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Russia could veto UN aid going to Syria

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

An aid operation serving millions of Syrians in the midst of a civil war faces a test when it comes up before the U.N. Security Council for reapproval. The question is whether Russia, which has veto power, will allow aid to continue to flow from Turkey to a part of Syria still controlled by forces opposed to the Syrian regime. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. has just a few weeks to try to get Russia to agree. NPR's Michele Kelemen traveled with her to Turkey to see what's at stake.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: On this hot, dusty day, at a transit hub near the Turkish city of Hatay, about 81 trucks are getting loaded with supplies for northern Syria.

MAHMOUD DAHER: We have a big operation for Syria. We provide about 30% of the drugs to the northwest Syria.

KELEMEN: Mahmoud Daher is with the World Health Organization and is showing Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield the medical supplies that are heading across a small part of the border that's out of reach of the Syrian government and still in rebel hands.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Are you getting vaccines across the border as well?

DAHER: Yes. Yes, yes.

KELEMEN: He says only about 10% of the population in northern Syria has been vaccinated for COVID-19. WHO is also providing routine vaccines for Syrian children. The World Food Programme's Qaseem Ghausy tells the ambassador that there are just three months of supplies in Syria now, and he's scrambling to stockpile more in case the U.N. Security Council shuts down this aid operation in July.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: What do you distribute per family?

QASEEM GHAUSY: Per family is 15 kilogram of wheat flour, five kilogram of bulgur.

KELEMEN: Thomas-Greenfield says she heard from many aid workers and from Syrian refugees who are worried that the war in Ukraine is drawing attention and resources away from Syria.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And I made sure I shared with them that I made this trip because the United States remains steadfast in our commitment to supporting the humanitarian needs of the displaced civilians who remain in Syria and refugees who fled into neighboring countries like Turkey.

KELEMEN: But this aid operation will end unless it's renewed by the U.N. Security Council in July. And Russia, which has veto power on the Security Council, is an ally of Syria and doesn't like the fact that the aid is going from Turkey into an opposition-held part of Syria. Mark Cutts, who runs this operation, dreads the annual Security Council vote.

MARK CUTTS: It's extremely disruptive, and that's not easy when you're running one of the biggest aid operations in the world, which this is.

KELEMEN: Just across the border, there's a region of 4 million Syrians that relies on this aid. Over a million Syrians live in tents and have been uprooted many times over the years.

AMMAR ALSELMO: The Syrian people are suffering and looking up to the ambassador and to the international community.

KELEMEN: That's Ammar Alselmo, who's with the Syrian rescue group known as the White Helmets.

ALSELMO: As Syrian, we are disappointed to fight for food after 12 years. We are fighting for food. We can say this is a trap by Russia, and this is how the Russian blackmail and politicize the access of humanitarian aid.

KELEMEN: Russia has a history of helping the Syrian government besiege opposition areas and starve out rebels and their supporters. If Russia blocks this one remaining international aid route from Turkey, Alselmo says local aid officials will have to fill the gap. But Mark Cutts says it may be hard to get donors to continue to fund this work without U.N. monitors.

CUTTS: This is a very high-risk area. There are many different armed groups, including U.N.-listed terrorist groups. And in that kind of environment, it's very difficult to get the, you know, confidence from donors to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars for an aid operation in that kind of environment.

KELEMEN: And that's why he says the U.N. Security Council needs to reauthorize this aid program. On the plane ride home, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield talks about the work she has ahead to convince Russia to agree to this, despite its other disputes with the West.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And we will not allow the situation in Ukraine to be used, or the situation in Syria to be used, as a bargaining chip with the Russians.

KELEMEN: Thomas-Greenfield says she used to have cordial relations with her Russian counterpart, but they haven't had regular meetings since Russia invaded Ukraine. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, just back from southern Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.