Threat to flow of aid to Syria is a ‘life-and-death’ issue

A worker unloads bags and boxes of humanitarian aid from the back of a truck in the opposition-held Idlib, Syria. (Reuters/File)
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Updated 07 July 2021
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Threat to flow of aid to Syria is a ‘life-and-death’ issue

  • A Security Council vote on renewing UN mandate for cross-border humanitarian assistance is due July 10; Irish envoy says millions depend on it to survive
  • Pressure is mounting on Russia to allow flow of aid to continue but Moscow believes it should all go through the regime in Damascus

NEW YORK: With just days to go before the UN mandate for cross-border humanitarian assistance to Syria expires, the spotlight is on Russia amid fears of a Security Council showdown between Moscow and the West.
“It’s life-and-death issues we’re dealing with here,” said Ireland’s permanent representative to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason, who together with Norwegian counterpart Mona Juul are co-penholders of the file on the humanitarian situation in Syria. The penholder role refers to the member of the council that leads the negotiation and drafting of resolutions on a particular issue.
Nason and Juul have drafted a resolution to extend the cross-border mandate. They want the one remaining aid corridor through Bab Al-Hawa on the border with Turkey to remain open, and in addition to reopen Al-Yarubiya crossing on the border with Iraq.
“We’ve made the evidence-based arguments for months, together,” Nason told reporters at the UN headquarters in New York, where the Security Council on Tuesday met to discuss the issue behind closed doors.
“We’ve talked to every single member of the council, individually and collectively, and we’re making good headway, I think, and we’re hoping to see successful renewal later this week.”
Juul acknowledged that the debate within the Security Council on the issue “will get even more intense” in the run-up to July 10, when members will decide whether to reauthorize UN access to Bab Al-Hawa.
Cross-border aid provides a critical lifeline for millions of Syrians in the northwest of the war-torn country, as part of a massive international humanitarian response.
Ramesh Rajasingham, the UN’s acting humanitarian chief said a failure to extend the mandate “would disrupt lifesaving aid to 3.4 million people in need across the northwest, millions of whom are among the most vulnerable in Syria.”
He added: “A cross-line operation would provide a vital addition to the cross-border lifeline but it could by no means replace it. Even if deployed regularly, cross-line convoys could not replicate the size and scope of the cross-border operations.”
Cross-line operations refer to internal shipments of aid from Damascus to rebel-held parts of the country, whereas cross-border aid is shipped direct to those areas by other nations.
The Security Council approved four border crossings when international aid deliveries to Syria began in 2014. In January 2020 Russia used its veto power to force the closure of all but one. Moscow argues that the international aid operation violates the Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, said that Syria has been “liberated” and so all aid destined for the north should go through the capital, Damascus.
But aid agencies have said that humanitarian assistance delivered to Damascus does not reach areas that oppose Bashar Assad’s regime, which is accused of withholding basic goods and services, including food and clean water, from millions of Syrians as a tool of war.
Nebenzia, however, blamed the deteriorating humanitarian situation on the West’s “illegal economic sanctions (and its) continuing attempt to oust the legal authorities of the country through economic suffocation.”
During a side event at the UN on Tuesday about humanitarian assistance to Syria, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the American ambassador to the organization, said: “There is no substitute for cross-border aid. We only have four days to ensure that this literal lifeline to women and children does not get shut down.
“And as a mother and as a grandmother, I cannot imagine what it would be like to be not able to provide food, healthcare and shelter to my own children and grandchildren.
“I also can’t imagine what it is like for us not to make that decision that we have to make. And that is what we have to do in the council over the next three-to-four days.”
Thomas-Greenfield implored member states and aid agencies to “engage council members, both in New York and in capitals, to urge them to vote for the renewal and to vote for the expansion.”
The US is the single largest humanitarian donor to Syria. Although the Biden administration has been cautious about articulating any clear goals for Syria, it has treated the humanitarian issue as non-negotiable.
Maintaining the flow of aid into Syria was one of the key requests President Joe Biden made during his meeting last month with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The imminent vote at the Security Council is therefore seen as a test of Biden’s efforts to ease tensions between Washington and Moscow, which are more strained than they have been for years.
Jomana Qaddour, a non-resident fellow at international affairs think tank the Atlantic Council, told Arab News that Washington is not approaching the humanitarian issue in Syria as a negotiation in which it will make “concessions in exchange for what the US believes is common sense.”
She added: “Of course, this is not how Putin perceives it. The Russians have used every step as a platform for concessions from the US and European allies, specifically as it relates to files that (Moscow) knows are a headache for the Biden administration, such as (international) sanctions (on the Syrian regime), normalization (of relations with Damascus), and reconstruction aid.
“These are really the top priorities for Russia, and it is going to use every opportunity to gain concessions from the US and Europe to achieve progress on those fronts.”
Nason and Juul remain focused on the aid issue.
“We understand it’s politically sensitive (but) we’re making a purely humanitarian case,” said Nason.
Juul added: “It’s hard to believe that we will not be able to continue this massive aid operation, which is probably the biggest in the world right now and the most scrutinized and organized of all operations.”
Qaddour laments the fact that the international view of the Syrian conflict seems to have been reduced to this narrow focus on the continued delivery of humanitarian aid while other crucial issues — such as the thousands of detainees and forcibly disappeared people, and the return of refugees — are being ignored.
“For all of us who have been working on Syria, it is incredibly frustrating to see all our energy every year spent on renewing what I think should be a no-brainer,” she said.
“I would love for that to be settled once and for all, so that we can actually focus on some of the root causes of the Syrian conflict that prevent the country and its people from living normal, stable and peaceful lives that provide them with some sense of justice, so that they can move on and rebuild.”


