US & Canada

As Syria devours itself, UN dithers on aid

A child in Aleppo, Syria, on 13 February 2014 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption In the space of less than six months, the death toll in Syria has risen from 100,000 to to 140,000

In a conflict where 140,000 people have been killed, including more than 7,000 children, while 250,000 civilians are still trapped in besieged communities, it must beggar belief to those unused to the geopolitics of the United Nations that a proposed resolution boosting humanitarian relief should be a matter of angry contention.

The draft resolution put before the UN Security Council in New York has the potential to be a game-changer on the ground.

It demands a lifting of the sieges, condemns starvation as a strategy of war, singles out the barbarity of the barrel bombs dropped on civilian populations by the Assad regime and, most crucially of all perhaps, calls for aid convoys to be allowed to cross the Syrian border from neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Iraq.

It also criticises opposition forces that have besieged areas, though on a smaller scale, and expresses concern about the rise of al-Qaeda-affiliated terror groups in Syria.

However, it is by no means certain that the draft will ever emerge from the Security Council.

The resolution, which was drafted by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan, has exposed the longstanding division within the Security Council. Three of its permanent members, France, Britain and the US, are pushing hard for its passage because of the alarming deterioration in recent months of Syria's humanitarian crisis.

Russia, which has stymied efforts in the past to boost humanitarian aid and vetoed three previous UN resolutions on Syria, has again been resistant.

Two-resolution move

In intense negotiations in New York over the past week, Russia has complained that the Western-backed resolution is one-sided.

It assails the Assad regime, they claim, while downplaying what it sees as the rise of terrorism.

The Western nations argue they have come up with balanced wording.

What they are not prepared to do is use language that speaks of equivalence between the Assad regime and Islamist militant forces.

More than 80% of the Syrians living in besieged areas are prevented from leaving by government forces. Likewise, it is the Assad regime that is dropping barrel bombs on its own people.

"The balance is between getting a text that will make a difference," one senior western diplomat told me, "whilst at the same time getting the Russians on board."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The evacuation of Homs took many months and only helped 1,400 people

To make the resolution more palatable to Russia, the threat of sanctions if the Assad regime refuses to comply has been removed. Instead, it speaks more vaguely of taking "further steps in the case of non-compliance".

Punishing the Assad regime would therefore require a second resolution, at which point the Russians could wield their veto. It is the same two-resolution formula used to get Russian backing for the Syrian chemical weapons resolution last September.

The sticking point is cross-border access for the aid convoys. This is non-negotiable for the US, France and Britain.

But Russia sees it as a violation of Syrian sovereignty.

"This is a direct contradiction of international humanitarian law and the provisions approved by the UN for the purposes of humanitarian operations," complained the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. "The UNSC will not create such precedents."

Western diplomats say that the resolution enshrines the principle of Syrian sovereignty, and the bringing in aid over the borders will make a huge difference to the people in need.

'Million-dollar question'

Moscow has substantially changed its position over the past two weeks. At the start of the month, it opposed any new humanitarian resolution. Now it has come up with a draft of its own, a much weaker document.

"The million-dollar question", according to one Western diplomat, is whether they will support the Western-led draft.

The Western powers claim they are looking for a resolution and not a Russian veto. One theory, denied by senior Western diplomats in New York, is that the resolution was designed to embarrass Russia during the Sochi Winter Olympics.

But it would not look good for Russia to exercise its veto as its showcase games are coming to a close.

They intended to bring it to a vote on Friday, before Sochi's closing ceremony on Sunday. As a concession to the Russians, who were calling for a delay, the vote has now been scheduled for Saturday morning.

The intentions of China, the other veto-wielding power on the Security Council, are unclear. It often sides with Russia, when Moscow opts for a veto. In negotiations it has been lukewarm to the resolution.

Westerns powers are clearly becoming more impatient. The Geneva talks have broken down. The conflict has intensified. In the space of less than six months, the death toll has risen from 100,000 to to 140,000.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power has said the Security Council must "speak with one voice" on aid access in the same way it did with chemical weapons

Even as the warring parties met around the negotiating table in Geneva, the civil war entered one of its most brutal and bloody phases.

The recent evacuation of the besieged Old City of Homs, which the Russians originally argued showed that a resolution on humanitarian access was unnecessary, did not provide the basis for a long-term humanitarian solution.

It took 14 months to negotiate and affected only 1,400 people.

UN officials are adamant that a meaningful resolution is needed urgently. Will Russia allow it to pass?

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