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‘It will be a catastrophe’: fate of Syria’s last aid channel rests in Russia’s hands | Global development

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Just over half a mile away from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing connecting Syria and Turkey a 6th-century triumphal arch still stands, the remains of a Roman road stretching straight as an arrow on either side. For millennia this part of the world has been a crossroads of trade, culture and history. Today, it’s more important than ever.

Bab al-Hawa is Syria’s last lifeline, through which vital UN aid supplies for 3.4 million people living in the war-torn north-west of the country arrive. But before 10 July, the security council must vote in New York on whether to keep the aid flowing. What might seem like an obvious decision to outsiders is actually far from certain: Russia may use its veto power as a permanent member of the council to close the UN’s last access point, as it has managed to do with the other three aid crossings.

That the UN’s assistance for Syrians living outside the regime’s control could suddenly end this week is a reminder not just that the international community has failed the Syrian people, but how the conflict has broken the mechanisms built to keep the world safe.

Syrians refugees receive humanitarian aid in Idlib, 30 June
Syrian refugees in Idlib receive humanitarian aid, 30 June. Aid workers say 1.8 million people living in camps will lose food supplies if the Bab al-Hawa crossing is suspended. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Compared with many areas deeper inside the country, Bab al-Hawa is an island of order and stability: manicured lawns and trees surround the crossing offices and the asphalt is clean and smooth. Hundreds of aid and commercial lorries pass through each day.

Employees inspect more than 30,000 tonnes of aid a month, about 60% of which comes from the UN. The vast majority – 87.5% – is food, with the rest made up of medicine, other health supplies, clothes, sanitation and hygiene equipment, according to the crossing’s spokesperson, Mazen Alloush.

Aid worker Bakri al-Obeid.
Aid worker Bakri al-Obeid. Photograph: Ghaith Alsayed/The Guardian

“If the UN aid entry is suspended, the crossing won’t close, but it will be a catastrophe,” aid worker Bakri al-Obeid said. “The knock-on effects would be huge: about 1.8 million people living in camps will lose food supplies, 2.3 million will lose clean water, and half of the hospitals will lose funding. Food prices will go up and bakeries will close down.”

Across north-west Syria, need is acute. After a decade of war, the area is the last that remains outside Bashar al-Assad’s control, after military intervention from his Russian allies in 2015 turned the tide of the war in the government’s favour. The population of Idlib city and the surrounding countryside has swollen from one million to about 3.4 million as displaced people have fled the regime’s advance, with two-thirds living in camps or other makeshift accommodation.

The region is, for the most part, ruled by an Islamist militant group, leaving civilians trapped between the two forces. A 2020 ceasefire is routinely ignored: regime airstrikes regularly target civilian infrastructure, stretching the limited health facilities to breaking point.

Last year’s collapse of the Syrian pound sent food prices soaring, and the arrival of Covid-19 has exacerbated the level of need across the entire country – but the north-west is suffering the most.

“If the aid crossing is closed, we would have to shut down the hospital operations within a week,” said Dr Tarraf al-Tarraf, a urologist who switches to emergency surgery whenever there is a new wave of bombings. “It will be a total disaster … Closing Bab al-Hawa is using aid as a weapon.”

A mother and her baby at the Idlib camp, near the Bab al-Hawa border gate, Syria 30 June
A mother and her baby at the Idlib camp, near the Bab al-Hawa border gate, Syria 30 June. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

International aid has been deeply politicised since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. “It was clear right from 2011 that it was going to be hard to get the Russians to engage in any meaningful way,” a senior western diplomat said of early UN efforts to stop the regime’s violence against Arab spring protesters.

After it became clear that a series of peace talks known as the Geneva process, along with other diplomatic efforts, were not going to bring a timely end to the fighting, many at the UN decided to focus on what could be done to alleviate the humanitarian situation.

Eventually, in 2014, member states agreed on Resolution 2165, built on legal justifications, which allowed the UN to operate without the permission of the Damascus government and provide aid directly to rebel-held areas through four border crossings – two with Turkey, one with Iraq and one with Jordan.

“It was a very difficult negotiation, but we were able to push it through by taking advantage of the fact the Ukraine crisis was unfolding as well as the Winter Olympics in Sochi, putting Moscow on the back foot,” the diplomat said. “It was a huge breakthrough in our efforts to bring relief to the people of Syria. Even if it didn’t work as smoothly as we would have liked, it was a big step.”

In January 2020, however, arguing that the ground situation had changed, Russia used the threat of a total veto to cut the crossing on the Iraqi border; in July, it cut another in the north-west. (Al-Ramtha, on the Jordanian border, became less crucial after 2018, when the regime took back control of the area.)

Protests To Allow Humanitarian Aid To Enter Syria, Idlib - 02 Jul 2021
A human chain is formed by aid workers and activists during protests to keep the Bab al-Hawa crossing open, 2 July, Idlib. Photograph: Rami Alsayed/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

Today, only Bab al-Hawa remains – and the Russian delegation to the UN has hinted again that it will veto extending the resolution’s mandate when it expires next week.

Moscow has long maintained that all, rather than part of the UN’s aid to Syria should be distributed centrally through the Syrian government, blaming Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the militant group in control in Idlib, along with Turkey, which backs some rebel groups, for not allowing aid from Damascus.