More than one in four Syrians ‘extremely poor’: World Bank

Updated 55 min 52 sec ago
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More than one in four Syrians ‘extremely poor’: World Bank

  • 27 percent of Syrians — about 5.7 million individuals — live in extreme poverty
  • “Continued funding shortfalls and limited access to humanitarian assistance” have further strained poor Syrians, the World Bank said

BEIRUT: More than a quarter of Syrians live in extreme poverty, the World Bank said Saturday, 13 years into a devastating civil war that has battered the economy and impoverished millions.
The World Bank published two new reports on Syria, which found that “27 percent of Syrians — about 5.7 million individuals — live in extreme poverty.”
“Extreme poverty, while virtually non-existent before the conflict, affected more than one in four Syrians in 2022” and might have further deteriorated after a deadly earthquake last year, one of the reports said.
The quake killed about 6,000 people in the country.
According to the United Nations, about 90 percent of Syrians live in poverty, while it previously estimated that around 2 million lived in extreme poverty after more than a decade of war.
The report cited neighbor Lebanon’s economic meltdown in late 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, as having eroded the welfare of Syrian households in recent years.
The civil war in Syria has also ravaged the economy, infrastructure and industry, while Western sanctions have added to the country’s woes.
“Continued funding shortfalls and limited access to humanitarian assistance” have further strained poor Syrians, already coping with “soaring prices, reduced access to essential services and rising unemployment,” the World Bank said.
The UN told AFP previously that its humanitarian response plan for Syria for 2024 requires more than $4 billion but that it is only six percent funded.
The international community is set to meet in Brussels Monday to try and muster funds for Syria at a yearly pledging conference.
A lack of opportunities and dwindling aid has pushed many Syrians to rely on money sent from relatives abroad to survive, with the World Bank estimating that “in 2022, the total value of remittances received by Syrian households reached about $1.05 billion.”
Syria’s estimated GDP stood at around $6.2 billion in 2023.
Syria’s “real GDP is projected to contract by 1.5 percent in 2024, extending the 1.2 percent decline in 2023,” the report said.
“Inflation is anticipated to remain high in 2024 due to the pass-through effects of currency depreciation, along with persistent shortages and potential further subsidy cuts (for) food and fuel,” it said.
Syria’s war has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions more since it erupted in 2011 after Damascus cracked down on anti-government protests.


Israel official says ‘intention’ to renew Gaza talks ‘this week’

Updated 49 min 28 sec ago
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Israel official says ‘intention’ to renew Gaza talks ‘this week’

  • “There is an intention to renew the talks this week and there is an agreement,” said the official
  • The official did not elaborate on the agreement

JERUSALEM: An Israeli official said Saturday the government had an “intention” to renew “this week” talks aimed at reaching a hostage release deal in Gaza, after a meeting in Paris between US and Israeli officials.
“There is an intention to renew the talks this week and there is an agreement,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The Israeli official did not elaborate on the agreement, but Israeli media reported that Mossad chief David Barnea had agreed during meetings in Paris with mediators CIA Director Bill Burns and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani on a new framework for the stalled negotiations.
Top US diplomat Antony Blinken also spoke with Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz about new efforts to achieve a ceasefire and reopen the Rafah border crossing, Washington said.
Talks aimed at reaching a hostage release and truce deal in the Gaza Strip ground to a halt this month after Israel launched a military operation in the territory’s far-southern city of Rafah.
The Gaza war broke out after Hamas’s October 7 attack resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,903 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to data from the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.


