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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.)
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.
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.”
With all the fanfare Covid would allow, the global education summit opened in London this week. Ahead of the meeting, the minister for European neighbourhood and the Americas was on rousing form. “Educating girls is a gamechanger,” Wendy Morton said, going on to describe what a plan would look like to do just that.
The UK, co-hosting the summit with Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, plans to raise funds for the Global Partnership for Education, from governments and donors. The UK government has promised £430m over the next five years.
There followed a number of reasons why the issue is so important, all of them absolutely sound: on any given indicator, from GDP to infant health and beyond, a nation stands or falls by how well, for how long, and how inclusively it educates its girls.
These are all the right words, even in the right order, yet they land completely at odds with the government’s behaviour.
Lis Wallace, head of advocacy at the One campaign, is most immediately concerned with these pledges being fully funded. There are two core targets: one is to increase girls’ access to education, the other is to boost the key milestone for all children – that they’re able to read and understand a simple story by the age of 10.
The past 18 months have been devastating for education, particularly in countries where it’s harder to access to online learning. About 1.6 billion children are out of school across the world. There’s a target to raise $5bn (£3.6bn), “which is a drop in the ocean of what is required to meet the global learning crisis”, Wallace says. It looks as though this summit will raise no more than $4bn, which is nothing less than a “failure of statecraft”, as Wallace explains: “It’s challenging when the host government is stepping back and making aid cuts for it then to ask other countries to step up.”
This is a depressing echo of the G7’s failure earlier this year; commitments to share vaccine doses with low-income countries came too little, too late, with devastating results, and it’s hard to avoid the question of whether that outcome would have been different if the host nation had role modelled some generosity.
Furthermore, there’s some confused causality in the minister’s assertion that staying in school protects girls from “forced child marriage, gender-based violence and early pregnancy”. The exact inverse is true: it is largely teenage pregnancy that forces girls out of school in the first place, and to try to use education in lieu of sexual health and reproductive provision is illogical.
Esi Asare Prah, who is a youth and advocacy officer in Ghana for MSI Reproductive Choices, describes a situation in which 5,000 to 7,000 girls drop out of school each year after becoming pregnant – last year, 2,000 of them were between 10 and 14. Across sub-Saharan Africa, MSI estimates that up to 4 million girls drop out or are excluded from school every year due to pregnancy.
“These girls are most likely to be on the street, doing menial jobs; their children will not make it into higher education. It creates a cycle of poverty and a cycle of slums. For me, the foundation of it is that you can’t seek to invest in education for girls in sub-Saharan Africa and cut down funding for sexual and reproductive health. If you treat development issues as isolated, you will have the same issues of 50 years ago chasing you into the future.”
Here, the recent cuts to the aid budget make a mockery of these pledges on education: UK funding to the UN Population Fund recently went down by 85%.
There is inspiration to take from this summit, nevertheless; President Kenyatta has been leading the charge not only on education but also on the climate crisis, and there is a solidarity and sense of purpose between poorer nations that may yet inspire greater generosity from donors. Whatever it achieves, though, it will be despite its UK host not because of them.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.
The 78-year-old American president is known to be prone to verbal gaffes and slips of the tongue, for which he is usually criticized or mocked by some people on social media.
US President Joe Biden appeared to confuse former US President Barack Obama for another former US president, Donald Trump, in a Wednesday speech, but swiftly corrected himself and suggested that the mistake was a “Freudian slip”.
“Back in 2009, during the so-called Great Recession, the president asked me to be in charge of managing that piece, then-President Trump,” Biden said while addressing the public in Pennsylvania. “Excuse me, Freudian slip, that was the last president. He caused the…anyway, President Obama, when I was vice-president.”
Others argued that the 46th president does not know what a Freudian slip really is.
Biden was in Pennsylvania on Wednesday speaking at a Mack Truck assembly plant in Lehigh Valley, promoting his administration’s new measures to encourage US citizens and companies to “buy American”. Particularly, he announced plans to modify the 1933 Buy American Act that requires federal firms and agencies to purchase goods that have at least 55% US-made components.
Under the Biden plan, the threshold will be increased to 65% by 2024 and to 75% by 2029.