After Russian Veto of Lifesaving Cross-border Aid Mechanism, Four Actions for Preserving Humanitarian Assistance to Northwest Syria

Statement from Refugees International Vice President for Programs and Policy Hardin Lang:  

“Yesterday, the Syrian government sent a letter formally granting a conditional permission for the United Nations to use the Bab-al-Hawa crossing to provide cross-border humanitarian aid to the people of Northwest Syria for six months. The move comes on the heels of the Russian veto of an unconditional UN cross-border aid resolution for nine months in the UN Security Council. The Syrian government has also called for all humanitarian assistance for Northwest Syria to be coordinated through Damascus. Taken together, this approach would mark the end of the existing UN cross-border aid mechanism for Northwest Syria—and would leave aid access in Northwest Syria at the mercy of the Assad regime. 

UN Security Council members, donors, and the United Nations should resist efforts to bring relief aid under the control of Damascus and should continue to maintain and improve the regional ‘Whole of Syria’ structure. More than 4 million civilians in Northwest Syria still depend on humanitarian assistance. Most have been bombed or starved by the Assad regime and Russia in the past. Damascus has a long history of withholding, diverting, or otherwise weaponizing humanitarian aid. Given this history, the consent by Damascus cannot serve as the sole foundation for the humanitarian lifeline for Northwest Syria. That consent could be withdrawn at any time and, indeed, is slated to expire in six months in the middle of winter. 

The response of the international community should be clear and unambiguous. First, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France should continue to seek a renewal of the UN cross-border aid resolution in the UN Security Council. Russia may continue to veto such efforts, but all diplomatic avenues should be exhausted. The Security Council should also explore alternative ways to preserve the UN monitoring mechanism for the Northwest Syria relief effort. In addition, the United Nations humanitarian leadership should ensure that any continued delivery of aid is in line with humanitarian principles and conducted in close coordination with Syrian NGO partners in Northwest Syria.

Second, donors and aid agencies must be ready to execute non-renewal contingency plans and aid architecture. The United Nations must transparently coordinate and execute these plans in partnership with international and Syrian NGOs. The UN should commit to maintain humanitarian coordination and partnership with Syrian NGOs for the Northwest of Syria from Gaziantep, independent of Damascus. The UN should also commit to maintain humanitarian access negotiations with de-facto authorities inside Northwest Syria. Humanitarian access and dialogue with the local authorities has rapidly improved in recent months now that UN staff are able to travel around Northwest Syria. The Syrian government has explicitly rejected these steps in its offer of consent, which would undermine the existing progress made by UN officials in negotiating access across the region. Both are essential elements of effective aid delivery.  

Third, donors and aid agencies should rapidly shift funding directly to Syrian NGOs in Northwest Syria in line with the localization agenda. As part of this effort, donors and the UN-led Syria Cross-Border Humanitarian Fund must work with the Aid Fund for North Syria (AFNS) to facilitate the rapid transfer of funding and operations to the latter. The AFNS can continue to operate without a UN Security Council mandate. 

Fourth, donors and aid agencies should affirm that cross-border aid for Northwest Syria is legal under international law – with or without the consent of the Syrian government or blessing of the UN Security Council. The argument for this approach has been definitely outlined by the UN Syria Commission of Inquiry and international legal scholars. When the UN General Assembly meets on July 19 to debate the Russian veto, member states should pass a resolution to this effect, underscoring the imperative of continuing cross-border aid in light of conditions in Northwest Syria.” 

For more information or to schedule an interview, contact Refugees International Vice President for Strategic Outreach Sarah Sheffer at

Featured Image: Syrians displaced from their homes embrace after prayer at a mosque in the northwestern city of Idlib, Syria on June 28, 2023. (Photo by Mustafa Batis/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)