Yemen’s Houthis postpone release of 100 prisoners belonging to government forces

Updated 25 May 2024
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Yemen’s Houthis postpone release of 100 prisoners belonging to government forces

  • The Houthis, an Iran-aligned movement that controls part of the country, last released prisoners in April 2023
  • Yemen has been embroiled in years of civil war that has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions hungry

CAIRO: Yemen’s Houthis said they had postponed the release of around 100 prisoners belonging to government forces that had previously been announced to take place on Saturday.
A Houthi official said that the delay was because of “technical reasons,” adding the release would take place at another time.
The head of the Houthi Prisoner Affairs Committee, Abdul Qader Al-Murtada, said on Friday that the group would release more than 100 prisoners in what he called “a unilateral humanitarian initiative.”
The Houthis, an Iran-aligned movement that controls part of the country, last released prisoners in April 2023 in an exchange of 250 Houthis for 70 government forces.
Yemen has been embroiled in years of civil war that has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions hungry.
The Houthis are the de facto authorities in northern Yemen, while the internationally recognized government is represented by the Political Leadership Council, which took over power from Yemen’s president-in-exile.


Spain demands Israel comply with UN court ruling on Rafah, Britain criticizes order

Updated 25 May 2024
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Spain demands Israel comply with UN court ruling on Rafah, Britain criticizes order

  • Spanish government: Ruling by the International Court of Justice is legally binding
  • British government says ruling would strengthen Palestinian Islamist group Hamas

MADRID/LONDON: The Spanish government demanded on Saturday that Israel comply with an order by the top UN court to immediately stop its bombardment and ground assault on the Gazan city of Rafah.
It stressed that the ruling on Friday by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was legally binding.
“The precautionary measures set out by the ICJ, including that Israel should cease its military offensive in Rafah, are compulsory. Israel must comply with them,” Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares wrote on X.
“The same goes for a ceasefire, the release of the hostages and access for humanitarian aid (to Gaza),” he said.
“The suffering of the people of Gaza and the violence must end.”
The British government, meanwhile, has criticized the World Court order, saying the ruling would strengthen Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
“The reason there isn’t a pause in the fighting is because Hamas turned down a very generous hostage deal from Israel. The intervention of these courts — including the ICJ today — will strengthen the view of Hamas that they can hold on to hostages and stay in Gaza,” a UK foreign ministry spokesperson said late on Friday.
“And if that happens there won’t be either peace, or a two-state solution.”
In a case brought by South Africa alleging the Israeli assault on Gaza amounts to “genocide,” the ICJ ordered Israel on Friday to “immediately halt” the ground and air offensive in Rafah.
The operations began on May 7 despite international fears for the safety of the 1.4 million civilians trapped in the city.
The Hague-based ICJ, whose orders are legally binding but lack direct enforcement mechanisms, also ruled that Israel must keep open the key Rafah crossing with Egypt to allow “unhindered” humanitarian aid into Gaza.
And it urged the “unconditional” release of hostages taken by Hamas fighters during their October 7 attack in Israel.
Israel responded on Saturday by bombing Rafah and other parts of the densely populated Gaza Strip.
Spain is one of the European countries to have been most critical of Israel over the war in Gaza.
On Wednesday, Spain, Ireland and Norway said their governments would recognize a Palestinian state from next week.
Israel summoned their envoys to “reprimand” them for the decision and on Friday said it would ban Spain’s consulate in Jerusalem from helping Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
The war in Gaza began after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Some 252 people were taken hostage, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the Israeli army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,857 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to data from the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.


Israeli strike kills two Hezbollah fighters in Syria: monitor

Updated 25 May 2024
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Israeli strike kills two Hezbollah fighters in Syria: monitor

  • It was the third strike against Hezbollah targets in Syria in about a week

BEIRUT: An Israeli drone strike in central Syria killed two fighters from Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement on Saturday, a war monitor said.
“An Israeli drone fired two missiles at a Hezbollah car and truck near the town of Qusayr in Homs province, as they were on their way to Al-Dabaa military airport, killing at least two Hezbollah fighters and wounding others,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It was the third strike against Hezbollah targets in Syria in about a week.
On Monday, Israeli strikes in the Qusayr area, which is close to the Lebanese border, killed eight pro-Iranian fighters, said Observatory, a Britain-based monitor with a network of sources in Syria.
At least one Hezbollah fighter was among those killed, a source from Hezbollah told AFP at the time.
Another strike, on May 18, targeted “a Hezbollah commander and his companion,” the Observatory said. It did not report any casualties.
Israel rarely comments on individual strikes in Syria but has repeatedly said it will not allow its arch-enemy Iran to expand its presence there.
Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in its northern neighbor, mainly targeting army positions and Iran-backed fighters including from Hezbollah.
The strikes have increased since Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip began on October 7, when the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group launched an unprecedented attack against Israel.
Syria’s war has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions more since it erupted in 2011 after Damascus cracked down on anti-government protests.