russia bombing agricultural areas of Syria?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:30] Rather than attacking military targets in more urban areas, you’re saying that the new tactic by the Syrian regime and Russia is to bomb agricultural areas, disrupting farming, causing fires, that sort of thing?

Ismail Alabdullah [00:22:48] Yeah, they are causing fires to destroy the crops for the people. And using what? Using a precision bomb, a precise weapon to target exact areas; it’s a precise weapon. As White Helmets we’ve documented this use on hospitals, civil defense centers, medical points and they killed a lot of Syrians. We documented that 70 people were killed of this weapon. They are using it to destroy and kill the people and destroy water stations which provides drinkable water for more than 300,000 people. They use it for what? To destroy that infrastructure. To prevent people to getting access to water. Why do they use it to destroy a hospital? They want to kill the will of the people. They want to displace them. The civilians who reside in Northwest Syria are paying the price. Because of what? Because the tension between Russia and the West. On what? On the Ukraine war. So, people now are the victims many times. They are paying a price for everything. Now they will pay the price for the cross-border, which is something Russia is threatening and telling the world they would not extend this mandate.

What humanitarian aid are people in Idlib receiving from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:33] I wanted to ask you specifically about the role of aid that is transported across the Bab al-Hawa, crossing point from Turkey into Syria: What is the role of that aid? What kind of aid comes through that crossing point on a daily basis and what role does it play in supporting the humanitarian needs of people in Idlib?

Ismail Alabdullah [00:25:03] This is currently the only lifeline for those living in Syria. The aid that comes from the border is everything for the civilians. Food kits, medical supplies, shelter, tents, access to water, everything. Everything now comes through this cross-border operation. If they would stop it, if they were to stop this mechanism, we will stop getting aid from this for sure. Hunger will increase, medical cases will go untreated, millions of people would be at risk of losing shelter assistance and access to water will decrease. And what will result from all of this? We will see deaths from hunger. We will see people dying because of a lack of medical supplies. Maybe people will die because of no access to drinkable water. Even the NGOs now who finance support, the international NGOs that are operating in northwest Syria would be affected immediately — all sectors and all projects, everything will be affected.

If the Bab al-Hawa border crossing is closed, how will The White Helmets organization be affected?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:31] How will the work of the White Helmets be affected and impacted by the potential closure of this border crossing?

Ismail Alabdullah [00:26:41] Our work will be harder. Our work would be hard. We are not able. We are not government. We’re not like that. We still need countries to deal with this. We need a big amount of support. The White Helmets cannot handle this alone. Our work will be harder. We cannot meet the needs of people. Everything would be changed. You know, we have about a million-point seven people living at the tents in the camps so how can we provide our service where people in the first place cannot afford food on their table, cannot feed their children, cannot get milk for the children, for their babies. Even disease which are spread in this environment, this unstable environment, we cannot afford our services as before. Our work would be much harder.

What are The White Helmets?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:44] Can you describe just the day-to-day work of The White Helmets in Idlib today?

Ismail Alabdullah [00:27:52] Our work now the world knows us as search and rescue teams but in recent days, we have been doing something different. We are now providing other services. We support the communities we work in on infrastructure, we maintain and fix the roads for people. We help to pave the ways in the camps. Our work has changed completely and now we are bigger than before and work to elevate the pertinent people. We respond with medical supplies. We respond with ambulances. We respond to the people who cannot afford to go to the hospital. Our centers provide psychological support for those who are in dire need of psychological support. We provide for those people who are in dire need for mental health care. Our programs now are different. We’re working on many different fields, working for the future of Syria with justice and accountability. We’re working on our effort to get the people who harmed and killed every Syrian behind bars at the end.

Why can aid for Syria not flow from Damascus to Idlib like the Russians suggest?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:29:39] So the argument from the Syrian government and the Russian government is that this crossing does not need to stay open because aid could or should just flow from Damascus to Idlib. You know, to me, that’s obviously problematic but I’d love to hear from you directly why the idea of receiving aid from Damascus is almost farcical, it seems. I’d love to hear, in your words, why it is problematic, why the Russian proposal is so challenging.

Ismail Alabdullah [00:30:22] The people who caused the humanitarian disaster are now being included in the humanitarian solution. The same party that uses chemical weapons to suffocate and kill thousands of people and who detained thousands of people in the prisons; this party who displaced millions and millions of Syrians. Now they want Syria to give another weapon which is the humanitarian aid to harm more people, to kill more people by starvation, by hunger as they did before in many regions of Syria, they have used this weapon. I was in Aleppo city in 2016 when we were under siege. The UN provided us with flour and at the entrance of Aleppo, but they refused, they said it’s okay we will get them what they need but at the end, they burned Aleppo and destroyed Aleppo. The same thing will happen. They will get the aid. They will weaponized this humanitarian aid and many reports made it clear for the whole war that the regime distributed aid in the region under control of the regime in a corrupted way. Why? Because something obvious. The people who are loyal to them, the people who were involved in the attacks on the Syrian civilians were rewarded by the humanitarian aid, the others weren’t. So, it was made clear that all this was happening to the international community, including the use of chemical weapons. Now they are giving them another chance to kill the Syrians, another weapon to kill the Syrians. So, it’s absolutely ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. Just this idea of giving this party that humanitarian aid to give it to the civilians.

What will The White Helmets do if the Bab al-Hawa border crossing is closed?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:32:54] So, you know, if I have to guess, unfortunately, it would seem that the Bab al-Hawa crossing will likely close in the coming months. We don’t know for certain, but it is to me a strong likelihood. If that happens, how will the White Helmets adapt to this new environment in which, you know, your lifeline to the outside world is essentially shut?

Ismail Alabdullah [00:33:26] I hope not. I hope not. It will for sure will be a humanitarian catastrophe in northwest Syria. Those civilians with a bit of humanitarian aid will lose everything. As mentioned before, hunger will increase, medical cases will go untreated. A lot of things but the White Helmets, our teams, we cannot deal with this alone or handle this. The needs of people will be out of control. We hope not. This is even imposing and giving this scenario, it’s something unbelievable because there’s no alternative for this this humanitarian aid cross-border mechanism, cross-border operation; this is something that gives a larger scale of humanitarian aid. People who need their aid get it directly without any party that would steal it. We hope that they will extend this mechanism because for sure, the world will witness something unprecedented, something that didn’t happen before. 4 billion people would starve, will be at risk of losing their lives. But The White Helmets cannot handle this alone, we cannot, our capabilities aren’t enough to handle and meet the needs of the people.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:35:26] Well, Ismail, you know, I certainly hope that worst case scenario does not unfold but thank you for speaking with me and thank you for your work. All right. Well, a big thank you to Vanessa Jackson for speaking with me and to Ismail Alabdullah for speaking with me from Idlib. And obviously, this episode is being published ahead of that crucial vote so do pay attention to that vote, and we will certainly revisit this issue in future episodes. All right, thanks. We’ll see you next time.