NEW YORK - The U.N. Security Council was unable to break a deadlock Friday night that would decide the fate of a cross-border aid operation from Turkey into northwest Syria that assists 3 million people.
After two rounds of votes on rival draft resolutions Friday, the humanitarian operation appeared on the verge of shutting down without authorization to continue. Those votes followed a contentious week of multiple rounds of votes, vetoes and negotiations, but no compromise.
Friday afternoon, Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution supported by the other 13 council members extending operations at two crossing points for six more months.
The council reconvened four hours later to hear the results of a vote on a Russian proposal authorizing one crossing for one year. That failed to garner enough support, with only four votes in favor (Russia, China, South Africa and Vietnam), seven against and four abstentions.
After the second failure, diplomats said the council had returned to closed consultations to discuss next steps.
The United Nations and aid partners say 3 million people in northwest Syria benefit from assistance that flows through the two crossings, known as Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa.
A draft from Germany and Belgium, which holds the Syria humanitarian file on the council, called for a six-month reauthorization of the two crossings until January - a compromise from their earlier request for one year. Diplomats said they were continuing to work to find a solution.
Russia and China have repeatedly tried to reduce the number of crossings (from two to one) and the length of the mandate (they prefer only six months), but have found little appetite or support for that among the other 13 council members.
"We categorically reject claims that Russia wants to stop humanitarian deliveries to the Syrian population in need," Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, wrote on Twitter Thursday evening. "Our draft is the best proof that these allegations are groundless."
Moscow, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has argued that all aid should go through Damascus to other parts of Syria. The areas served by the operation from Turkey assist people in parts of the country outside government control.
The U.N. and humanitarian groups have requested more access and crossing points, not fewer. The U.N. has asked the council to reauthorize use of a crossing from northern Iraq that was used for medical supplies, especially as Syria is now facing COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Russia and China forced the council to close that crossing in January.
"Shutting the two northwest crossings could be a virtual death sentence for many of the millions of Syrians who rely on aid to survive," said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch. "But it's not too late for Moscow to change course."
"Council members have spent months debating how to pressure Russia and ensure aid continues to flow into Syria," said Ashish Pradhan, senior U.N. analyst at the nonprofit International Crisis Group. "That Moscow has yet again backed them all into a corner and is on the verge of further reducing aid confirms that the Russians are not bothered by other states' moral attacks and pleas at the U.N."
"With 2.8 million people in need and 2.7 million internally displaced people, needs for those in northwest Syria remain incredibly high," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said this week. "We have significantly increased the aid delivered via cross-border operations into the area, but much more is needed."
In addition to conflict and COVID-19, Syria faces a crippling financial crisis. Its currency, the pound, is in free fall, commodity prices are skyrocketing, and many Syrians are struggling to afford food, making them even more reliant on humanitarian assistance.