Children in camps along the frontier between Turkey and north-west Syria
Children shelter in one of the camps along the frontier between Turkey and north-west Syria. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Based on bitter experience, however, Syrians in the north-west know that if the regime controls the flow of aid, they are unlikely to see any of it. “When eastern Ghouta was under siege the only humanitarian corridor was with the regime,” said Obeid. “People there starved to death.”

Efforts to keep Bab al-Hawa open – and restore the other two crossings – have gone into overdrive in capitals across the world before the New York showdown. Mark Cutts, the UN’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said it is crucial that member states understand the scale of the potential crisis.

“We have managed to run a massive aid operation for 10 years, supporting civilians on different sides of the front line. We need security council support to continue providing cross-border aid in north-west Syria, where there is artillery shelling and bombing virtually every day,” he said.

“The war is not over. Our cross-border operation from Turkey has proven to be the safest and most direct route. To cut off that lifeline would be a crime.”

While aid agencies have realised since the first crossing was closed in 2020 that they may need to make contingency plans to bypass the UN and rely instead on local partners, there is no real or immediate working alternative to Bab al-Hawa.

The vote is also being watched warily by Washington and Moscow as a harbinger of future relations. “The problem is that, even if Moscow doesn’t use its veto this time, it just kicks the can down the road for six months, or maybe a year, depending on how long the mandate is extended for,” said Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“Putting the lifeline of three million Syrians up for negotiations every six to 12 months, is an unsustainable situation. And Syrian civilians end up paying the price.”

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[Ticker] US to lift Covid travel-ban on EU tourists

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Fully vaccinated travellers from the EU and the UK will be let back into the US from “early November” onward, the White House said on Monday, ending an 18-month ban and prompting airline firms’ shares to climb. “This new international travel system follows the science to keep Americans … safe,” a US spokesman said. The EU recently recommended increased restrictions on US visitors, amid anger at lack of US reciprocity.

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Ten women and girls killed every day in Mexico, Amnesty report says | Global development

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At least 10 women and girls are murdered every day in Mexico, according to a new report that says victims’ families are often left to carry out their own homicide investigations.

The scathing report, released on Monday by Amnesty International, documents both the scale of the violence and the disturbing lack of interest on the part of Mexican authorities to prevent or solve the murders.

“Mexico is continuing to fail to fulfil its duty to investigate and, therefore, its duty to guarantee the rights to life and personal integrity of the victims as well as to prevent violence against women,” says the report, Justice on Trial.

“Feminicidal violence and the failings in investigation and prevention in northern Mexico are not anecdotal, but rather form part of a broader reality in the country,” the report adds.

Femicide has been rife in Mexico for decades – most notoriously in an epidemic of murders which claimed the life of some 400 women in the border city Ciudad Juárez during the 1990s. In recent years, a growing feminist movement has held massive street protests against the violence, but authorities have proved unwilling to take action to stop the killing.

“It’s always a question of political will,” said Maricruz Ocampo, a women’s activist in the state of Querétaro.

Ocampo has been part of teams lobbying state governors to issue an alert when femicides reach scandalously high levels – a move to raise awareness and mobilise resources. But officials often resist such moves, she said, as governors worry about their states’ images and investment.

“They refuse to recognise there is a problem,” she said.

The president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has also downplayed the problem. He branded the women protesting on 8 March, International Women’s Day, as “conservatives” and alleged a dark hand manipulating the demonstrations.

When asked last year about rising violence against women, he responded, “Tell all the women of Mexico that they are protected and represented, that we’re doing everything possible to guarantee peace and quiet and that I understand that our adversaries are looking for ways to confront us.”

Mexico recorded the murders of 3,723 women in 2020. Some 940 of those murders were investigated as femicides.

The Amnesty report focused on Mexico state, a vast collection of gritty suburbs surrounding Mexico City on three sides. It has become notorious for femicides over the past decade – and for the way the former president, Enrique Peña Nieto, a former Mexico state governor, ignored the problem.

The report found cases of families carrying out their own detective work, which were ignored by investigators. In many cases, authorities contaminated crime scenes or mishandled evidence. They often did not even pursue leads such as geolocation information from victims’ mobile phones.

In the case of Julia Sosa, whose children believe she was killed by her partner, two daughters found her body buried on the suspect’s property – but had to wait hours for police to arrive and process the crime scene. One of her daughters recalled the subsequent interview process, in which “the police officer was falling asleep”.

Sosa’s partner hanged himself, prompting police to close the case, even though family members said there were more leads to pursue.

In states rife with drug cartel violence, activists say cases of femicides go uninvestigated as impunity is commonplace.

“The authorities say it’s organised crime and that’s it,” said Yolotzin Jaimes, a women’s rights campaigner in the southern state of Guerrero. “Many of these aggressors find protection under the excuse of organised crime.”

The persistence of femicides is a stark contrast to recent gains by the women’s movement in Mexico. The country’s supreme court decriminalised abortion earlier this month. A new congress recently sworn in has gender parity and seven female governors will be installed by the end of year – up from just two before last June’s election’s

The decriminalisation of abortion “let off some steam” from the pressure driving the protests “because part of the demands was over the right to choose,” Ocampo said. “But when it comes to violence, we still see it everywhere.”

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US official urges EU to speed up enlargement

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Gabriel Escobar, the US’ newly-appointed acting deputy secretary of state for South Central Europe, has urged Europe to speed up Western Balkans enlargement. “To return 20 years later and see that there hasn’t been much progress on that front was a little disappointing,” he told the RFE/RL news agency Friday, referring to his last post in Europe in 2001. “We would like to see a more rapid integration,” he said.

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