US urges UN to stop making aid to Syria a political issue

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the divided U.N. Security Council on Monday to stop making humanitarian aid to war-torn Syria a political issue and open more border crossings to get food and other help to 13.4 million people in need. But Russia quickly reiterated its opposition to crossings to rebel and opposition areas.

Referring especially to Russia and its close ally Syrian President Bashar Assad, Blinken said the council should also “stop taking part in or making excuses for attacks” on hospitals and near the only authorized crossing point, which has closed off pathways to assistance.

In January 2020, at the insistence of Russia, which has veto power in the Security Council, members voted to cut four crossing points for humanitarian aid to Syria to just two from Turkey to the rebel-controlled northwest. And in July, again under threat of a Russian veto, the council cut back to a single border crossing from Turkey.

Blinken urged the reopening of the second border crossing from Turkey that used to deliver aid to about 4 million Syrians and the crossing from Iraq that brought aid to 1.3 million in the northeast, which is controlled by U.S.-allied Kurdish forces and several hundred American troops.

“In their absence, delivering aid is costlier, more perilous, less efficient,” Blinken said.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergey Vershinin, was sharply critical of cross-border aid deliveries. He accused aid groups of discriminating against Damascus-controlled regions and refusing to fund Syria’s recovery and the return of refugees in order to preserve cross-border operations that he said “violate the norms of international humanitarian law.”

“They’re doing this with one goal in mind, to undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria for political motivations because they simply do not like the government of the country,” Vershinin said.

He also blamed the “dramatic negative impact” of unilateral sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the European Union for the “economic suffocation” of Syria, pointing to 90% of Syrians living under the poverty line, 60% going hungry and 2 million children not getting an education. He accused “terrorists” in rebel areas of taking food from needy civilians.

The United States holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month and Blinken used the opportunity of chairing the U.N.'s most powerful body to call for a political solution as the Syrian conflict marks its 10th anniversary.

Stressing that all council members either have children or grandchildren, he asked how it was possible not to “find in our hearts the common humanity to actually take meaningful action” when the humanitarian situation in Syria is “grave” and worsening.

Blinken, who has young children, asked council members to think of their children.

“Despite our differences we have to find a way to do something to take action to help people. That is our responsibility, and shame on us if we don’t meet it,” he said.

“Stop making humanitarian assistance, on which millions of Syrian lives depend, a political issue, waiting in hope for the Security Council,” Blinken said. “Let’s end the wait, let’s take action, let’s help the people of Syria.”

The meeting took place as the international aid community braced for significant shortfalls at a donor conference that started Monday in Brussels co-hosted by the U.N. and the European Union. Russia’s Vershinin criticized them for not inviting the Syrian government.

U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the council “the deep economic decay from a decade of war has deepened further over the last year, not least as a result of the pandemic.”

He said the need for aid has jumped 20% from last year and humanitarian organizations coordinated by the U.N. are seeking an estimated $4.2 billion to reach 12.3 Syrians inside the country. He said another $5.8 billion is required for support to countries hosting Syrian refugees in the region.

“We need more money, not less, if we are to avoid a further deterioration — the consequences of which could be dramatic and widespread,” Lowcock said.

Henrietta Fore, head of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said Syria’s worst economic crisis means “across the country nearly 90% of children now require humanitarian assistance.”