It’s been 10 years of crisis in Syria — don’t create one more

Syrian refugee camp

In less than two weeks, the United Nations Security Council will be faced with a critical choice that could have life or death consequences for millions of Syrians. The current UN Security Council resolution authorizing cross-border humanitarian assistance into Syria is set to expire on July 10. For nearly 4 million people in northwest Syria, half of whom are displaced and living in makeshift shelters, the cross-border humanitarian operation is a lifeline that cannot be duplicated. 

Over 80 percent of people in northwest Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance. Half of them are children. They deserve assistance through all possible modalities, but the reality is that without the cross-border resolution, their needs will not be met and their suffering will only increase. As leaders of humanitarian health organizations, we can already say that the impact of non-renewal could be deadly.

As the humanitarian situation deteriorated following the brutal clampdown on early demonstrations in late 2012, we were both involved in setting up the early cross-border humanitarian relief from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan into Syria. Humanitarian needs, including lifesaving relief and medical assistance, skyrocketed as the popular crisis turned into a civil war, pushing millions of Syrians into forced displacement inside and outside their country.

Later came the UN Security Resolution 2165. Approved on July 14, 2014, the text authorized the opening of four humanitarian border-crossings into Syria to be used by UN agencies and its partners for the provision of humanitarian aid inside Syria, without state consent. The resolution also established a coordination and monitoring mechanism overseen by the United Nations to ensure aid was not diverted and was solely provided to people in need. 

It would be untenable for members of the UN Security Council to not increase the number of humanitarian border-crossings into Syria while humanitarian needs increased by 21 percent between 2020 and 2021. We are not simply quoting numbers, we have also witnessed the increase in needs.

Both of us have traveled into Syria several times to either assess needs or to provide health services and support local hospitals. It is not unusual to hear stories of doctors treating patients in underground hospitals while bombs are falling, as witnessed last month when the Al-Shifaa Hospital in Afrin was hit by missiles, killing 20 people, including four health workers. These horrific, systematic attacks have destroyed the health system, depleting health facilities of critical supplies and medical equipment to treat and save patients.

Without cross-border operations and the provision of medical supplies and medications, many of these facilities, including surgical wards and neonatal units, would not be able to operate. A veto of the renewal of the resolution would be inhumane, akin to a death sentence for those in acute need of medical care.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new needs that would be impossible to address without the cross-border aid operations. This is a critical moment, as Syria is experiencing a second wave of COVID-19. In the past month, cases have nearly doubled in northwest Syria. Over the past year, critical medical supplies to support the coronavirus response have been delivered into northern Syria through Bab al-Hawa crossing by UN agencies and INGOs like MedGlobal. The closing of this border-crossing from Turkey would mean that these supplies — such as PPE, testing kits, medical oxygen and critical medications — would be cut off, crippling further northern Syria’s crumbling health infrastructure and putting lives at risk.

Further, it is possible that the COVID-19 vaccination campaign in northwest Syria would be stopped in its tracks, undermining efforts to end the pandemic in the region and globally. In northwest Syria, there have only been around  54,000 doses of the vaccine administered, just over 1 percent of the population in the area. The continuation of the vaccine campaign in Syria is reliant on the ability to deliver health and humanitarian assistance cross-border.

A growing malnutrition crisis is another major health risk for the population. A record number of Syrians are now food insecure, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). Nonrenewal of the UN Security Council resolution would put over 1 million people in Syria at risk of hunger. Chronic food insecurity, particularly for children, can be harmful, leading in delay in development and chronic illnesses. This has been already the case after aid was held and diverted by one actor of the conflict, namely the Syrian regime. Syrian children have died of malnutrition and patients with chronic diseases succumbed to their illnesses because aid was not reaching them.

There is large consensus among aid agencies that cross-border humanitarian operations are the most direct — and for the most part, only — way to reach millions of children, women and men in dire need of relief in Syria. Dozens of humanitarian organizations and CEOs of the largest INGOs have called for the renewal of the resolution. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “a failure to extend the Council’s authorization would have devastating consequences” and that “cross-line convoys, even if deployed regularly, could not replicate the size and scope of this [cross-border] operation.” Year after year, political and geostrategic interests have interfered in the availability and delivery of aid and contributed to a worsening humanitarian situation in Syria. This is reprehensible and unconscionable. The UN Security Council must vote to renew the Syria cross-border resolution. The international community has largely let down the Syrian people for 10 years. Let’s change that. 

Dr. Zaher Sahloul is the president and co-founder of MedGlobal, a humanitarian INGO providing health care in disaster areas. He is also a critical care specialist and associate professor incClinical Medicine at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter: @Sahloul.

Rabih Torbay is the president and CEO of Project HOPE. Torbay is a humanitarian and crisis response leader who has designed and implemented relief, transition and global health programs in some of the world’s most challenging conditions. He has worked extensively responding to humanitarian crises including in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Lebanon. Follow him on Twitter at @RTorbay.

Tags COVID-19 displacement Middle East Public health Rabih Torbay refugees Syria Syrian refugees Zaher Sahloul

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