After a lengthy decision process, the UN Security Council (UNSC) voted today to renew Resolution 2585, which effectively reauthorizes the use of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey into Idlib, Syria for six months. The compromise will require member states to hold another vote on a further six-month extension in January. The vote comes after the UNSC failed in two rival votes last week to extend the crossing, allowing the aid crossing to expire on July 10.
The crossing is the only remaining available route for international aid into the besieged region of northern Syria, which currently serves 4.2 million Syrians who depend on aid supplied through the crossing – a number that has risen by nearly one million this year alone. While the renewal is a temporary victory for health and humanitarian workers in the region and millions of Syrians, health and human rights experts with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) are calling for more permanent solutions to solidify the flow of humanitarian aid in Syria.
“While we are relieved that access to humanitarian aid for more than 4 million Syrians will re-open for now, this extremely narrow and disgraceful compromise only restarts a temporary clock for health and humanitarian workers who need ample time to plan their missions in Syria, and for millions of civilians who now only have a small window of secured access to aid before their last lifeline is back up for debate in six months’ time,” said Houssam al-Nahhas, MD, MPH, Middle East North Africa researcher at PHR. “It’s gravely imprudent to have to revisit this debate again so soon, in January, when humanitarian needs are likely to increase in response to harsh winter conditions in the north. The proposal and adoption of more permanent, long-term solutions are critical to sustain the flow of aid into Syria to the survival of millions. One operating crossing and a six-month window is not nearly enough. This is truly the bare minimum.”
Since the UNSC authorized cross-border aid operations into Syria in 2014, 53.8 million beneficiaries have received critical health aid. Of those, 46.5 million were reached from Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa crossing and the now closed Bab al-Salaam crossing. These essential mechanisms ensured children received routine vaccines, facilitated the implementation of multiple rounds of polio campaigns, and allowed UN agencies to reach 18.5 million beneficiaries with life saving medical supplies following the declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic in 2020.
In late 2019 and early 2020, devastating aerial attacks perpetrated by the Syrian government and Russian allies in Idlib destroyed critical health care infrastructure, drastically escalating the number of internally displaced people in need of humanitarian aid. The Bab al-Hawa crossing is the last lifeline to outside aid for millions of Syrian civilians following the closure of the Bab al-Salaam and al-Yarubiyah crossings in 2020 due to vetoes on their reauthorization by permanent UN Security Council (UNSC) members Russia and China.
While resolution 2585’s most recent renewal in July 2021 called for a special focus on developing different aid delivery mechanisms, particularly crossline operations, the feasibility and effectiveness of such operations has proven largely insufficient over the last year. Out of the only five convoys that have been deployed through this alternative modality, the supplies delivered could only serve 200,000 residents out of 2.9 million living in Idlib alone. Health care providers in the region receiving medical supplies through this mechanism reported to PHR that supplies delivered every five or six months barely covered their needs for a few days.
“Relying on crossline operations as an alternative mechanism to funnel aid into northern Syria will fail millions of civilians who continue to rely on these access points for basic human essentials and medical care,” said Erika Dailey, director of advocacy and policy at PHR. “Russia’s push to replace these border crossings with a crossline strategy as the primary means of facilitating aid delivery is a dangerous and detrimental proposal that would open the door for the Syrian government’s further weaponization of health care in Syria. Keeping the Bab al-Salaam and al-Yarubiyah crossing shuttered in lieu of this misguided alternative is a death sentence for millions of Syrians.”
A new PHR policy brief, “Why the UN Security Council Must Act to Save Lives and Secure Humanitarian Access for Millions in Need in Northern Syria,” details Bab al-Hawa’s critical role in providing life-saving aid, informed by testimony from more than twenty on-the-ground health and humanitarian professionals and organizations who work in the region. Accounts from medical professionals and aid workers highlight the Syrian government’s use of the health care system to brutalize and oppress the civilian population and how the potential closure of the lone remaining border crossing would impact Syrians’ health and survival.
PHR urged UNSC member states to extend the renewal of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing authorization to at least 12 months to allow NGOs and other humanitarian organizations to plan their programs in Syria and ensure execution of aid delivery. PHR also calls on member states to reauthorize the Bab al-Salaam and al-Yarubiyah crossing points in order to ensure equal and adequate access to humanitarian aid for populations in need across northern Syria. The closure of both these crossing points in 2020 has made major contributions to the near collapse of the public health care system in the northeast of Syria.
“The UNSC’s failure to extend Bab al-Hawa’s renewal beyond a mere six months and immediately reauthorize additional crossings will have a devastating impact on a besieged health system and will undoubtedly make it more challenging for Syrians to access health services in northern Syria,” added al-Nahhas. “As the sole entry point for humanitarian aid into Syria, Bab al-Hawa is already operating under extremely strained conditions. Without the reopening of additional crossings, populations in need across Syria will suffer from the lack of adequate access to life sustaining aid.” PHR has independently corroborated attacks on health care facilities and personnel since the start of the Syrian civil war. Since March 2011, the Syrian government with the support of the Russian allies carried out at least 542 attacks on health care facilities, killed more than 831 health care providers, and arrested thousands of medical professionals.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.