Humanitarians, including Catholics, are advocating for the broadening of cross-border access to reach the most vulnerable in northern Syria.
At stake is the ability to reach more than 1.7 million people in the northwest's internally displaced camps -- 80% of the residents are women and children -- as well as 1.4 million people in need in northeastern Syria. There, conditions have worsened with the 2019 Turkish invasion of the region in which Syriac Christians, Kurds, Yazidis and Arabs live side by side.
On July 10, the U.N. Security Council will decide whether to reauthorize the U.N.'s cross-border access at the Bab al-Hawa crossing at the Turkish border. It is the last remaining border crossing through which humanitarian aid can be transported into Syria.
The U.N. Security Council approved four border crossings when aid deliveries began in 2014, three years after the start of the Syrian conflict. But in January 2020, Russia used its veto threat in the council, first to limit aid deliveries to two border crossings in the northwest and then, last July, to cut another. Now, aid can only be delivered through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, and its mandate ends July 10.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored the need for Bab al-Hawa to remain open, but also to "reinstate other U.N. border crossings, to ensure the humanitarian community can deliver lifesaving aid to the millions of Syrians who rely on aid to survive." He spoke in late June when meeting in Rome to discuss Syria with his Italian counterpart, Luigi Di Maio.
Blinken said cross-border assistance must be broadened in order to reach "millions of Syrians who are in dire need of food, medicine, COVID vaccines and other lifesaving aid."
"There is no viable alternative to U.N. cross-border assistance to meet the scope and scale of aid required in Syria, where humanitarian needs are at the highest levels ever seen, stemming from a decade of conflict and compounded by COVID-19 and an escalating economic crisis," Blinken said. He also expressed U.S. support for an immediate cease-fire in Syria.
Su'ad Jarbawi, Middle East regional vice president at the New York-based International Rescue Committee, said 13 million Syrians need humanitarian aid due to the 10-year civil war. The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a further blow to already dire circumstances for these people, aid officials say.
If Syrians are lucky enough to find work, they earn up to $4 a day. Because of inflation, that is just enough to just buy a packet of bread and a can of yogurt.
"Families are incapable of feeding themselves," because many are unable to work, Jarbawi said.
Andrea Avveduto, communications chief for Pro Terra Sancta, told Catholic News Service July 1: "The crisis in Syria is bigger than before. Poverty has increased more than during the active war years. More than 90% of the population lives in complete poverty. They don't have food. We have to re-create the emergency centers to distribute food."
Pro Terra Sancta, based in Jerusalem and Milan, supports the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Since the start of the conflict, it has aided Franciscan fathers in Syria by opening four emergency centers in Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia and Knayeh.
But the group's problems focus mainly on international sanctions that forbid the transfer of funds into Syria, particularly into the north, from Lebanon and Jordan. Pro Terra Sancta says those funds must get to the Franciscans to help those in need.
Church officials in Syria have called for an end to international sanctions on the country. Most sanctions were put in place in an effort to pressure the government to end the repression of civilians.
Pope Francis repeatedly has called for an end to the war in Syria. "The pleas for help rising from Syria are never far from God's heart, yet do not seem to have touched the hearts of leaders in a position to affect the destiny of peoples," the pope said June 24.
UNICEF said July 1 failure to authorize aid to northern Syrian would have a devastating impact on 1.7 million Syrian children.
But Russia has indicated it may block the U.N. Security Council resolution. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said humanitarian aid could be delivered through alternate routes within Syria.
However, aid agencies say humanitarian assistance delivered to Damascus does not make it into the areas that oppose or have an uneasy relationship with the regime of Bashar Assad. Instead, the regime uses it to benefit its supporters.
Lavrov, in turn, has accused Western donors of "blackmailing" Moscow by threatening to cut humanitarian financing for its close ally, Syria, if the mandate for Bab al-Hawa is not extended.
Russia is coming under intense pressure from the U.N., U.S., European nations and others who warn of dire humanitarian consequences for over a million Syrians if all border crossings are closed.
"Having the most direct form of aid delivery should not be a political decision," Jarbawi told a June 22 news conference. "Renewing the resolution is the simplest way to show that we stand by (Syrians) at the moment of need."
Jarbawi said an IRC survey of 65 communities found 80% of the internally displaced in Syria's northwest were forced to flee conflict between six and 25 times.
"That number sends shivers down my spine. Can you imagine that from a perspective of a child?" she said, adding that "both child labor and child marriage are on the rise because that is the only option to make do with the current situation."
Bassam Ishak, who heads the Syriac National Council and is a graduate of The Catholic University of America, Washington, told CNS, "There is a dire and urgent need to provide masks, testing kits and vaccines as well as to have a safe and secure passage."
Sherine Ibrahim of CARE has said the northeast is "exceptionally vulnerable now given the food crisis, the looming water crisis. We don't want a famine-like situation."