U.S. and Russia Strike Deal to Keep Syrian Aid Corridor Open

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The U.S. and Russia struck a last-minute compromise at the United Nations to keep aid flowing to millions of Syrians for an additional year, one day before an earlier agreement was set to expire.

A UN Security Council resolution, extending humanitarian aid access from a checkpoint on the Turkish border, won unanimous approval from the 15-member body on Friday.

Although the U.S. and other Western allies initially argued that there should be two or three aid corridors, instead of just one, the agreement was hailed as a sign that Moscow and Washington could find areas of cooperation following last month’s summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin.

Biden and Putin spoke on Friday and “commended the joint work of their respective teams” in reaching the agreement following the summit, according to a White House statement. Russia’s Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzya, speaking at the UN Security Council, hailed the agreement as a “historic moment.”

“For the first time Russia and the United States not only could agree, but elaborate a consolidated draft resolution that found support with all our colleagues in the council,” he said. “Hopefully, this kind of scenario will be a turning point that not only Syria and the Middle East, but the entire world will benefit from.”

The U.S. signaled it hoped the agreement would help break a cycle that had made it hard for the Security Council to reach agreement on any major geopolitical issue.

“It shows what we can do with the Russians if we work with them diplomatically on common goals,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters after the meeting. “And I look forward to looking for other opportunities to work with the Russians on issues of common interest to our two governments. ”

The compromise was reached at the last minute as the Security Council was set to vote on dueling resolutions: one from Western nations extending the crossing for 12 months and one from Russia for six months. Russia has been gradually reducing cross-border aid to Syria in recent years, arguing the operation -- which benefits rebel-held areas -- undermines the sovereignty of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Instead, the Russians and the Americans agreed on a deal drafted by Ireland and Norway that extends the crossing for six months at first, followed by an additional six months “subject to the issuance of the Secretary-General’s substantive report, with particular focus on transparency in operations, and progress on cross-line access in meeting humanitarian needs.”

Syria has long been criticized for failing to deliver on “cross-line’’ aid, meaning aid that crosses from government-controlled parts of the country into areas controlled by groups that aren’t aligned with the government. Russia, for its part, hasn’t been able to get the Assad regime to increase aid to those areas in the northeast and the northwest of the country.

Diplomats and experts warned that the new phrasing allows for differing interpretations on what happens after the first six months expire.

“Do you know the difference between 12 & 6+6? In Maths, there is no difference. In diplomacy, the difference is” called “constructive ambiguity,” Charles Thépaut, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute, tweeted. “This ambiguity allows both side to claim victory but will have to be clarified at some point & this will put a lot of pressure on ” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Guterres’ spokesman welcomed the decision while noting that “needs continue to outstrip the response” to a crisis that began about a decade ago.

“As the Secretary-General has highlighted to the Council, with additional crossings and expanded funding, the United Nations could do more to help the rising number of people in need,” the spokesman said in a statement.

Humanitarian groups operating at the Syrian border criticized the agreement, arguing it won’t be enough to support the millions of Syrians struggling to meet their basic health and nutrition needs.

“Allowing life-saving aid into the country through only one crossing point for such a short period of time is woefully insufficient for the scale of humanitarian need,” said Georges Ghali, Oxfam’s Regional Humanitarian Campaign lead. “At a time when three in five Syrians – 12.4 million people - are facing acute hunger, it is unconscionable to limit humanitarian assistance in this way.”

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