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The veto on aid for north-west Syria proves the failure of international institutions

Syrians taking shelter in a camp in in Idlib, Syria on June 30, 2021 [ Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency]
Syrians taking shelter in a camp in in Idlib, Syria on June 30, 2021 [Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency]

The last official border crossing open for humanitarian aid to get into north-west Syria is about to close. The lives of almost four million people – including the displaced who were pushed north from their home towns because of attacks by the Syrian regime and its allies — are at risk.

The health crisis in Idlib province has worsened over the years, while rampant poverty persists. The cutting of aid getting into Idlib effectively means the end of the sole official lifeline for many of the displaced persons.

As from Saturday, the only official way to send aid to Syria could be through the regime and its Russian allies, not the most trustworthy route to get help to those in need. Throughout the ongoing Syrian conflict, aid packages have been seen in warehouses and military bases, and have been used by the Syrian authorities for their own purposes.

The UN began to use the crossings on Syria's borders with Turkey, Iraq and Jordan from 2014, and it could transport humanitarian aid through NGOs without the approval of the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. The regime was known to allow such aid only to reach the territories that it held. Areas outside of its control were neglected.

Aid distributed through organisations such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the Syria Trust for Development, led by Assad's wife Asma, would almost certainly not have reached places like Idlib or other opposition-held areas. Even territories held by the Kurdish militias have lost out.

Donations and aid deliveries have helped Assad to circumvent international sanctions against his regime. At least $30 billion of international humanitarian aid is reported to have been taken by Damascus up to and including 2018. Along with the production and smuggling of narcotics and the use of international networks of loyalists smuggling funds through offshore accounts and front companies, aid has been another lucrative method for Assad to avoid sanctions and fund his war effort.

READ: With a new offensive on the horizon, Idlib is the Gaza of Syria

Charles Lawley, the head of Communications and Advocacy at the charity Syria Relief, told me that the closure of Al-Yarubiyah crossing on the border with Iraq last year led to the needs of Syrians in the north-east rising by 38 per cent. And that is only part of the story.

"With 81 per cent of the population of north-west Syria dependent on humanitarian assistance, to restrict the very humanitarian assistance they are dependent [on] can only create more suffering," he explained. "It will achieve nothing but pour more misery and pain on the Syrian people."

With the alternative to the border crossings being aid sent through conflict zones, Lawley confirmed, the prospect is frightening. "We could see a situation where aid is prevented from getting to north-west Syria in order to achieve a military victory. This would, of course, be a war crime and a crime against humanity, but international law and the sanctity of human life has counted for little over the past 10 years."

At a time when 90 per cent of Syrians are living below the poverty line, over 13 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. "The need is greater than ever inside Syria. For anyone to have a conversation that could restrict the routes into which people can receive aid is abhorrent and illogical. No one who wants to close aid border crossings has the interest of the Syrian people, or any of humanity, in their heart. We cannot keep coming to this situation; it is inhumane."

Basma Alloush, policy and advocacy advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council, emphasised the urgency of the situation. "If access to these populations is interrupted or cut off, then we're talking about millions of people who will no longer be able to access regular and predictable assistance on the scale that's needed for this operation."

It would also essentially have an impact on Syrian civil society on the ground dependant on UN support. "Hundreds of these civil society organisations are going to be stranded without the resources they need to continue… reaching the populations in need," added Alloush. "So the ripple effects that we're going to see are serious, significant and potentially very, very dangerous."

READ: Syrians describe closure of Idlib border crossing to aid as 'mass murder'

The concerns are not only humanitarian, though. A conversation needs to be had about how the closure of the last humanitarian border crossing can happen under the eyes of the UN Security Council in the first place. The answer is the veto wielded by the five permanent members of the council: the US, the UK, France, Russia and China. Each one can block any resolution with impunity. This has long been a problem when it comes to conflict resolution and international action in war zones around the world.

The US has used its veto to block resolutions critical of Israel numerous times. Russia prevented condemnation of its annexation of Crimea in 2014. An earlier generation of diplomats allowed South Africa's apartheid era to persist for decades, and stopped any action against the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Those are just a few occasions when vetoes have been used to the detriment of ordinary people on the ground. The veto and its use proves the failure of international organisations under the UN umbrella to address and resolve some very serious issues.

Attempts to make changes to UN procedures have been unsuccessful. Examples include the G4– Brazil, Germany, India and Japan – as well as the Uniting for Consensus (UfC) movement. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pointed out that "The world is bigger than five."

The veto allows injustice to continue on a massive scale. Built around a structure established after World War Two and exploited by the victors who defeated Nazi Germany, the Security Council has failed persistently to change in line with contemporary requirements and the current geopolitical reality. It is that outdated structure that now threatens to abandon millions of displaced Syrians after the predictable Russian (and perhaps Chinese) veto of moves to keep the last humanitarian border crossing operational.

Alloush believes that this is "another" example of how humanitarian issues have become politicised at the Security Council. "It highlights the gridlock and political stalemates that are a feature of the council where life and death issues affect millions of innocent civilians who are not affiliated with any particular party." Humanitarian aid, she added, should never be such a controversial issue that Security Council members feel the need to disagree and block it.

As it stands, the five permanent members of the Security Council can protect their allies and proxies from legitimate condemnation of their policies and practices. The use of the veto can give entirely illegal activities a veneer of legitimacy.

In essence, this represents the failure of global governance as it was envisaged following two catastrophic twentieth century world wars and humanitarian catastrophes. International institutions, especially the UN, have become victims of themselves.

READ: Has the UN simply failed in Syria, or is it complicit in the regime's crimes?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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